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New York #5

About halfway through the summer I notice a pattern: I feel the urge to dance whenever I see a street musician, but I never do. It’s like I’ve buckled myself into a straightjacket. Why?

Case in point: I’m in Union Square at dusk on a Friday, and it’s utter madness: The Hare Krishnas moan and drum and spin like they’re possessed; protestors wave Palestinian flags, hollering; tourists pass by in open-top buses, hooting; bottle collectors push grocery carts full of their glass and aluminum treasure; an extremely flexible woman dances on the shoulders of an extremely strong man who tosses her up and down and all around; and in the center of it all there’s the wildman.

He’s a white guy in his 30s, bearded and longhaired, and he’s wearing a lime green speedo, nothing more. He’s covered in mud. It seems he’s putting on an extemporaneous show of some kind. The show is nothing more than the guy just being himself, a wildman. There are no tricks. No real talent. It’s just antics, but the people love it. They’ve surrounded the wildman in a circle. At one point a guy jumps in and grabs a collapsible plastic sawhorse which he begins snapping like the jaws of a monster. The wildman screams, “Eeeeeeek!” and puts his hands to his mouth in mock fright and starts daintily running away from the monster. The monster gives chase and the people go crazy. They absolutely love it. The wildman finally finds an escape: a big plastic ramrod thing (I have no idea what it actually is) and he holds it between his legs and the monster runs right into it, open-mouthed. The people cheer.

Throughout all of this, I keep a comfortable distance from the wildman. This is where I begin to feel the trepidation, the straightjacket reluctance to join in and dance.

A djembe player gets in the middle of the circle and starts bumping out a beat. The wildman is now dancing. He drops to the ground, convulsing in a fit of ecstasy, and then he’s up again, wearing a massive mariachi hat and wagging his finger at us like we’ve all been very naughty. Then, he’s scooching around on a toddler-sized train engine squealing, “Weeee!” and the people are in hysterics. One woman in particular, a big Latina auntie. She’s laughing and laughing, and I’m laughing, too, scribbling it all down from a distance.

I look up from my notes at one point, and the wildman is staring straight at me. An invitation to join? An accusation that I haven’t? I don’t move a muscle. I’ve been seen. Caught. Snatched from the safety of my anonymity. Then, the wildman looks away and he’s dancing again, waltzing with a filthy snowman lawn ornament.

“It’s a life of love,” I hear someone say next to me. It’s an old black man with blue eyes. His name is Peter. He’s come from out of nowhere, and he has said this completely unprompted. Maybe he saw me taking notes. He says it again: “It’s a life of love,” and he spreads his arms wide at the crowds, like Moses parting the sea. “But you have to verify it. I come here to verify it. And you,” he looks at me, “you have to explore it.”

Why did he say this to me? How does he know? I should explore it. I should dance. But now I have to go meet a friend. It feels like I’ve failed a very important test.

But underground at the L platform I get another chance. A man and a woman are drumming out a masterpiece of rhythm on a set of PVC buckets. Larry and Sonya. Husband and wife. They drum from 11:00 to 11:00 some days, Larry tells me later. Now, Sonya’s eyes are closed and she keeps the beat – a simple boom-boom-boom-boom – and Larry is thumping out a rapid-fire river of rat-a-tat genius, and it’s all echoing off the tiles, magnifying, and people have begun to gather around them, irresistibly attracted. A little boy is dancing. His name is Jeremiah. He is the son of the drummers.

It’s too much – the beat, Jeremiah’s groove. I take my hands out of my pockets. I move a little. It’s not dancing, really, but it’s something. It’s a start.

New York #4

How to make sense of these little moments? How to read them when they come?

Walking north from Chinatown, I see a page torn from a book, just a solitary page lying on the sidewalk. It’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, pages 167 and 168, front and back. The chapter is entitled “Unfortunate Conclusions.” I begin reading. Humbug, Tock, and Milo find themselves mysteriously transported to an island where they’ve met a bizarre man named Canby.

“I’m as smart as can be,” he remarked in twelve different languages, “and I’m as stupid as can be,” he admitted, putting both feet in one shoe. “I’m as graceful as can be,” he hummed, balancing on one toe, “and I’m as clumsy as can be,” he cried, sticking his thumb in his eye. “I’m as fast as can be,” he announced, running around the island twice in no time at all, “and I’m as slow as can be,” he complained, waving good-by to a snail. “Is that any help to you?”

Is that any help to me? It’s information, I suppose, and how I read it is more information, information about how I see and what I see, which is a big sliver of who I am. So this moment, like any other, is an introduction, a handshake, and it’s myself I’m meeting, the myself of right now. Am I Canby, flummoxed by my own contradictions, a unity of opposites? Am I Humbug, Tock, and Milo, a trio lost on their journey? I don’t know. So maybe that’s who I am: I don’t know.

I read on. Canby informs Humbug, Tock, and Milo that they’re on the Island of Conclusions, and that they should make themselves comfortable because they’ll likely be there for some time.

“But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.

I must be Milo. Milo is the one asking the questions. And the Island of Conclusions is New York. Or America. Or life itself. There are so many ways to read it.

“You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”

I’ve jumped, and I didn’t even know it.

“But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,” Milo remarked.

“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Canby; “it does look much better from a distance.”

I read on. Humbug tries to escape, “leaping as far as he could,” but it’s to no avail. He lands in a heap just two feet away.

“That won’t do at all,” scolded Canby, helping him to his feet. “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”

This is the end. I stand there for a second, wondering about who I’ve just met in this moment on the street with The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m tempted to go down a thousand different tributaries of interpretation. And then I let it go, and start walking again, but I take the page with me – a reminder to keep reading.

New York #3

There’s this señora who runs an empanada stand on 47th and 5th in Sunset Park. Best empanadas I’ve ever had, no question. She calls all her female customers mami, as in, “¿Qué quieres, mami?” She says this with such warmth that I kind of want her to call me mami, too, even though it wouldn’t make any sense in Spanish or English. We don’t talk much, but somehow she makes me feel at home in this neighborhood that isn’t mine. I wish I was her nephew or something. Her assistant. I want to stir the horchata, slice the avocados, do whatever she needs me to do. I want this because for the five minutes it takes her to prepare my empanada de queso completa, I feel I’m a part of something bigger, even it’s just her street food operation.

Her name is María. She’s been running the stand for twelve years. She doesn’t stop for the winter, only on the days when the snow is really bad.

The other day I greeted María in Spanish, and she humored me with some conversation. I understood maybe 30% of what she said, but that was enough to make me happy. “Gracias, señora,” I said as I was leaving. She responded in Spanish. I didn’t get any of it except the end, when she called me her caballero, as in, “Hasta pronto mi caballero.” I looked it up later. Apparently it translates to gentleman, knight, sir, or mister. So, María called me her gentleman. Her knight. I almost thanked her again, just for calling me this, but I wasn’t sure she’d understand, so I didn’t.

There’s also a great taco truck in Sunset Park – Tacos El Bronco, a buck fifty a pop. At nine or ten at night, I like to get a Coke and three tacos – pastor, cabeza, suadero. Then I go to the park on top of the hill and eat and drink and watch the Manhattan skyline. There’s always Chinese opera – old men playing flutes and erhus, a singing soprano. There are couples dancing to Chinese pop music, and barbeques, and kids on scooters. All the families are out walking their dogs, pushing their babies in strollers. The men play soccer on the Astroturf field.

I was sitting there the other night with my tacos and Coke, the skyline shining, when two little kids rushed by me. They were in pursuit of a firefly. The firefly would blink, its iridescence brilliant against the darkness, and then it would vanish. The kids would run to that spot, the spot of disappearance, and they’d wait for the next blink to come. The firefly was always just a few feet ahead, just barely out of reach. Blink. Chase. Wait. Blink. All the while, another little boy was shouting directions to them.

“¡Allí!”

“¡Aquí!”

“¡Allá!”

The firefly was elusive, uncatchable, yet the kids kept chasing it, giggling and hooting in delight. It didn’t matter that they never caught the firefly. That was beside the point.

New York #2

“It’s the process of discovery,” says an Oakley ad in the Union Square metro station, “finding patterns where others see complexity.”

It’s late afternoon, a few hours before sunset, but that’s impossible to know down here under the Earth waiting for the L train. Under the Earth, waiting, there is no time. There’s only the flow of trains and the rushing of humans, and it all sounds like roaring water. There’s a wooden bench at a confluence in the traffic. I sit, and sweat, and watch it all happen.

An African man is playing an instrument I’ve never seen before. Later, I look it up. It’s called a kora. Wikipedia says it can’t be grouped into a single category of musical instrument; it’s both a bridge harp and a double harp, and it’s also a lute. Walt Whitman would’ve loved this kora. It contains multitudes in its cow-skin covered, half-calabash body. This is where the sound resonates, an inexplicable, impossible sound. How could it come from human hands? And the man’s voice. He sings in a language I don’t understand, and it makes me want to sit on this wooden bench forever.

An old woman sits down directly across from me, five paces away. She looks homeless and very frail. Her right eyeball is bulging out of its socket. I catch myself looking at it, and after a few seconds I realize it’s looking at me, too. Can it see me? Jesus, of course it can. I look away, to be polite, but I feel a terrible urge to look back. I have to. The old woman is now resting her chin in her hand, as if in contemplation. It’s a way to lift the skin of her cheek, camouflage her disfigurement. She’s pretending, it seems, to just be thinking about something, that’s all, just daydreaming or passing the time or resting. How long has she done this to blend in? How long has she hidden down here under the Earth, waiting, covering up that eyeball?

“I see you!” somebody shouts. The sound of it reverberates in the tiled, sweaty cavern, and I almost jump. It’s like the eyeball is shouting at me.

“I see you!”

It’s coming from a shirtless guy with tattoos all over his chest. He’s catcalling a young woman who’s walking down the stairs to the L train.

“I see you!” he shouts again. Suddenly, like a radio dial landing on a crystal clear frequency out of the static, I’m tuned into this moment. What’s being said? I look back at the old woman, into her eyeball, and I wonder again: Can it see? Is it watching me? Of course it can. Of course it is. I have to look away. I can’t stare straight into it. I shouldn’t.

“He’s very good,” says a woman sitting next to me, of the African musician. She’s not a native speaker of English. “The feeling is strong,” she says. We sit next to each other, listening for a long time. Malang Jobarteh is the musician’s name. It’s written on his sign. He plays for hours and hours in the Union Square metro station, and he smiles.

I agree with the woman: The feeling is strong. The feeling is very strong.

New York #1

The summer is done and I’m out of New York. I did basically zero work on the book – they warned me that would happen – but I did write about some stand-out moments in the big city. I’m going to post them here over the next week or two, because the writing isn’t complete until someone reads it. And it’s a break from the Walking to Listen stuff, which is nice.

Without further ado, New York #1:

July 7, 2014:

10 AM, or so: I meet Lenna in Union Square. Lenna is a nanny. She looks and speaks like she’s from Jamaica, but I’m not sure. I don’t ask. Her charge is a baby boy named Merrit. Merrit looks like a little 85 year-old man – saggy neck, bald head, little potbelly. Lots people say that, Lenna tells me. She spends ten hours a day with Merrit, five days a week. It’s more than a little impressive. I worked part-time at a daycare once. Three year-olds. Eight hours a week just about drove me to the nuthouse. In fact, that’s what the full-time teachers there called the teacher’s lounge: The Nuthouse. When I ask Lenna how she does it, she says, “If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t bother me.”

3 PM, or so: I’m sitting behind an old man in a little park on the Hudson River Greenway. A massive Carnival cruise ship is crawling by us, and I’m watching the old man watch the ship. How can such a monstrosity float? There are people on the upper deck. They’re little specks from this far away. When the ship is right in front of us, the old man begins waving at the people suddenly, as if he’s just remembered that’s what he was supposed to be doing. It’s kind of a hopeless sight. There’s just no way anyone’s going to wave back. They can’t possibly see him. Or if someone does happen to have binoculars and does happen to see him, and does feel so inclined to wave back, there’s no way he’ll know. It is, it seems to me, utterly futile. After a good ten seconds of waving, the old man puts his hand back in his lap. He looks around to see if anyone saw him (he doesn’t notice me). And then he starts waving again. He doesn’t stop until the ship has passed.

3:30 PM, or so: A little girl is learning to ride her bike on the Hudson River Greenway, not far from the old waving man. Her mother is running beside her, trying to keep up, and then she lets go, and the little girl rides for a split-second before she falls, almost striking her head against a low stone wall. I expect her to start crying because she almost got really hurt. And because she failed. But when she turns around to her mother she isn’t crying at all. She’s beaming. “I did it! I did it! I did it!” she shouts.

I’m flabbergasted by this, so flabbergasted that I say the words aloud to myself: “I did it! I did it! I did it!” It feels so good it makes me laugh a little

Little moments like these. I’m hungry for them – greedy, perhaps – and I can’t help but keep trawling the city in search of them. They are the seeker’s sustenance, and I’m seeking something: Answers to my questions. Clues to the mystery of this whole existence thing. Wisdom, or call it information if you don’t like that word. I want to understand this human experience. Why? So I can really enjoy it. So I can weather the suffering when it comes. Finding these little moments is a way of doing that for me. It may be the case that I’m conjuring significance where really there is none, but even if that’s so, I find comfort in highlighting these little moments, like I find comfort in highlighting a good line in a book. And there are so many good lines:

The man with the dreadlocks that tickle his ankles. He’s been growing them for 26 years. As long as I’ve been alive. “Congratulations,” I say. “God bless,” he says.

Two young men on a slack line between two trees. Both flail for balance as they try to cross when it’s their turn. One falls. One makes it to the other side.

The bathroom in the coffee shop. I assume it’s locked so I don’t bother trying it. I go straight to the barista for the code. “It’s open,” he says.

The hipster baiting people into chasing him, like a game of tag. Union Square at night. A big potbellied man couldn’t catch him after a fast and furious pursuit of nearly fifteen minutes. The guy gave up and went back to whatever it was he was doing before the hipster hooked him. Now, the hipster looks at me from a distance with mischief in his eyes. I don’t bite.

The skateboarder ollying over two fat men lying next to each other on their backs. He lands it the second time. I cheer.

The homeless man, Johnny Morgan, who asks if he can sing me a song. He chooses “Take it Easy” by the Eagles. He sings loudly, chuckling in between lines: Take it easy, take it easy, don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy, lighten up while you still can, don’t even try to understand, just find a place to make your stand, and take it easy. I give him all the cash I have. $2. I wish I had more.

Sometimes it’s useful, harvesting these moments. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes maybe it’s best to just zone out. Take off my glasses. Don’t miss the forest for the trees, as they say.

Hey there. Long time no see. I’ll give you a quick (and anticlimactic) update in a second, but first and foremost I wanted to let you know about a project I’m supporting. My friend Amanda is organizing a hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro to benefit Vision for the Poor. I’ll be frank: They’re raising money and they need yours, and mine. I’ll be honest: More often than I’d like to admit, I pass on the opportunity to contribute to projects like this. Not because they’re don’t deserve it, but because there are so many of them. There has never been a better time in history to fundraise – the streamlined platforms, the direct access – and that’s great, but it also comes with a certain sense of paralysis. There are so many worthy causes, so many deserving projects. “I should really just give all my money away, it’d be so easy,” I find myself thinking. So instead, I give nothing.

That’s not true. I do give sometimes, especially when a good friend is involved and when the project really resonates. So, I’m throwing my lot in with Amanda and her team. It’s a fantastic mission. I mean, they’re curing blindness for cryin’ out loud. Check out the links and do what you can.

Now, to more boring matters of far less importance: little old me, here. Yeah, nothing new, really. Well, I did finish a first draft of the book, which is cause for some quiet celebration. I’m on track to finish by the February 1st deadline, so the book will be published and available sometime in 2016, I believe. Huzzah! Any title ideas? “Walking to Listen” is an obvious option, but I’m not sure yet. One friend (Gus Sermas, a whip-cracking former landscaping client of mine…turned friend) suggested a line from a Tennyson poem: “I Am a Part of All That I Have Met.” I’m open to ideas.

I’ve spent the past year or so writing in a smattering of pseudo-hermitages, various backwoods boonies. It’s been productive, but it’s also starved me of humanity. So, I’ll be in Brooklyn for the summer. Yes to the river of millions! Holler at me if you’re in the area and you wanna talk, walk, whatevah. Cheers, y’all!

 

 

 

TEDx talk

Howdy! If you’re interested in listening to some of the thoughtstreams I’ve been surfing these past several months, take 15 minutes and listen to this TEDx talk I gave at Furman University in March (they just put it up). Thanks to Furman for the invitation!

Hope all’s well with you.

 

 

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