A one-legged man could make a killing on this street, a left-footed man, anyway, who wears a standard size. He could pluck that suede loafer, the two-tone saddle or dress cordovan right off the sidewalk display here on Tenth Avenue. Something for everyone, in New York City. This young man, for instance, stumbling toward me, something dark and feathered bundled in his arms. He looks up—red eyes, distillery breath: “You know anything about pigeons?”
“No,” I say.
“I love animals, the ones on the farm when I was young.” He holds the pigeon out to me. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Looks like he’s dying,” I say.
“Things die. I’m sorry.”
“I love animals,” he says.
“I love you too,” he says.
In the city, I usually walk with my husband, but sometimes I walk alone. If it’s dark and I must travel a winding side street, and if I sense someone following too closely, I will wave my hand at a stranger approaching, calling out the name of a friend, or I will gesture wildly to a silhouette in a lighted window, to trick the follower into believing I am not alone. Others are watching for me, will hear if I call, are waiting for me to arrive at their place any minute now.
On the park bench opposite mine, two women tilt their heads in conversation. Their ages are hard to guess, especially the small woman dressed like a Catholic school child. Pleated skirt, Mary Jane flats, a black bow anchoring a pageboy too thick and shiny not to be a wig. Her legs are so short she can’t touch the ground, and the Mary Janes swing back and forth. The other woman is large, awkward, her body an assembly of unmatched parts, something a committee might put together. Would I want to grow old in New York? I remove my earphones to learn. The Small Woman (SW) talks first, and their voices match their bodies.
SW: So, how much do you pay? (Pause) Is that gas and electric? Well, then, that’s good, good. (Long pause) How do they clean cows anyway? I mean, is milk safe? How can they keep it clean? Humans are the same way, it can’t be good for the babies. (Large Woman nods) They can’t fix the TV.
LW: How many do you have?
SW: A big one, medium-sized one, a little one. It’s the little one.
LW: It’s the tubes. It’s always the tubes.
SW: I tell you, it can’t be fixed. They said so.
LW: There’s nothing wrong with that TV. Pull out the old tubes. It’ll be good as new. (Pause)
SW: I’m lonely. Where are all my friends?
LW: What about the dancer?
LW: The dancer. The dancer, the dancer!
SW: Oh, her. (Pause) I’m lonely.
A look of pain crosses Large Woman’s face—briefly, then it’s gone—and I’m thinking Small Woman should look at Large Woman, pat her hand, something. After all, Small Woman isn’t alone, she’s got Large Woman, and doesn’t she count? She’s there right beside her. She should count.
Or is she too close to count, too common a sight for Small Woman to notice? Common makes no splash, no song; only rare stops us. The air around my park bench is alive with bird chatter, squawk, rasp that I might name “song” if I did not hear it every single morning. Yesterday, hundreds of perfect gingko leaves scattered at my feet. Had there been only one, I would have stooped to pick it up. I might have taken it home and framed it. The gingko tree is Chinese in origin, but Chinese tourists never photograph the gingkos. They photograph New York squirrels; New Yorkers don’t. Maybe living in a great city is like being in a long marriage, a long friendship. Why grab this moment when there will always be another moment like it, and another? The Statue of Liberty isn’t going anywhere, right?
Since you can visit anytime, you visit no time. It takes a guest to wake you up: to your city, your loved ones, your life. What is that old saying about how there are only two stories in the world? Someone goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Hello, stranger: the cancer that comes knocking, the head-on collision, an affair to remember, your mother’s death. I once heard an NPR story about a man who calls himself “Tomas the Shocker.” Tomas delivers electrical shocks to people in Mexico City bars: 10 pesos per hit. “It’s worth it,” regulars say. Tomas can deliver up to 150 volts, but most people can’t take more than 78. Surprisingly, some women can take more than some men. Some hold hands and let the charge run between them. One of my high school friends, an elaborately troubled girl whose long legs “I imagine go all the way up,” an admiring man once told her, moved everything she owned into an apartment above an ambulance garage, expressly for the purpose of being reminded, daily and nightly, of how close to the edge our lives are teetering.
Another friend, a thin, nervous, time-obsessed theater producer with a machine-gunfire laugh, wore only custom-made shirts, each with a small, working clock sewn onto the breast pocket. The last time I saw him—he was dying from pancreatic cancer but did not know this yet—he was building props for a show about the winter solstice. He needed a universe that lit up but so far he wasn’t having any luck. The one he built wasn’t “magical enough,” he told us. “ It needs to glow,” he said. “It needs to light up from the inside.” Two months later, he was dead. I never asked what became of all his clock shirts; his wife never told us.
I have been thinking about time, how it has its way with us. There have been years in my long marriage, decades perhaps, when I would have taken any hit, paid any price, to feel that charge again. The charge that runs between us and the ones we love. Between old friends, too: for my husband and me, a couple loved so long we can remember the pattern beneath their newest upholstery, and the pattern before that one. I remember liking the old patterns better; people should leave a little bit of the original fabric showing, the way refurbished lobbies of historic hotels allow you a glimpse of the layers beneath. Not long ago, we were at their home for a weekend visit that feels now as if it happened to someone else. Maybe to you. Sitting across the room on the newly upholstered sofa, they are describing the young couple who’d visited a few weekends ago, sleeping in the guest room until this moment you’d considered your own. As the friends speak, the spark in their eyes tells you the house must have glittered from the light of this couple, candlelight flaming, all the old stories made new. You listen and nod, a whiff of jealousy rising from your blouse. It’s rising from your husband, too, you can sense it, knowing him so long and well as you do. He’s imagining it, too, how good it would feel to be once again the new couple, the guests romanced.
The moment passes, as such moments do, and you yawn from the cognac, slip off your shoes, pull over your feet an afghan you gave one long-ago Christmas when you all sat up too late beside the glittering tree. It’s been a long time since you sat up too late. Tonight you will retire early to the guest room where one dresser drawer still holds the weekend clothes your friends have kept for you, decades now—outdated jeans, soft pajamas, warm socks for the chill—you’d forgotten that drawer, how could you forget it? Opening it now, your own history rises, your husband’s, too, and your history with your friends and theirs with you, and all of you still breathing. In the morning you will meet at the breakfast table wearing worn robes and tired faces, and you will sip the coffee your friends always serve dark and rich, sweetened with real cream, and you will lean back into the comfort of not needing to speak, thinking maybe this is what it comes to, and maybe this is enough.
Crossing Strawberry Fields near the dark-storied Dakota, I hear the wheels before I see them. Two skateboarders, heading downhill on a loop Yoko imagined decades ago—a Mohawked, tattoed white boy and behind him a skinny black boy with a dyed, red ponytail.
“Watch out!” the black boy cries out to a stroller-pushing mom, who looks up but not in time so he takes the hit for her, airborne for an instant then a cracking splat as he lands face down.
“Ooooh,” onlookers exhale in unison.
The boy recovers quickly, springing up on his feet, blood dripping down his face. “Cool. That was awesome, man. I needed that,” he says too loudly, looking up as if expecting praise from his friend. But Mohawk is long gone, having never even slowed, so little did his friend’s moment register with him. The wounded boy retrieves his skateboard and climbs aboard, pushing off with one foot. “I’m fuckin’ bleedin’, man,” he yells, breaking into a high-pitched laugh, a swipe of pride crossing his face.
As usual, a crowd of Lennon fans is gathered around the Imagine mosaic, but today the fans must navigate an encircling fence, peering around it and above to glimpse what they’ve journeyed to see. Some hold deli-wrapped bouquets; one woman grasps a candle.
“He’s buried here?” a baseball-capped girl asks her father. “Right here, in the park?”
The father shakes his head no. “It’s just a memorial. From a song.”
Having lived in New York long enough to know how to insinuate my way through a crowd, I move closer to see what’s going on inside the fence. Two workmen are kneeling, trowels in hand, a bucket of mortar between them. One wears a large crucifix around his neck; his khaki-covered knee obscures the “I” and “M.” A dark-haired woman edges close. “Excuse me,” she says, tapping him on the shoulder. “Excuse me,” she repeats. “We are Brazil.” She gestures to a bevy of young, dark-haired women, each lovelier than the next. “Can you please….” and she motions to the mosaic. The workman nods, and moves his knee aside.
Imagine retiling Imagine. But of course, everything requires maintenance, especially memorials, so by the end of the day the broken stones will be repaired, the mosaic whole once more, swept and polished by hands I now notice are rough and freckled. A simple gold wedding band, fastened to his ring finger, is flecked with dried mortar. In a few hours, after boarding the uptown A train and transferring to the D, the crucifixed man will make his way up a third-floor walkup, nod to his sons bent over their homework, kiss the back of his wife’s neck before crossing the room to the kitchen sink to scrub the ring clean with a brush she has placed for that purpose, and sit down to the dinner spread for him.
But this is my story, the one I need. The workman must compose his own. And sing it, if he chooses, harmonizing with someone else or “all by his lonesome” as my grandmother used to say. The lone violinist at Bethesda Terrace, who plays for loose change, must arrive early to claim the choicest spot: the tunnel, where a hollowed-out emptiness enlarges the song.
Above the tunnel and across the park lane in this town that never sleeps, everyone, it seems, does. Often, in earliest morning, after walking my husband toward his office, I sit on a bench here in Sheep’s Meadow and wait for the sleepers to wake. It takes long minutes, sometimes an hour. Before me now, a man and woman (homeless, unless they claim the park as home) are stretched out together, face down, shoeless, the New York Times carefully arranged like a pallet beneath them. One of the woman’s pale hands rests lightly atop the man’s T-shirted back—a tender, domestic gesture, one I often commit on my sleeping husband in our own bed. Near to the couple, near enough to be in an adjoining bedroom if the sky were ceiling and these trees, walls, the muscled torso of a man is curled around a ginkgo trunk as if he were growing out of it. Beside him, two orange crutches and a guitar are carefully placed; and beside the guitar, two artificial legs tapering to stumps below the knee joints. The way we take off our shoes to sleep, he has taken off these legs.
Watching the sleeping man, I keep thinking of the man on the subway, the tall, beautiful, copper-colored man I’d once stumbled awkwardly into when the train took its squealing, violent turn right before South Ferry. “So sorry,” I said. “Forgive me.”
The man nodded but never looked down at me. He remained upright, strongly positioned, his face like a carving on some ancient coin. When he spoke, each word was perfectly calibrated, clear, calm as a still lake: “Let Calgon be Calgon.”
I blinked and forced myself to look away from his beauty. Another crazy, I figured. Lord, they’re everywhere: the woman preaching at me through a restroom door, holding the Holy Book above the stall with huge, Moses hands. The pregnant girl screeching like a wild bird in the lobby of Grand Central, then screaming to everyone in hearing distance—that would be all of Manhattan—that she needed money for insurance because her husband was “emotionally unavailable.” I grabbed for the subway strap and recovered my balance, looking up one more time at the beautiful man. He was still beautiful, still calm, and, I suddenly realized, absolutely sane. My mother used to sprinkle Calgon into laundry, to soften our clothes, and into the bathtub to soften her dirt-crusted, calloused-footed children. Let Calgon be Calgon, his private mantra generously shared with me, a Zen koan that made so much sense it didn’t need to make any. Calgon. Long-ago, used-up word, rescued from the tossed out bin of my childhood. Let Calgon be Calgon, let it soften the hearts of all the calloused children, grown now, up and away from the lives jumpstarted all those years ago.
Suddenly I am very tired. I want to curl up like the legless man sleeping before me, surrounded by bird squawk and squirrel chatter. The way I used to curl up in the midst of the grownups’ talk, my uncle shuffling the cards, my aunt stalled in the middle of a story with no point except its telling, my mother’s conspiratorial laughter. Pretending sleep, willing my arm to flop dramatically onto the sofa so that they would let me stay right there, part of the scene but even more so, lone sleeper in the midst of all that life. I would like to fall asleep right now, on this bench, waking to the snap of the plastic legs socketing the man back together, and in a few minutes—but how will he do this, balancing between crutches?—the strum of his guitar.
[Refer: The editors asked McClanahan what inspired this piece. She responded: “I’m always reluctant to say what prompted a particular essay, since it is impossible to retrace one’s steps in writing, as in life. However, I do recall with clarity the moment when the beautiful man on the subway offered his strange, enigmatic ‘Let Calgon be Calgon.’ Something clicked in that moment, and I knew the phrase would find its way into an essay about New York. Three years later, ‘Ginkgo Song’ finally found its form.]
Image by A National Acrobat via Flickr Creative Commons
Rebecca McClanahan’s tenth book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, was published in March 2013 and is now in its second printing. She has also published five books of poetry, three books of writing instruction, and a suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, and numerous anthologies. The recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry Magazine, a Pushcart Prize, the Glasgow Award for nonfiction, and literary fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University (Charlotte) and Rainier Writing Workshop. “Gingko Song” first appeared in Kenyon Review, Summer 2012. Read more at http://www.ddevet.addr.com/.