Archive for May, 2013


| May 14, 2013 | Comments (0)

I sit in a small plaza to the right of New York City’s delicately facaded 18th century City Hall, gazing through newly verdant tree boughs at the old building’s elegant, almost fragile columns. Its cream-colored entrance has the look of a sleepy mansion  on a plantation in the Old South. One half- expects liveried black servants to appear on the verandah bearing silver cups of mint juleps. In New York City ? Well, why not ? In those days Lower Manhattan was farm land and slavery was alive and well in New Amsterdam.

But this is 2013, not 1785, and the African-Americans I see are not chatteled servants, but strapping, shirtless youths, their sweaty, ebony skin glistening in the late afternoon sun as they stride back and forth over the plaza’s cobble stones, shouting and waving their long arms, working the gathering crowd of what seem to be mostly European tourists, beckoning them to close in and watch the show.  Several plastic buckets are placed strategically on the periphery of the performance space for the dollar bills that are expected to be donated in appreciation of the act that follows. Music is churned out over a pair of huge speakers as the performers  begin their warm-up which promises a demonstration of physical stunts and break-dancing, mid-air flips and leaps over horizontal poles.

To pass the time, I watch idly for a few minutes, then lose interest as the thickening crowd of on-lookers blocks my view. Even if I could see what the dancers were up to, I probably wouldn’t watch. If I’ve seen one of these park performances, I’ve seen a hundred and they’re all the same – not much of an act, mostly just  shouting and revving-up the crowd, then a few seconds of mid-air flips and ground spins and it’s over, then the hat is passed  for you  to show your monetary love  for this amazing talent. More enthusiasm and energy than choreographic brilliance, I’d say.

I settle into the hard, wooden bones of the  old bench and open the book I’m reading, delighting in the breaths of cool breeze and hot afternoon sun that are the gifts of early May. Suddenly I am consumed with hunger pangs and glance around for nearby street vendors who might satisfy my craving. None are in sight except a lone pushcart managed by a middle-aged Arab. He is selling pretzels and rubbery hotdogs. I decide to wait even though I am near-hypo-glycemic.

Then deus ex-machina-like, my partner arrives bearing a bag of greasy goodies from MacDonald’s.  We had agreed earlier to meet here when he invited me to join him for a walk across Brooklyn Bridge and an exploration of Brooklyn Heights. My partner has an uncanny skill for doing the right thing at the right time, in this case showing up with edibles. We tear into the lumps of limp Chicken MacNuggets and I tell him this is the best feast I have ever had in my entire life. And it’s true ! Is there anything better than really humble fare when you are famished ?

As we chomp away, I look up at the Brooklyn Bridge in the near distance. It is partly obscured by plastic construction curtains and the footpath across it is grid-locked with pedestrians fighting with cyclists some of whom have uncouth manners: “Get the fuck outta my bike lane!” I thought bike riders were gentle vegetarians who spoke softly and practiced yoga. The regal lady is not at her best today.

Not like the last time I saw her up close on a warm July night  fifty years earlier. It was 1973 or thereabouts and I was with a young man. I no longer remember his name. He was a ballet dancer, a red-head. We met in the Village in a ticket line for  a free performance, one of those outdoor shows  directed by Joseph Papp that made him famous. A  Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, I think, up-dated with frisbies being tossed and rock music throbbing.

After the show and a coffee, the red-headed dancer invites me back to his place and we decide to walk there crossing the bridge to Brooklyn Heights where he lives in an apartment with a group of lesbians in what sounds like a commune. He describes one of the women as a kind of Den Mother who looks after everybody and even does his laundry for him.

That night the bridge was quiet and unpopulated. Mournful tug boat horns pierced the air that carried the industrial smells of factories lining the water front; very intense, very noir. The next morning shortly after dawn, I walk back across the bridge, happy and exhausted, my legs weak after a night of love-making.

Now half a century later my partner and I ascend the ramp onto the bridge, alternately slowed by plodders ahead of us and pushed by anxious power walkers to our rear. My partner, younger and stronger than I am, walks ahead and loses me. He looks back with frowning brows as if to say, “Old man, hurry up!” Later in a  Brooklyn Heights cafe we have a coffee and  several  times I ask him to repeat himself when he speaks. He looks at me and tells me, ” I think it’s time for you to get a hearing aid !” Probably true, but it’s not what I want to hear on this sunny afternoon when my head is full of half century-old memories of crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on a romantic night when I was 25.

We leave Henry Street and walk to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Lower Manhattan rising before us. The  Promenade is much smaller than I recall; it seems tiny. Several portable latrines lend an unwelcome stench. The atmosphere is gone; the special setting that made me joyful and sad at the same time, that feeling of wanting to kill myelf and live forever that I experienced the first time I was there when I was 25. Had I changed or was the place different ?

My partner gets impatient and asks why we are wasting our time here. He is from another culture and wouldn’t understand that the ghosts of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe were in the air and I could hear Marilyn whispering to him, their brownstone just behind us. I rise slowly from the bench where we are sitting and smile sadly at him.

Like a beloved old hand-me-down childhood bicycle or a trusty, tattered tweed jacket whose elbows have gone threadbare, I wonder if our loving relationship of more than three decades was not showing wear and tear. I smile again, then choke back a tear. My partner, ever alert to my moods, asks me, “What’s wrong with you !  Why are you sad ?” Still smiling, I reply, ” Oh no. I’m not sad. It’s just that this place is so romantic.” Well, that was true, at least fifty years ago.



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