Enter the Voyeur

In his essay collection Alibis, Andre Aciman writes about the “secret center points” of New York City.  They are, mostly, specific pieces of city geography (buildings, stretches of sidewalk, views of the sky, etc.) linked to him by memories powerful enough that each time he returns to one of those points, the old hopes or uncertainties or passions he felt there return as well.  He walks away remembering where he has come from if not where he is now going.  These secret center points form a kind of constellation and this constellation forms the shape of his New York.

When I moved to New York in August 2012, I did not yet have a job and my graduate classes had not yet begun.  I'd come from the rural Midwest with a stack of books, a mattress, a handful of clothes, one or two friends in the city, and I had a month to kill.  I bought a new computer.  I walked for miles in the heat.  I bought an air conditioner.   I applied for jobs.  I went to a Met’s game (they lost). 

Most significant to me, however, is that I went back, day after day, to Bryant Park - a rectangular space in Manhattan behind the main branch of the New York Public Library.  I would arrive around three or four in the afternoon and I’d sit with a notebook and just write what I saw.  The Park slowly became, and remains, one of my secret center points - perhaps the first.  The following entries come essentially unedited from the notebook I kept in August 2012.

August 19th.  The dark flagstones and the green metal furniture, the lazy skies, the glassy buildings and the cool air all grant Bryant Park the grace of a submerged landscape and the hue of a deep forest.  Yet the frenetic hum of the city lingers – or is ever present, submerged itself but apparent like a tingle in the ear.  Two people at the table next to mine have spontaneously started singing something.

August 20th.  Since yesterday I’ve learned about this place.  The chairs and other green furniture are meant to symbolize the Park’s revival and there is something like 4,000 of them.  I have learned that the lawn “rests” between major engagements like the HBO Film Festival, and underneath the lawn are the archives of the New York Public Library.  I have learned that the carousel across the lawn from me plays the accordion theme from Amelie.  I have learned that if in passing I look at someone, they will look back.  A sign above my chair says, “Smell flowers, not smoke.”  Right now, I smell perfume.

August 22nd.  It is nearly six p.m. and things are relatively quiet.  In the dusk like this one could almost imagine a man and woman strolling in their evening wear arm in arm, maybe carrying closed umbrellas, her with a bustle of striped indigo and black silk and him with a bow tie and tails.  An evening spent with these two is a gracious affair.  (A woman just kissed a man’s cheek.  “I haven’t seen you in so long!” she proclaims.  They sit.  They aren’t in evening wear or going anywhere – but they are color coordinated.)

August 23rd.  All green spaces in urban areas possess a magic given by their surroundings, the half truth and glitter of a magician’s illusion.  This makes them worth watching.  When the lights go down in Bryant Park, the mysteries of the world take one step closer to being visible.

August 24th.  There are lots of feet up in the air out on the central green.  Mass yoga?  The chess club plays on.  They would play on if the city were sinking, the continental shelf crumbling, the green metal chairs and tables all sliding into the Atlantic.  A young white man and an older black man are playing blitz chess and, judging by his face, it does not look like the younger man is doing well.  The older man plays with an uncompromising sense of gesture.  Their exchange is lightning without thunder.

August 25th.  An older man sits, slouching – his whole manner is a slouch, from shoes to lips to shoulders. He is wearing a faded black suit.  His shoes are laceless and unshined.  He smells (I imagine) of paper and tobacco.  His tie is black with peonies in rust red: if this man were a car, he would have rust along the edges.  At the ping-pong tables over my shoulder there is a blonde boy of about 25, in a blue jersey and grey gym shorts.  His shoulder blades are brutally sharp, his waist narrow.  He has a tattoo on his tanned right shoulder.  What does it say?  On his jersey are yellow capital letters that spell FAITH.  

August 27th.  The clearest, sweetest sunshine is sweeping through the Park at the moment.  Four p.m. on a water-washed, watershed day (my first day of class as an MFA student).  A leaf just hit me in the face and I nearly died of a heart attack, but right now the world could not be more beautiful or more knowable.