Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Timing the Night

I have no idea how many steps lead up to this place from Myrtle Avenue and that old Cathedral, but I've been told that the stone column that towers above me is one hundred and forty-eight feet high, the world's tallest Doric column for those into obscure records.
Circling around me, slightly filtered by the haze of July evening humidity, the skyline of New York rises as I struggle to regain my breath. Downtown to my left, accented by the lighted spans and cables of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. Midtown to my right, with the Williamsburgh Bridge in the foreground the odd lumpy shape of the 59th Street Bridge way out there. I am anchored here, after running these massive granite stairs a dozen times down and a dozen times up, at this odd spot where the river bends and New York lies directly north of Brooklyn across the East River.
I know my history. I come to this park to rehab the knee that I now feel swelling beneath the huge steel brace, but things that are gone fascinate me. I see dead people in my nightmares but even in the waking day I see long vanished buildings and places. And this park, well, long before it was a tomb for eleven thousand Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors killed in prisons by their British guards, it was a fort that Washington had tried to defend. And a hundred and fifty years before that losing battle I know that in the bay out there, in the bay beyond the fucking Farragut Houses, beyond the ancient brick Navy Yard wall, beyond all the old buildings and pierhouses and cranes where once a whole fleet of ships were launched to win the World War, beyond all that there were marshes thick with fish and oyster reefs and migrating ducks and pushing through a narrow channel a Dutch sailing ship arrived on a barely comprehended continent and dumped hired Flemish immigrants, Walloons they called them, to populate a new outpost in southern New Netherland.
If I work on it, especially in the settling dusk, I can see the woods and the deep green prairie that stretches to the tide line. And if I wait and let consciousness slip, sparks will start to fly from mud chimneys in the tiny cluster that will begin Breuckelen. Somehow, I know it is still out there.
I get up and begin to limp around, and though the Trade Center illuminates the night over there and the off-duty gun presses against my side under the big loose shirt and I am circling a Monument not built until 1908 in a park created in the 1860s I can find the seventeenth century. I watch those first Europeans pushing along the old Lenni Lenapi trade routes and creating tiny villages, Boswyk, Midwout, Nieuw Amersfort, Nieuw Utrecht, and Gravesend. Stumpy square-rigged ships drift through the harbor mixing with giant dugout canoes. The moon rises over an empire of trees.
A gunshot echoes from somewhere in the projects below, followed almost instantly by the wail of sirens, and the late twentieth century pours back. In a single breath settlements turn to villages, villages to towns, towns to America's largest cities, those cities meld into the capital of the world. Wars scorch the earth and demand industrial force. The trees lose their place in the skyline and the water runs gray. And then I am here, a knight of these streets, a victim of these streets, a child of these streets.
I turn and walk south along a winding path most white guys would think dangerous in this now dark place. But behind me eleven thousand martyrs of the Revolution guard my back, and as the sirens fade behind the receding hill, I can start to let myself float in time again, and my street becomes new in the moonlight. As I cross DeKalb Avenue and step onto the wide slate sidewalk I find 1845 and this new suburb up the long grade from Brooklyn. Just before I begin to limp up my stoop I'm sure I hear the rattle of the horse-drawn trolley coming from the ferry.
"Where've you been?" Katie asks, looking at me with the expected mix of concern and anger, "I've been worrying." "Sorry," I say, "I guess I got a little lost."

copyright 2005-2011 by Ira David Socol

Friday, February 11, 2011


For reasons not completely clear even all these years later I rush from somewhere in the far west via Greyhound Bus (yes, Greyhound Bus) toward Chicago where I will meet my father but seventy miles short of Omaha a blizzard begins and an hour later this bus is stuck in the snow on Interstate 80 next to a Coca-Cola truck whose driver offloads huge quantities of his product to us as gifts just before the bottles and even cans start to explode in the vacuum of Midwestern winter cold, we fall into darkness and maybe even sleep wrapped in white flakes rushing past the faint odor of diesel exhaust and the soft pops of thousands of carbonated beverage packagings failing. In the morning a National Guard tank pulls us to a cleared spot on the highway and we proceed in slow parade to the Omaha Bus Station the grimy art deco space we should all have expected which is filled with refugees from the precipitation which is at least four feet deep there is not much to do there but food seems plentiful and prices through midwestern politeness have remained in check and I have enough cigarettes and probably enough joints and meet a woman who claims to be from Walla-Walla though this may be a verbal disguise who criticizes my cigarette choices, suspects me of being a junkie, drinks some of the Coke I have stockpiled and has sex with me three times in a small office the door of which I "credit card" (actually my driver's license) before the road is declared open and I begin moving east again. In Chicago I am sure my dad has pneumonia and he is sure this is not true but I make him drink much cough syrup with decongestant as I drive his car straight through to New York in one shot so he will be home, arriving at the George Washington Bridge at sunrise on a forgotten morning when I was still a kid.

copyright 2004-2011 by Ira David Socol