After 2 and a half years in Maryland, 4 months in Indonesia, and 5 weeks in Ontario, I am back in New York, sleeping in a Morningside Heights dining room on a pull out couch.
Most days I spend alone hunting for apartments, writing in cafes, gazing out the window to watch the people shuffle by. I try to see myself there in the crowd where I hurried along for 6 years, try to remember New York and the years I spent with it. I do not often find myself: It’s a strange, floating feeling, the New York summertime with no real routine. For these couple of weeks, the only unfailing ritual in my life is walking the dog, morning and evening, through Riverside Park.
New York parks in the summertime can be a little insufferable if you’re feeling lonely. Couples line the benches of Washington Square, college girls splay out in groups on Union Square’s grass. On the streets, people move quickly, eyes trained on their destination as the sweat drips in beads down their backs. The parks are the afterthought to that destination, a place where to and from and how much and how fast are finally punctuated with a sigh. This is where New Yorkers lay themselves out.
But Riverside Park is different. Riverside Park, I’ve come to find, is the park of the solitary, the lonely. It’s where the marginal and forgotten come to feel the sun on their shoulders: The old Jewish lady in horn-rimmed glasses, reading cheap paperbacks at the entrance on 111th street. The black nanny looking tired and a little lost as she rocks a blond-ringleted child in her lap. The man with skinny legs and Birkenstocks who comes to watch the sun set over the Hudson every night.
And there are of course certain types, a changing cast of characters who fit the bill: The pretty, single 30-something sitting on the grass with her dog. The hustler disguised as a business man, his suit jacket hanging from the corner of a bench. The girl in a summer dress standing against the cement barrior between herself and the river below, collecting the things in her purse, collecting herself.
And that’s the difference: New Yorkers don’t come here to splay out but to regroup. They come here to collect their worries and gather them up like stones before returning to the harried streets. This is where they piece together the parts of themselves that have been fragmented by the city’s crowds. And for those who never go down those streets anymore, whose routines are confined to a few blocks surrounding their pre-war, rent-stabilized apartments, this, too, I think, is a place where they come to put themselves back together, to give their lives a discernible shape.
I would be lying if I said I weren’t one of these people, at least for a little while. In the morning, I turn my bed back into a couch, pull on a pair of shorts too big for me, and walk into the day, sleepy-eyed and unshowered. My head is still fuzzy, but my dog and his leash keep me tethered to the ground. In the evenings, I return, the sky turning pink, the light slanting against the avenue’s buildings. In the quiet, my dogs’ nails hit the pavement as a mournful saxophone comes from somewhere on Broadway. I am alone with the rest of them, and for a moment, I am home again.