NYC Observer 1: Washington Avenue in the Rain

NYC Observer 1: Washington Avenue in the Rain

Note on the series (well, intended series; this is the only one): Paul, a disembodied spirit with an OK memory that he’s not above flushing out with fictional details and insights, has contracted with Wandering Albatross Press to write up some of what he observes in New York City. Details here

“There’s not much for a disembodied spirit to do but float about, observing and by turns pitying and envying the embodied.”

It was a dark and rainy night, the last night of the fairly cold and dreary March 2017 that slightly annoyed so many of our fellow New Yorkers. Rain had fallen the entire day. Sometimes so light as to be really just a disappearing fog, but often falling heavy, approaching waterfalldom. A man with a beige umbrella, loosed in one place from its steel girders, which at that spoke peeked eerily out like a skeleton reaper channeling death with its pointer finger. A man walking in the rain beneath a beige umbrella and in a black felt coat and dark denim jeans designed to fit fairly tight but which he’d purchased a little oversized.

I’ve seen the stretch of Eastern Parkway from the Brooklyn Museum to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens to the Brooklyn Library Main Branch to the tete-a-tete of Prospect Park’s most triumphant entrance point and the Civil War Memorial in all kinds of weather. Delightful in summer: the front of the museum, with its wide white sidewalk filled with happy strollers in casual summer clothes (except of course the Orthodox men who still wear black slacks and white dress shirts, and the Orthodox women, who still wear long skirts and skimpless blouses); kids with eyes wide and lips narrow in delighted but somewhat fearful anticipation of the water jets’s next volley, young men and women in athletic summerwear and earbuds piston-sprinting up and down the stone steps that radiate off one side of the classic Roman-temple-with-wings building, and families and other social pacts sitting together in the sunlit rings of concrete benches and green grass (viewed from above, one sees that the architect drew a half-circle radiating off the building’s center structure–the Roman temple with giant round ribbed columns topped by a great gray [it’s all in gray] dome; one third are these steps that people only used for cardio since the main entrance is in the glassed lobby fronted by the other two thirds, where the ring pattern established by the steps is continued as five crisp concrete walls with grass between and graded to form a very low and grassy bleachers facing the museum; to make space for a walkway to the main glass doors in the glassed-in lobby, the bleachers break from about 30° to 60° from the building’s left-hand-side), or in the shade of the cherry trees (left hand side, in front of the “bleachers”). Walking past the Brooklyn Museum on a bright summer Saturday noontime one thinks, “Am I in a city or a theme park?” In March past 6PM, within a cold downpour beneath an enclouded sky turning night, one is certain that this is a city, and one begins to wonder, faintly, somewhere in the back, at the outer traces of one’s consciousness, how sacrilegious and wrong-headed it would be to move to, say, Tuscon.

Walking on the median sidewalk, with the museum across Eastern Parkway to your right and the botanical gardens behind you, you turn right onto Washington Avenue and quickly cross to the right side of the road, landing safely in Crown Heights (the left side is Prospect Heights, which is why everything is so much snobbier and more expensive on the left side of Washington Avenue than on the right side of Washington Avenue). A red-awninged Key Foods with posters bragging deals in the windows. Across the street a liquor store in tall glass windows (again full of bright boasts, but this time of ancient alcohol deals) beneath a brick second story, followed by a row of commercial spaces likewise nestled under a brick second story: laundromat, bar, Chinese restaurant, bar, pet supplies, daycare, realtor. And then two brick apartment buildings, the first six stories, the second four. Cross St Johns Place. A row of shops in one-store buildings: A “Gourmet Deli” that was clearly named while playing the opposite game, a Caribbean bakery, dvds & cds, a smoothie and healthfood shop, and a lounge. The next building is a three stories white stone (long rectangles of varying lengths and widths rough-hewn on their exterior sides) that houses a computer training store (“Children and Adult Programs”), a cleaners (first floor glass storefront beneath square white awning, second floor flat river stones set in cement and one window of the normal size for apartment buildings but set on its side to form a mouth, third floor yellowish brick with a row of three tall windows), a barber shop storefront on the ground floor of below two stories of orange brick, a dentist similarly situated but the bricks red not orange, Thriftcare Pharmacy (cheap, but not sloppy or indifferent) in gray steel and glass and with a red awning jutting out in front of the door all the way to the street where two gray metal poles support it (this building is about twice as wide as the others up to this point, and the second [and ultimate] floor has eight windows squished run right after the other, with just a bit of brick wall between them, that whole section inlaid within gray stonework; a sign above the windows reads: “Martial Arts-USA” [red letters on yellow wood framed in black steel”–the door to the martial arts section of the building, located right before that building flows into the next one, is covered by a yellow awning smaller and jutting much shorter than its red neighbor [its held in place by a guy-wire on either side]). After the Western medicine and Eastern discipline comes a longish one story yellow-brick building completely used up by its hardware store (“Mayday Hardware” in giant black letters on a yellow board five feet tall and running along the whole front of the window-rich storefront. Then an equally long brick building (yellowish) two stories, the bottom floor holding a church (the small black sermon bulletin board faces Washington) with a classy black metal fence creating a little private walkway around the few windows and couple garbage cans.

That’s the right side of the street.

On the left side, everything is opulence and grandeur. Whereas on the right, a few drenched souls rush, beaten and scared, through the rain, on the left the city’s installed a great rain-stopping device and dainty ladies in fancy evening gowns, each damsel floating on the arm of a broadfaced man in tux and tophat, laugh merrily with their little noses twittering in delight like a rabbit’s. Grand shopping palaces ten stories high in obsidian marble where tawny men wearing only lithe musculature and white cloths tied into skirts–reportedly time-imported from an ancient Egyptian building site–work around the clock, chiseling reliefs advertising, on a worldhistorical scale, exotic perfumes, clothes, and other luxury items. Movie stars arrive in stretch limos and walk red carpet, but not to sign autographs, rather to request the autographs of these fabulously wealthy and supremely interesting people–the movers and shakers of New York City, gathered here in glamorous Prospect Heights.

Ah well. Ours is not to reason why, but to do or die.

On the left hand side of Washington Avenue, on the corner of Washington and Sterling closest to Eastern Parkway sits the iconic Tom’s Diner, but more of that another day.

I could tell of a late-30s white American eating Thai food (flat noodles with broccoli in brown gravy, with squid chosen as the “meat”) with Sapporo and water in a narrow neon-walled restaurant playing pop hiphop and otherwise frequented that evening only by black Americans. I could lean over his shoulder as he reads from one of his notebooks and scribbles in another, and pokingly wonder when the earth-shattering philosophy that he’s been almost-describing for the last fifteen years will be ready for anything but madphilosopherinanindifferentrestaruantshowoffs, but I’ll forgo that dubious pleasure and focus instead on The Way Station.

Have you ever been there? More to the point: were you there last night at about 8PM? I was. I was even there a little before when those two young women with short haircuts and sturdy builds walked in. The one in a square-cut black denim jacket and the other wearing her gray sports cap backwards. I was present to hear them say that it was amazing that they had such cheap prices here, since it is like a destination, and that that’s cool. I was there to watch that and to feel the weight of the centuries, of the millennia, of the aeons. I was there to witness that youthful innocence, that hopeless naivite, that childlike trust in the present and the past it flows out of and the future it flows into. I was there to feel the weight–the terrible pressure–of the total collapse: a nuclear bomb right here in New York, or the annihilation of all present at the President’s joint congressional address, or of chaos manufactured simply by intellectual, moral, and spiritual incompetence of this nation of the fools by the fools and for the fools. I was there to feel the stab wound. To repent of the past, to wish for a different present, and implore the heavens for a kinder wiser wider gentler future. Yes, I too was there, but existing without physicality yet somehow miraculous still able to wander timespace, my heartwrench was different, my heartbreak other than the young man, enjoying a ridiculous beer and worrying–where do you think I got the idea?–about the very catastrophes I just enumerated. For his sorrow was a disappointed, frustrated, guilty, confused hope; and mine was that terrible goodbye to pleasures never tasted and handholds never possible, to a wonderful order never quite entered. And so we feared the boring, go-nowhere, frustrating chaos from our separate but mutually intelligible vantage points.

Something funny did happen that night. The man, the same one who ate the quick Thai food and was crushed by the cheerful sweet simplicity of young love in a giant, for-the-nonce rich and liberal city–that very same short, medium-build, glassed-in young man in Friday-jeans and a button-up plaid shirt, tilted his small head with the slowly-slipping hairline and said to the bartender (not tall; a little heavy, with the weight centering around her ample thighs in blue denim rather than her pale torso in black armless top; with dark-brown hair and coinable full face) and said, “You know what thought I just had?” “What?” “Can you make me a suicide–a little of each (pointing to the beer taps)?” (they were all $4 at the then-prevailing hour of happiness.) “OK, I mean–that’s what they call that: a suicide?” “Yeah, when you’re a kid and you put a little of each soda in.”

To best understand this reference, one must travel to a late-1980s Taco Bell in the middle of a shopping center parking lot in a small town outskirting a middle-sized middle-american rust-belt city and watch eager young faces beam with admiration while another thin soft face cavalierly, the dark hair swept back and the blue eyes fullmooning by the spigots fills a waxy paper cup with first a little Pepsi and then a little Mountain Dew, and on down the line, and back again to top it off.

The barmaid–the only one on duty at that time, while just a few people–all of whom she knew and many of whom seemed to work at the bar (not then, but sometimes; and one of them seemed a boss: 50ish man with a small round slightly-yoda-esque head covered by a ballcap [but not of a sports team] and framed by wide sideburns; a man with a button nose, and whose darktan, leathery skin, small eyes and rounded features might make one think “hispanic–I guess”: it was he to whom the calm- and upwardlilting-voiced barmaid addressed the question of whether or not she should turn the lights on while the first band organized themselves)–that barmaid, even as now more people streamed in and the place started to swell towards demi-capacity: she poured a little of each of the five tap beers into a pint glass, pausing to scrape off the foam after each new infusion. And while she thus obliged the customer’s whim–a man who anyone seeing the jocular way in which he push-pulling the countertop, maneuvered the barstool, tipping it first a bit forward and then a bit back, was overly indulgent of his own whims and therefore in no need of encouragement–she said, “If it tastes like crap, we can just throw it out and give you a new one.” All, it should be stressed, for $4 towards the common-cause and the assumption of a $1 tip. Is her behavior kind or undignified? I will not ajudge, merely report this somewhat-later eyelock: “The stout predominates.” “Really? I just put a little stout.” “It tastes like coffee.” Slight side-tilt with accompanying eye-wander (a type of nod recognized in many parts of the world): “It is a coffee stout!”

A little after 8PM, The Heartland Nomads started. They played an hour. At the end, they passed around a mailing list, which I would’ve signed, had I hands.

Three of late 20s musicians up on stage together. A bluesy outfit fronted by a tiny Asian girl, kind of square of build but still shapely, a face wide and flat, like a heartshaped face but particularly flattened and spread out. Tiny feet and hands. Short but feminine legs in tight blue jeans. Sings deep and full with her head thrown back and her hand waving at chest level or thumping her chest. On her right-hand side a rangy (to the thin side) caucasion man stomps his right boot in time with the music, his whole body up jolting up and down, his guitar–strummed vigorously–scrunching up and down with his shoulders. His dark brown hair cut long on front and so also flopping a little up and down with each whole-being bluejeaned stomp. His open-mouth long-toothed grimace and the structure of his face remind me of Jacques Brel. The front woman’s enthusiasm sometimes contorts her face almost into a sneer–but not a mean one, a sneer of passionate concentration sliding. The drummer’s thin. He warms up by holding the ends of both drumsticks in one hand so they form an extra long stick that he shakes from side to side like a propeller that can’t make up its mind which way to go. He has black hair parted and neat, tan skin and a smooth-tapering face and Asian eyes. I guess he’s Asian.

They met working together at a non-profit supporting fleeing North Koreans. The frontwoman had always dreamed of being a real musician and a few years back decided she was getting older and at some point you gotta go for your dreams. But she needed a band, so she enlisted her boyfriend (on the guitar)–of four years now! throwing her nonmic hand up in the air in triumph and celebration (claps, whistles, chuckles)–and their friend, a drummer. All this related in Californian, chocked full of “like” and with sentences that aren’t questions that nonetheless lilt up questioningly at the end. Also we learned that they moved from LA to Brooklyn–none of them are actually from the heartland, she felt obliged to admit, but they do play a folksy blues and feel pretty Americana–a year or two ago (I forget now). They were working crappy day jobs and then decided to take a leap of faith and see if they could cover rent. “And I want to say that we have made rent for [begin shout] six months [end shout] now! And we’re very grateful for that and for being where we’re at–where we feel like God wants us to be.” (slant quote; actual quote lost.) One song she wrote in response to the story of one of the North Korean refugees. One song came about because her boyfriend the guitarist told her she had to start writing songs because they couldn’t just be a cover-band, so she was in a coffee shop (I think) unable to think of anything to write and feeling more and more frustrated when she decided to write one about him. “Come hell or high water, we’ll be together!” is the refrain, which she sings with a lot of wide-open-handed chesting. It’s a song, she said, about opening up and letting someone in, trusting that you won’t get screwed over again. It’s the longest relationship she’s ever been in. She’d always had short ones before; she had trouble trusting. But this is four years now and she can’t believe it but it’s wonderful. The drummer friend and guitarist boyfriend wait affably through the bouncy testimony, and then they play.

There’s other details. One wishes them the best as they seem like decent sorts.

Another band followed, but by then I was tired, and though I cannot drink alcohol, the same miracle that allows my conscious mind to see without eyes allows me to smell without a nose and taste without a tongue, so I’d sampled all the flavors and even–for such things are also possible when one’s only soul–simulated the mental experience of a tipsy person, and so had really had enough and, while still wanting the best for all involved, I felt obligated to go home to the imagined mansion that WAP–in their infinite, though budgetless, thoughtfulness–dreamed up for me to call my own.

Author: Paul

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