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

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