I thought I’d sleep in the park, Van Cortlandt Park, in the Bronx. I set my mummy bag on a pallet of fallen leaves atop a 500-million-year-old outcrop of gneiss overlooking the cross-country course. Thirty-four springtimes ago, as a member of the Francis Lewis High School track team, I’d run that two-and-a-half-mile path over urban hill and dale. It wasn’t pretty, distance never being the kid’s game. I was a quarter-miler, once around the track and out, but some guy was sick, so they threw me in, against Boys, Wingate, those cats. By mile two I was retching, rubber legs to the end. It was a dim memory, easily repressed, until now, back here, the full moon rising between spindly maples. I had history in this park, and that was good. If you don’t have history, what is there to disappear from? That was the idea: to get lost. The notion had come to me a few days earlier, as I was checking the view from my friend’s new thirty-seventh-floor apartment. “Isn’t it great? You can see everything from here,” he said, looking uptown and down, almost awestruck at the extent of his success and what it had gotten him. It was great all right, I agreed, struggling to keep from covering my eyes. It was more than the simple reality that this fabulous place belonged to him, not me. There was something deeply appalling about the Big Vista, the God’s-eye view, the everythingness of it. There was too much city to take in at one time. It was more than the buildings and the traffic. Down there were layers of complications, plans and schemes, one-way streets followed, dead ends reached. Like the man says: Nothing brings you down like your hometown. But when your hometown is New York, it isn’t like you can extend an all-inclusive middle finger as Greyhound pulls out for the bright lights, the big city. You’re already here. That’s what I saw out my friend’s window: my place – where I was born (Beth Israel, hospital of my delivery now converted to expensive condos, was discernible, right in front of the Con Edison smokestacks), where I grew up, got married, had three children. Yet things had changed down there, not all of that change being to my liking. Still, I felt responsible, because when a place is home, you always feel responsible. Below teemed the multitudes, millions of ever-moving dots, all of them no doubt clinging to their sweaty little egos with at least as much desperation as I clung to mine. New York, New York: You struggle to distinguish yourself, make a name, and in the final result, the city offers up nothing but the throng.
Therein, of course, lay the flip side, the salvation from everythingness. Amid the clutter below, one could get misplaced or, rather, misplace oneself. Wasn’t that urbanity’s tawdry selling point, the notion that anyone could turn a corner, disappear into the crowd? Because if you can’t get lost in New York, where can you?
But I couldn’t lock myself away in a Jackson Heights subbasement like a smuggled day worker. In the most public of all cities, the challenge was to hide in plain sight. To become a faceless face in the crowd. To do that, I had to walk. After all, to be a New Yorker is to walk, even if it’s the same crappy eight blocks a day. The press of pedal extremities against pavement is what the city is all about, and not just because the place was invented before cars and if you walk in L.A. it makes the cops nervous and they beat you to a pulp on principle. Walking, you might encounter the Buddha. Stop in the middle of Allen Street, near Canal, and look up. There he is, a massively fat and smiling statue, illuminated by fluorescence in the third-floor window above the Hop Won vegetable market. Sometimes he takes human form. Peeking through acetate curtains of the tenement window on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, one beholds the Gautama of Gowanus: 350 pounds or more, he reclines upon his bed inside his cramped room, the greenish walls of his tiny room surrounding him like a bottle round a ship. He watches a giant-screen TV. Buffy is on, the stake in her hand. In the ever-panning surveillance camera of the walker’s voyeur view, everyone and thing can be a Buddha.
For the walker, the city reveals a reality denied those in cabs, in Town Cars, or even on bikes. It is a roofless space, where time moves according to whim and every periphery is available. So that was the mission: to forge my path of personal urban renewal by walking from the city’s top to its bottom, from the Bronx, through Manhattan, and to Brooklyn’s Coney Island shore, knapsack on my back, val-da-ree, val-da-rah.
I would get lost to get found, and with the chill wind off the scruffy fairways of the Van Cortlandt public golf links fresh upon my face, this seemed as good a place as any to start. Out here, in all this night, it was no big trick to edit the buzzing planes from the patchy sky, to muffle the thrum of the Henry Hudson Parkway. In this void, time might be scrolled backward, beyond the advent of the Mosholu Parkway, Frank Crosetti, and the Savage Skulls, to when this land was covered by a vast primeval forest. Then, it might be very easy to imagine myself the sole soul ever to bunk down upon this rock, the Bronx’s own alpha-and-omega man. It was with this thought that I curled into the sleeping bag, closed my eyes, and fell off to sleep.
I have no idea how long I’d been out when I awoke to a smear of yellow teeth, and snarls. Coyotes! I’d heard the beasts had eaten pets in Scarsdale and now were expanding their habitat south, menacing the rat population of Morrisania. But they weren’t coyotes. They were just dogs, mangy and vicious, three of them, yapping and snapping.
“Go home!” I screamed, fake-feral me shouting at real-feral them, as if they weren’t home already.
Ever try cramming a mummy bag into a micro-stuff sack while encircled by possibly rabid mongrels? Plus, where was global warming when you really needed it? A front had come in. I had on my Jets stocking hat – like, Bill Parcells, save me now – but I was still freezing. And so I ran, numbed and purblind, through low-slung forest branches, hellhounds on my trail. Ahead lay upper Broadway.
It wasn’t yet midnight, but luckily, upper Broadway in the mid-200s is rich in establishments where the three-leaf clover offers a pale-green neon beacon to the gentleman traveler. El tracks above my head, I hit them hard, fast. The Terminal at 242nd, Hennessy’s Headquarters, Keenan’s, the Punch Bowl, Pauline’s, Jesse James, the Liffy, the Liffy 2, Irish Eyes, and Rich Willies – at every port of call, firemen, disgruntled District 37 workers, cops, and who-knew-how-many IRA bombers noted my backpack, assumed I’d been tossed out, and offered manly sympathy. Like a Cheever character swimming across Connecticut, I walked downtown, bar by bar, upon a stream of Budweiser.
Crossing into Inwood, I found myself teetering on the edge of what the Broadway drinkers called “the end of the earth.” I was entering Dominican territory, where, according to one barroom patron, “they scream ‘Sosa 66!’ like ‘banzai’ – and slam a machete into the back of your neck.” Racist claptrap, I had snorted. But now, standing at the brink of Washington Heights, with Harlem to follow, I blinked.
“You carry your home on your back like the turtle?” the youth asked, referencing my backpack as he emerged from the shadows, head hidden by a sweatshirt hood. I fumbled in my pocket for my sole item of self-protection, a Swiss Army knife. I knew I should have passed on the tweezer and toothpick options in favor of the box cutter and Kalashnikov.
“You lost?” the kid asked solicitously. On second glance, I saw he couldn’t have been more than 12.
Lost? Absolutely. I was losing myself in order to be found. Would this youngster care to hear of the vicissitudes of the shamanic path? On the lamppost in front of me was the same flyer I had seen affixed to every lamppost all the way up to 242nd Street. HOSPITALS NOW HIRING, it said. FOR ALL POSITIONS. EXPERIENCE NOT NECESSARY. To the left of the letters was a crude line drawing of a man in a doctor’s coat examining a young child. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so good myself.
“Know of any place to stay around here?” I asked.
The kid shook his head. “No” was all he said. Across the street at the 24-hour car service, the guy behind the desk handed me the Yellow Pages. Under hotels, in a tight little box display, it said, DEEGAN MOTEL – WHERE THE NEW YORK THRUWAY MEETS THE NEW YORK SUBWAY. LOW DAY RATES! The Deegan was back up near 238th Street, about 45 blocks away, but I’d struck a covenant with myself: feet only, no public transport, no cabs.
The office of the Deegan wasn’t an office at all; it was more like the booth of a parking lot, glassed-in and bulletproof with a sign that said ADULT MOVIES – $3.50 taped to the window. Inside, on the ledge, a roll of Trojans streamed toward the floor like carnival tickets. The bumpy-faced attendant asked, “How many hours?”
“How about until morning?”
The cashier squinted, as if this was some kind of trick. Then, recovering, he blurted, “Fifty.” Like a moron, I took out my credit card. “No, man, we got to take cash,” the attendant replied. When I asked him if the rooms were clean, he shrugged and said, “You’ll see.”
Alienation is like cholesterol – there’s good and bad – and the Deegan is an all-night fish fry. No slo-mo Willy Loman death scene here. At the Deegan, thousands, millions – billions of millions – of potential souls go by the boards each prorated hour, smeared into the sheets, dribbled onto the shag rug. Aye, Johnny, ye swiggling little tadpole, we barely knew ye. Clean? The room smelled like it had been smart-bombed with Lysol straight from the Pineywoods; at the Deegan, even Saddam’s germs check in but do not check out. Peering through the streaked window to the great highway from which the motel had taken its name, I watched cars and trucks whiz by, the whine of their tires a mantra of separation.
Encased in scratchy sheets, I opened the collection of Hawthorne stories I’d been reading, by the beam of a Duane Reade flashlight, before falling asleep back at the park. It was one of the inspirational classics I’d included in my travel kit. I had a cassette of Joyce, his pinchy voice reading of Stephen’s Dublin journey. I had Leaves of Grass, of course, walking Walt being the New York beatnik king. Can’t go anywhere without Leaves of Grass – who knows when you might meet a pizza-bearing intern to give it to?
It was Hawthorne’s short story “Wakefield,” however, that proved most pertinent. It tells of a man “in the meridian of life … keeper of petty secrets hardly worth revealing,” who “without shadow of reason for such self-banishment” leaves his home and takes up residence on the next street, where he lives, unnoticed, for “upwards of 20 years” before returning home “quietly, as from a day’s absence.”
But was it really possible to hide in such plain sight, to walk, as Wakefield must have walked, many times, on his own street “untraced by mortal eye”?
Only hours before heading for the top of the Bronx, I’d given this literary conceit a test run, on St. Marks Place between First and Second Avenues. For seventeen years I lived on this block, through much thick, much thin. It was here that all three of my children were born, where I wrote books and a hundred articles. How many times had I walked this oft-sallow thoroughfare, to buy a quart of Tropicana or to go to the IRT at Astor Place? Now it was different. Just a couple months before, in the name of dorm-room Liebesraum, NYU, factory for squares, had pulverized Julian’s pool hall and the Academy of Music. Throughout the neighborhood, hipsters raised their angel-headed heads, cursing addled memory for the inability to recall what better thing used to be there. Still, how much could a place really change in six years, I wondered, standing across the street from my old building, looking up at the philodendron-filled fourth-story window that used to be mine.
Up and down the familiar stoop of my old building they went, a blonde woman with a ponytail, a young white man in a suit, a black guy in sweats, two Asian co-ed types, going about their business, gathering mail, jangling keys, vanishing down the still-brown stucco-bumped hallway. I knew not a soul. Where was Mrs. Showty, screaming at her pierogi-fed dogs, or the stern landlady, Mrs. Camilletti, who demanded her $167 rent by shoving notices in my mailbox signed the mgt. Dozens of people passed by on the street. I elicited not a single “Hey, man” or even a curt nod.
Then: “Thinking of moving back?” It was inevitable, I supposed. Dressed in black, with dark hair and walking a cruddy little dog, she had the weathered aspect of a veteran Lower East Sider, an ex-East Village Other reader, likely. Her face rang a distant bell, not that I was about to admit it.
Off my blank look, she said, with quick embarrassment, “Oh, sorry … thought you were somebody else.” She turned and walked away.
So this was how Wakefield had disappeared. He refused to acknowledge his presence. Denied his own existence. The force of my naysay was enough to convince that lady with the dog I wasn’t the Mark of St. Marks she imagined me to be. This was how memories were wiped clean, I thought, the way things were forgotten.
What an exultant feeling of freedom it was, then. I walked in celebration of my city, and of myself. But not as Whitman, hairy, horny chronicler of another New York, walked, not in the assumption that “every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.” I sang not of the connection of things but rather of their division, of the space between, and what was cordoned off. Once as hardy a perennial as a Tompkins Square oak upon these erstwhile immigrant grounds, I’d become an alien on my own block, another tourist in the night.
Again and again, the process repeated. I pressed my face against the steamy window of the Polish butcher on Second Avenue. Two times a week I’d bought sausages from the man. Now, weighing a bunch of chops, he had more important things on his mind than remembering me. The sheer multitude of the city’s faces, so much alike, liberated me from residual identity. In anonymity, I achieved perfect New York democracy. Everywhere I went, everyone I saw – businesspeople puffing furtively on cigarettes in the rain outside marble-façaded buildings, or tearful teenagers screaming at lovers on street corners, or men in chairs listening to old songs on the radio by the doorways of tenements – they didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. There was nothing between us, nothing at all, and in this I rejoiced.
I was happy still several hours later, snug on my stiff sheets at the Deegan Motel, reading of how Hawthorne’s Wakefield “lost his place and privilege with living men, without being admitted among the dead.” Then, well tired from my wanderings, I once more dropped off to dreamless sleep.
Seen from the Broadway Bridge, in the bitter, early-morning light: eight swans swimming in the Harlem River, bobbing between floating tires. Two men come roaring by on water skis, wearing thick wet suits, pulled by a pair of sleek cigarette boats. Passing the Marble Hill Metro-North station, both men lift their left legs like Rockettes. Then they zoom out of sight, up toward the Hudson. Riding the boats’ wake, the swans never once raise their long necks to look. Hard-nosed, swans, not easily impressed.
I crossed over to Washington Heights, down Broadway through Harlem. Eight hours ago, I feared these streets. Now, with the mighty thoroughfare splashed by the slants of morning light, I strolled as a marveling traveler from a far-off land. Everywhere was the bustle of Flats Fix establishments, barbershops, plantain-piled vegetable markets, fishmongers, roots salesmen, beeper reconnectors, and long-distance parlors. Left and right were houses of worship, the Reverend Ike’s massive old Loews 175th Street nestled in among a hundred storefront churches, including the Moment of Truth on 145th, where the pastor will also do your taxes, hence the slogan “Prayer is your payoff!” By the Two Minute Warning, “a sports bar” in the 150s, a man was tossed out the front door, Western movie-style. He bounced along the sidewalk and came to rest curled about a parking meter. “And stay out,” the well-muscled proprietor said, slapping his hands together.
What urban pageantry all this seemed, with James P. Johnson on the headphones. Ol’ James P – in the twenties and thirties, they called him the Father of Stride. Willie the Lion, Fats Waller – none of them played better. The sad part was that James P. spent much of his time writing Gershwinesque symphonic pieces that piled up, largely unheard, in his garage. Now, however, 67 years after he wrote it, Johnson’s grand and grandiloquent Harlem Symphony (the first movement, “Subway Journey,” suggests a majesty more suitable for the arrival of the mother ship than for that of the cruddy 1/9) was the supreme soundtrack.
Call it a cheat, cocooning myself in James P.’s buoyant pomp, so prewar,
so pre-everything. But what was I supposed to listen to, some Death Row dude? As a postmod citizen, I have the right to cue my own little MTV. So what if I needed a little aural salve to accompany certain landmarks like the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was killed, and the corner of 139th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where one scuzzy winter day I got stomped, my nose broken, again. With James P. on, these events receded. I saw the Harlem I wanted to see: a place to dream my little bohemian dream of a New Jerusalem where necessary compromises about color transformed to honest celebration of difference. If it was a lie, big deal – after all, I was only passing through.
Across 110th Street, paranoia set in. I knew I was in trouble when I stopped at a coffee shop, put a quarter in the table-side jukebox to hear an old fave, Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker,” and Alanis Morissette came out instead. From the top of the park on down, everyone looked familiar. But why shouldn’t they? They were familiar people. That woman over there … wasn’t she my shrink for a couple of sessions back in the eighties, the cognitive one? What a nightmare. I’d worked to get lost and wanted to stay that way. Uptown, cloaked in my all-consuming whiteness, I went undetected. But down here, those networked cell-phone talkers might as well have been providing coordinates on my position. Manhattan’s gridlike streets had become an anti-anonymity minefield, each passing face another potential blown cover.
The notion that the door to hell is situated on upper Madison Avenue – tucked behind a pillow at Schweitzer Linens, in a secret panel at the Merton Simpson Gallery of primitive arts, or even cannily hidden at Gymboree – has never been conclusively disproved. My particular pit opened at the corner of 89th Street. There, kitty-corner from me, stood a woman to whom I’d once been engaged. We’d come to our senses in the nick of time. No hard feelings, just: no. It was proof of the city’s ampleness that even though we both remained here and had common friends, we’d barely had any contact for twenty years.
Now there she was, walking down Madison. Looking good, too, in a Saks-style long green coat with a fur collar. With her were three other similarly attired women and a passel of well-turned-out kids – Madison Avenue moms out for a stroll, a snapshot of The Good Life. Across the street, I cowered in the doorway of a Timothy’s Coffees, Jets stocking cap pulled down, crazed-Vietnam-vet-style. Dirt-caked and beer-sloshed, I didn’t see this as the optimum time to have my former fiancée ask, “So what have you been doing?” I mean: I could have had a whole other life with this person.
Ah, the counter-me, that ever-ripe chestnut of the middle-aged male – one more obsessive re-deal of the existential portfolio. A moment to reflect, to consider one’s life, one’s times, one’s place. After all, my three children are fourth-generation New Yorkers, following in the lead of my sainted grandmother who came here in 1901 after escaping murderous Cossacks by hiding in a potato sack. For a century, our family saga has played out upon these unquiet city shores, where my uncle Larry, the gambler, once won a Mott Street chinese restaurant in a crap game. Those days, it was great to be a Jacobson in the New Land. Even now, with all but a few of our robust pantheon of founding gods and goddesses – Aunt Rosie of Lenox Road, Uncle Louie of Long Beach, Cousin Harold of Yellowstone Boulevard, Aunt Celia of Kings Highway – lying beneath the dirt of the Elmont family plot, it was hard to imagine that our epic reign in this place would ever end.
That said, I’d just passed by my younger daughter’s “middle school.” The school was surrounded by scaffolding. In fact, I can’t remember a New York City school any of my children has attended that wasn’t surrounded by scaffolding. It appears to be a signature of Giuliani-Crew management style. Even on the brightest day, the latticework of the ever-diligent School Construction Authority sheds a Dantesque darkness: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.
This is difficult to accommodate. After all, I am a product of this same system; both my mother and my father taught in city schools for 40 years. For us, the separation between school and home blurred, each spare piece of scratch paper bearing the bd. of ed. watermark, everyone off at three, with summers free. Public education was the family business, how I was brought up. I believe in it. Except now there is this scaffolding, this metaphorical gallows, and 35 kids in every classroom. Of course, there’s private school – those children are getting ahead. I mean, the fifteen grand aside, I’ll send my kid to a private school if I have to – I have sent my children to private schools. But I don’t believe in private school. It offends my dream of New York, sullies the empire of classlessness. It makes me heartsick.
Standing on Madison Avenue waiting for the woman I almost married to turn the corner and fade out of my life for the next twenty years, I could feel the sense of place erode, and it was stunning thinking of a New York without me, a me without New York.
I had to get to the Waldorf. I’d booked myself in a week earlier. It was part of the initial walk-the-city agenda: sleep in the park one night, the Waldorf the next. The high and the low, outhouse to penthouse. Originally, the prospect of arriving at such an iconographic seat of NYC Mammon in my stinking clothes and mud-cased boots tickled me. Screw them: I had a reservation. Now I sought to fit in. I’d have to purchase a change of clothes, and it couldn’t be one of those Grambling U. sweatshirts sold at the flea market outside Mount Sinai hospital. Barneys was out, too; an expense chit for “$2,000, costuming” would not fly. Banana Republic, erstwhile clothier to the colonial oppressor, now Seattle-daywear provider, would have to do. In brown cords and beige sweater, backpack in suitcase mode, I entered the muted plush of the Waldorf lobby, scanning for spies.
My mother has often mentioned the weekend she and my father spent at the Waldorf-Astoria soon after he returned from the war. Two nights in the lap of luxury: They had it coming to them, for beating the Nazis. The Waldorf was the top, famous world-round. But now $400 (!) gets you a Days Inn-style room with banging pipes, all of it crammed into space notably smaller than the room I’d occupied the night before at the Deegan, an establishment never owned by an Astor. They could at least have thrown in a waldorf ashtray to steal. But it was just unmarked glass, see-through, throwaway.
No matter; I was safe in my seventeenth-floor bunker. No chance anyone would recognize me here, I thought as the full moon rose over the office buildings on Lexington Avenue. Out there were a thousand squares of light, several filled with someone typing. Once upon a time, you could walk through the city’s financial canyons at night and find solace, the great engines of commerce stilled for the moment. Now the global economy pumped ahead around the clock, without allowance for regionalized distinction between day and night. Time had become relative, a profane, endless stream.
Another minute in that room without Xanax and I’d have hung myself from a fixture, I decided a few moments later, across 50th Street, sitting by St. Bart’s church. There are some powers even Giuliani will not challenge, because every night, right across from the Waldorf, a small community of homeless people sleeps in boxes on the church steps. I sat down by a Dell computer box. The person inside was wheezing badly, but there was no place else to sit, especially after two businessmen walked by, nodded at the box, and said, “Dell went up two today.”
“You, you out there,” came a woman’s voice, crabbed and phlegmy. “Can you get me a pack of cigarettes?” A withered hand snaked from the box holding three crumpled dollars. I went back into the hotel, bought a pack of Winstons from the newsstand, knocked on the box, put the butts and the three dollars back in the woman’s hand. Immediately the money came back out. “No money,” the woman said.
“Keep it, really,” I replied, pushing the bills back toward the box.
The woman must have changed her mind, because she stuck her hand out of the box to take the money. Unfortunately, right then one of the bills blew away, down the church steps and onto Park Avenue beyond. Now I had only two dollars. I couldn’t give her two after she’d given me three. I dug into my pants, but all I had was a twenty. That about cleaned me out, but what was I supposed to do, ask for change?
“Hey, thanks a lot,” she said a moment later, a lot more sprightly.
I started walking again, through the night. It was getting late, but the city never sleeps. Taxis whizzed up and down the avenues. Twenty-seven years ago, should you have hailed a cab in this town, there was a chance I might have pulled over. Back then, driving cabs was apprenticeship for the sort of city boy I aspired to be. I did it for years. But they just don’t have guys like me these days, I thought, trudging past the Virgin Megastore. No wonder I’d been able to disappear. I was dead, R.I.P., a ghost in my own museum.
The image made me think of my old friend Harold Conrad, who really is dead. Once a gossip columnist for the New York Mirror, a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, tight with Runyon and the rest, Duke Ellington and Ali, too, Harold wasn’t the most famous of his boulevardier crew, but he liked to walk around the city, all night long, just looking. Sometimes we walked together, two generations of New York dudes. I remember our last stroll. Dinkins was in then, and the trains were not yet running on time, lickety-split, the way they do today. Around Times Square, Harold stopped, looked at the crud.
“So this is what they call New York now,” he said, shaking his head in mild disgust, as if he’d been out of town for a few decades. He was entitled. After all, Harold had walked down Broadway when people really walked down Broadway, he’d drunk at better bars, eaten a better cheesecake, and gone to better fights at a better Madison Square Garden.
Then Harold smiled. “Well, that’s okay,” he said genuinely. “Because it’s yours.”
I appreciated that, how generous Harold was toward my New York, so clearly inferior to his New York. He liked me well enough to figure I was getting as much out of the shopworn town as could be gotten. He even took my word for it that these new people, Ecuadorans, Hasidim, and the rest, would keep the place interesting. What you had to do was keep walking, Harold said. Because walking around, you’d see everything strange, because if it wasn’t strange, it wouldn’t be New York.
So I kept walking, down Broadway and on to 32nd Street between Fifth and Sixth, a.k.a. Koreatown. The street’s Far Eastern company-man’s kinkiness struck an appropriately desolate chord. In a club up a flight of stairs, several women sat in front of monitors playing erotic cartoons. A few doors west, there’s a huge finished basement called Spot Cafe. You sit on a large leather couch and ring the motel-style bell on the coffee table. Give the lady $20, and she brings a plate of spicy gizzard salad; give her $120, and get a bottle of cognac. Me, though, it being 2:30 in the morning, I like to shoot a quick game of pool in an unadorned concrete-block room on the tenth floor of a nondescript office building. If a 50-year-old Korean businessman in a three-piece suit wants to join me, $5 a pop for a rack of nine-ball, and never once say a single word, that’s fine, especially if techno music is blaring, I’m losing, and the attendant wears a white cotton fever mask while Dustbusting the other tables, all of which are empty.
I’d wanted to get lost so as to be found. To re-sanctify myself in the city. And here it was. It is the job of the city to constantly create these alienated images of the modernist dilemma, to make them beautiful and, if possible, funny. This is how we like it. This is the hit the city boy craves. So New York wasn’t over yet, I decided, back at the Waldorf, downing a $19 “legendary” Waldorf salad, ordered from room service: the perfect meal-for-one when the clock radio flashes 3:34 a.m. In the office building across Lexington, the lights remained on. In the window directly across from me sat a young woman in a surprising scarlet dress. I’d seen her earlier, drinking coffee from a paper cup. Now, hours later, the light from her computer screen upon her face like a cybertime Vermeer, she was still typing. I watched her for some time, her long neck straight up, shoulders still, only her fingers moving. It was impossible to imagine her doing anything else. Then she stopped and turned to look out the window. She stared straight at me, and I could have sworn our eyes met. If they did, she did not acknowledge my voyeur’s presence. She idly combed her hair with a blue brush and then went back to work.
The sun was rising over the sign on the Jehovah’s Witnesses building – AWAKE – as I crossed Mr. Roebling’s bridge. I had to walk fast, for there was still a lot of Brooklyn to cover before I hit the Coney Island Beach. In Red Hook, I traversed Conover Street, past the santeria stands and towed cars, to where they fish for eels. I followed the F-train trestle beyond the endless automotive shops to Ocean Parkway, wider than the valley of the Himalayan Kali Gandaki, home to elephantine Syrian-American home décor and Eurasian garden gnomes. I paused before the electric-blue shingle of Dr. Joshua Chopp, practitioner of general dentistry (dial 800-50-smile), and the similar one of Dr. Lipp, the orthodontist. Then, in quick-arriving late afternoon, the sky grew wide, the breeze grew stiff and cold, and I was at the sea.
I’ve walked this way many times, often at dawn, when the Russian men, erstwhile Soviets, balance on their head and pump their legs, bicycle-style. That’s when the cabbies, no longer like me, now from Lahore and Port-au-Prince, slink from the Surf Hotel, where the handwritten sign on the door says people who have created problems in the past not welcome, we love peace and quite. Morning is when the Hindus, staffs stuck into the sand, bathe in the Coney sea as if it were the Ganges. In winter, gleaming icicles drip like vampire fangs from the shuttered Thunderbolt, roller coaster of my youth.
From the top of the Bronx, I’d reached Brooklyn’s bottom. With my boot heels’ first thump upon the boardwalk, the Righteous Brothers came in on cue: “Unchained Melody” blaring from the gyro stand, the only seaside eatery open on this off-season afternoon.
The gyro man, an Arab, is cooking a burger for a large black man in maroon sweatpants. Someone must have told a joke, because both of them are laughing loudly. They keep laughing as the cook tosses the burger into the sea air. The meat reaches its apogee, flips over twice, plunges down again, splat against the grill.
Now, my walk done, I could finally call my wife, ask her if she didn’t mind coming to pick me up. Not much had changed in the three days of my disappearance. The 16-year-old still liked Björk; the 12-year-old still didn’t clean her room. I suppose I could have walked back to the Slope, but there was no time. I’m the assistant coach of my 9-year-old son’s basketball team, and there was a game that night. We lost our first four, won a couple, lost some more. Nonetheless, my son, who wears No. 6, in honor of Dr. J, whom he has never seen play, thinks we could get good. He’s optimistic like that. Sometimes we walk around the city together, two more generations of New York dudes, just looking around. The other day, we walked under Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Beside the massive anchorage, some boys had collected several dozen horseshoe crabs and were flinging the ancient animals out into New York Bay like prehistoric Frisbees. My son said this was all right; the crabs wouldn’t be hurt since they were “living fossils” that had “always been there and always would be.” That sounded okay, so we turned around and walked home.