Washington Square Park, July 5, 2014
I exit the cool air of the train at the Christopher Street station. Negotiating a heated wind tunnel to climb the staircase from the platform, I emerge onto the sidewalk into blistering sun. I squint and shield my eyes as they adjust to the light, slipping my hand into my bag for my sunglasses, then head east toward Washington Square Park.
While walking, I adjust the straps of my backpack and slip both arms back through for a better balance. The bag isn’t heavy but its contents fit awkwardly in the space: phone, wallet, a baggie of trail mix, a large bottle of water, pens and my journal, and my new camera.
Most locals are out of town for the holiday weekend, leaving Washington Square Park to us visitors and tourists. I am a visitor; not native to the city by any means, but one who frequents the parks and shops and museums and restaurants with a degree of ease and familiarity. A visitor takes no detail for granted, but unlike the tourist, is not on a sole hunt to document these details via selfies for Facebook. I have my pick of seats, and I choose a wide, flat concrete bench so that my back is to the Arch and my view is set on the fountain. An a capella doo-wop group harmonizing behind me draws a crowd; the people sway and clap along with the tunes.
I sit down and jump up from the heat on bench’s surface that threatens to sear my white skin. In the summer sun my legs actually look a little nuclear in their glow. I sit again, gingerly, close the edge so my shorts protect my legs. I take off my white ankle socks and grey Converse All-Stars ®, but the ground is too hot for the soles of my feet so I rest them atop the empty shoes.
The sun is almost directly overhead and the shadows are harsh, so I decide to write instead of taking pictures. Do I seem a cliché as I observe here in the park with my recycled paper notebook and gel point pen? Or does anyone even notice me? Probably the latter. The invisibility here in the park, among other artists and citizens and visitors and tourists is a comfort, and I settle into my space and have a closer peek.
Parents stroll past me, singly or coupled, swaddling babies to their bodies with slings and pushing strollers. A precocious toddler breaks free of her stroller, running ahead (not quite as far as it seems to her) with chubby legs and a banana’d belly, stopping short and turning to let her dad almost catch up. An older girl whizzes past on a blue scooter.
A man stands next to the bench one down from mine, leaning against his bike. He stares off in one direction, not idly but as if scanning a crowd for someone to emerge. There is no crowd where he is looking. His sneakers are like mine, but black, and his socks were probably once bright white like mine. Now they are mottled, clean but thrown in one too many times with a washload of colors. He holds an iTouch in his right hand and places the ear buds with his left. I wonder why he would choose the isolation of a personal soundtrack over the streaming sounds of the fountain or the silliness of people splashing in it or the voices and languages too numerous to count and too comingled to identify, or the harmony of the doo wop group or the beats of the drummer across the circle.
The wind carries spray from the fountain to my skin. I wish I didn’t carry all this stuff with me so I could slip my feet in the fountain without getting my supplies wet.
A man stops beside me. Hard-worn Nike flip-flops expose the most weathered digits I have ever seen. They are thick with elephant skin wrinkles and callouses. The yellow toenails curve on the edges a bit too much, grotesque cookie cutters pressing into slabs of dough.
A kid with a guitar is sitting on another bench 15 feet away from me. I sense the beat of his foot tambourine and I see his mouth moving. He is strums his guitar but his song is imperceptible from where I sit.
A Hispanic man with a grandfatherly countenance sits across the fountain with two drums. A small boy, not his own, sits on the bench next to him. The man is patient and warm, smiling as he shows the boy how to add his beat to the man’s. Both look up and smile at the mom who snaps a picture of the moment . They boy and the mom say thank you and walk away but the boys hands are stinging with the vibration of the skins (his and the drums and the mans) and his heart was changed, just a bit, forever.
Suddenly, I am filled with longing and hot tears threaten to overflow my lids. I wish I was brave enough, or hopeful enough, to walk over and sit with the man myself.
A tiny girl walks by, probably a petite 2 ½ year old. She is VERY sure of her steps with her tart lemony pants and sweet strawberry sandals. When you were that little girl I cared for your every need. Now that you are gone I only feel the care I need.
An older woman wearing orthopedic black shoes, a white blazer and black polyester pants walks slowly through the park. She is tall, upright in her shuffle, pretty with silver hair coiffed into pincurls and lacquered, unmoving in the wind. She has been here before and will not cease to return, although today she wears too many synthetic layers for this heat.
Soon it’s my time for me to board the train that will bring me home. I tuck my notebook and my pen into the backpack, finish the water in my bottle and discard the remains of the trail mix that has melted in my pack. The sights and sounds of the park fade into the distance as I descend the stairs to the platform below.