I’ve been in New York for two months and I’m still new here. How could I ever get old on these streets? I will always be new, even if I stay forever, and I hardly have forever. It’s August now, and hot, and the parks are a good place to sit out the heat. A good place to listen, too. How much can I hear? The jazz quartets in Washington Square Park, for instance: I can never hear the double bass. I can see it plain as day, the man thumping away on the fat strings, but I can never hear the sound. The trumpet isn’t a problem, nor is the sax. I can always hear the trumpet and the sax, and the drums, too. But never the double bass. That double bass makes me wonder: What else am I missing?
There’s a conversation in the air. I am on one side of it, but I’m not sure who’s on the other, or what. I don’t think it matters, because whatever it is, it’s happening. I’m seeing it and hearing it everywhere.
Like the jazz. I sit a lot in Washington Square Park and listen.
Today, there’s a man sleeping in a seated position two benches to my left. His head is lolling against his chest and hanging backward. His is mouth agape. He’s wearing sweatpants rolled up past his knees, and his legs are streaked with scabs where he’s been scratching them. He scratches himself in his half-stupor sleep: his legs, his belly, his chest, his genitals. People stare at him as they pass. They’d probably look away if he were awake, but he’s asleep, so they stare. I, too, am staring.
A man walks by me, looks me in the eyes, and raises his eyebrows. “Smoke?” he says. Another man passes by with a naked blow-up doll cradled under his arm like a bag of groceries. Two Korean women approach me. “Hey, guy,” one says, and hands me a pamphlet on Christianity. “God bless you,” she says, “God bless you.” The pamphlet’s full of evangelical parables, and on the back there’s a long list of trite jokes under the title, “Smiles!” A sampling:
1. Consciousness: That annoying time between naps.
3. Give me ambiguity or give me something else.
6. I let my mind wander but it never came back.
12. If a turtle doesn’t have a shell, is it naked or homeless?
29. Corduroy pillows: They’re making headlines!
I’m actually not sure they’re jokes, come to think of it. I wouldn’t always call consciousness annoying, but it doesn’t seem to be much more than the time between naps, as far as I can tell. That and 29 seem to be quite true. 12 makes me think of hiding under a bridge, and that’s not funny at all. 6 is describing consciousness again. 3 is the dead end of my search for The Answer: contradiction, paradox, futility. I don’t smile reading this list, as its title suggests I should. Actually, I do. That’s what 29 is for. Smiles!
The man sleeping two benches to my left could use a corduroy pillow. Any kind of pillow, really. He’s so itchy. Imagine what that pillow would feel like for him. Or a shower. In his sleep, he’s scratching his crotch, hands under his sweatpants, just going at it. It’s the kind of itching I do whenever I get poison ivy. There always comes a moment when I just can’t take it anymore. When this moment arrives, I rush into a scalding hot shower and tear at my skin, itching like a mad dog. The feeling is orgasmic. I wonder if the sleeping man is experiencing such a feeling now. I doubt it. He just looks miserable.
Feral pigeons fly around us. They’re all flocking to a longhaired man with birdseed. He’s the pigeon messiah and they are his disciples. The birds sit on his lap. They patrol his shoulders and arms, which are spread wide. They crown his head, flapping for balance. The man is generous with his birdseed, dropping handfuls on the ground in front of him where the birds swarm. Some aren’t aggressive enough to get anything. The man sees these meeker birds and brushes the dominant pigeons away to let them eat, and then he gathers up these chosen pigeons, one at a time, and holds them close to his face, kissing them quite aggressively. It is at once beautiful and repulsive, tender and violent.
A male pigeon has hunted down a female right in front of me. His gullet is puffed, shining violet and teal. He drops his head low and parades in front of her. She wants none of it, attempting a quickstep escape, but he cuts her off. He pumps his neck and struts. It looks frantic to me. Desperate. She pitter-patters away again. He follows, pitifully, but he can’t catch her, and then she flies off. His gullet deflates. He raises his head and looks around, perplexed. Then, he, too, flies away – a staccato clapping of wings that sounds like applause. This futile ritual happens several times right in front of me. Once, it seemed like it might actually come to fruition, but then a guy with a ponytail walked right into the middle of it and ruined everything. He had no idea.
Something has stirred the disciples of the pigeon messiah. They all fly away in a ruckus, dozens of bodies adjusting to each other in perfect choreography. They soar right over me, and then circle back, and land at my feet. For a moment they’re all looking at me expectantly, as if I’ve called them or promised them something. I’m a little embarrassed by the attention. People are watching. Soon, though, the birds lose interest. They strut off into a dozen different directions, clucking.
The sleeping man is now itching his left arm. It’s raised in the air, as if he has the answer to the teacher’s question, and he’s running his fingers up and down, up and down. When I was little, I used to hold my arm up like that before bed, and Mom would gently stroke it until I fell asleep. I got too old for her to do this one day, and so I began stroking my arms myself. I would even do it in my sleep, just like the man is doing now. I wonder about his mother. I wonder if she ever used to stroke his arms.