Ten Walks/Two Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010) combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around New York City with a pair of roving dialogues—one of which takes place during a late-night ramble through Central Park. Here we present a walk and an excerpt from the second talk.
I spun out from Kristin’s at 8:14 against the enlivening gravelly air. Business people passed by harried and alone. Cement trucks corkscrewed past. Across Greenwich a woman exiting a cab clenched her butt. She was into herself and wore all white.
Around Harrison dusty workers smoked beneath a giant blue Putzmeister crane. Why do fenced-off construction sites make me feel small, lonely and connected to the world? Skyscrapers along the New Jersey coast all looked the same color as my personal checks. One storefront rivaled Milton’s description of Chaos. Placards put Jesus in blindfold next to a blind, grinning Mao. Only after a cart filled with recyclables had passed did I realize how oblivious I’d been of its presence. Pomeranians slowed to stare at poodles across the street.
Crowds converged on Citicorp’s building as if by gravitational pull. A boy squatting with a laptop smiled (which completely hid his lips). Crossing Canal, listening to a couple murmur inside one car, it felt like I was still sleeping. Ahead of me an architect explained that what people call her quirky designs are just attempts to avoid all this lifelessness. Somebody blind scanned the intersection with his cane. Fingers peeked from a homeless person’s quilt. Behind this someone else lay covered. The fresh morning smell had changed to damp boots.
I gazed into the dusty stillness of a sedan’s rear dashboard and then there was a bible there. I passed a UPS warehouse in which you could just make out the workers’ breaths. West African security guards joked with shippers, who stayed slightly more serious. Nothing rode on the conveyor belts. All of this repeated itself for blocks: 136 parking spaces. Afterwards Fed Ex began which somehow seemed less interesting.
From Perry a jogger passed in shorts and I remembered I’d soon see a lot of flesh in public. Kids grouped around a crossing guard might have all been models. Preoccupied women strode past in leather pants. Two bags of piss leaned against a tree. Two rotund men in shades wore their blue and white headdress like Yasser Arafat’s. Everybody else paused walking a dog. A basset pup wouldn’t sniff a magnolia, no matter how aggressive its owner’s commands.
Crossing Jane I looked just as a mother yawned; I felt a part of this. A dad and son drank blue Elixir concoctions through straws. Amid bobbing tulips I saw that Congress opened Alaska for 24 billion barrels of oil. At Taylor’s Bakery blonde women sipped chai as their daughters sampled rice-krispie squares.
Shimmering lawns surrounded St. Luke in the Fields, restored my faith in the variety of birds. I got lost remembering songs by The Smiths. A sophisticated southern woman held up a coffee-stand line asking why she’d only been charged a dollar fifty. A prep cook shielded his gold-toothed smile. Construction guys turned to watch a redhead pass. The shortest carried bags of gears on his shoulder. As I crossed he said Except she’d only be wearing ski boots.
In an alcove on Jay a cop and his daughter shared a chocolate doughnut with pink jimmies. A knife knocked chicken cubes along a deli counter. I stepped through scattered proof pages chopped in thirds. My biggest criticism of nurses, one read, is that they often treat the patient to fit the pattern. Your nurse thinks, “I’ve got four patients to bathe before coffee break.” The feeling she communicates is, “You’re going to brush your teeth whether you like it or not.” I flipped the scrap over. “After I returned home from the hospital that winter , I would crawl up stairs on my hands and knees; I was too unsteady to walk.”
Without conscious effort I turned west on Duane, avoided the TV mounted at Chambers. Brothers did push-ups along the pavement with someone about sixty smiling above them. An onion stood against a scooter wheel beside the entrance steps to Salaam Bombay. The garbage bins overflowed with nan.
An old man on a treadmill wore headphones, cotton slacks, wingtips. I wondered how it felt to wear one woman’s heels. Across from Baluchi’s somebody told her boyfriend All this shit happened before your ass. Everything reflected off nearby windows, where waiters dished out chutneys.
Union Square W.F. (a natural grocery store), 8:30 p.m.
J: …great returning to Union Square W.F.—the place where this whole project got conceived.
A: I especially like having a wall to our backs, a solid stomach filled by a well-balanced meal, and this rooibos tea. Thank you for it.
J: Do you like the rooibos?
A: I do; I associate its taste with color, a reddish color. Is the tea red…
A: somehow? Or does the “roi” just make me think so? I’ll sense a nice orangish, amberish, gleaming reddish hue on my tongue.
J: The tea’s delicious. I’m happy to give it to you.
A: So where were you so long? While I waited?
J: Oh a man stood changing in the bathroom stall. Sorry it took so long. He entered wearing a biker’s uniform and came out dressed for a waiter or host position.
A: Sure half my days I’ll bring a change for the bathroom.
J: And you’ll take your time changing as this man did? I imagine…
A: No, very rushed.
J: you’d rip through it.
A: I’ve once pulled muscles in my back getting a a foot stuck in pant-legs, thinking I’d taken them off when really I still sat entangled, yanking the waist and having my body follow.
J: Did you call in sick that day or or head to work?
A: I had just arrived. I packed the clothes and got down to…
J: Did you apply ice to your back?
A: No I didn’t.
A: I change clothes so much since I’ll…we’ve said because we’re Polish we sweat a tremendous amount. I’ll worry I’m catching a cold from drafts I only feel because I’ve been perspiring.
J: Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about heritage lately. The other night somebody asked my heritage—a girl. Often that amounts to a pick-up line right, getting people to…
A: The first thing she’d…
J: talk about themselves? Shortly after introducing ourselves she asked my heritage.
A: It might suggest “I am aware of you as a body.”
A: “I’m trying to assimilate these characteristics into an understanding of who you are deep down inside.”
J: And she seemed shocked by my answer: Part Polish, part Chinese and part Haitian.
J: A look of perplexity crossed her face, so I felt I should explain myself. I said I’d got some Polishness and some, some Polish and Germanic blood from my parents, but that from two influential roommates I’d gained Chinese and Haitian characteristics. For example, if I hang jogging clothes all over the apartment to dry I feel distinctly Haitian.
A: Could that could that…
J: This is something Mrs. Merlin would do.
A: She’d of course…
J: My eighty-year-old roommate on the Upper West Side.
A: she of course wasn’t jogging.
J: She wasn’t jogging, though she would not pay to have clothes dried, and would hang clothes on hangers throughout the apartment.
A: I think I recall a busy apartment—with Mrs. Merlin applying cream to her hip in what looked like a crib to me.
J: Oh that’s her brass day-bed. She did not sleep in a crib (yet she could appear as tiny as an infant). You saw the brass day-bed, which her nephew purchased at a store on 112th.
A: Or I remember several stews cooking simultaneously…
A: many afternoons.
J: Friends from the building used our kitchen. I’d assume they had their own fully operational kitchens, but inevitably they’d come cook enormous bowls, pots of stew.
A: Goat? Goat?
J: Goat meat factored into many recipes.
A: They did this to spend time with Mrs. M. do you think?
J: I think so.
A: I’ve pictured some apparatus in a shower stall, or just outside.
J: She kept a medical chair in the bathtub. Every morning, after waking and stretching… though I didn’t stretch first thing back then. Now I’d stretch first thing; back then I stretched mid-afternoon.
A: It makes no sense.
J: It makes no sense, and if I had thought about it the slightest bit, if I had questioned that practice, I would’ve recognized its foolishness and revised it immediately. Yet it had gone unquestioned so long. Still anyway I would wake up, and the first thing I’d do, the first thing I’d touch, would be this hospital chair. I’d remove it from the bathtub…
A: Was it pink? I I…
J: It was pink, yes, as were the shower curtain…
J: and floor-tiles, and the walls themselves stood painted pink.
A: I do remember…
J: Full pink bathroom.
A: a monochromatic sensation. Now I’ve…you couldn’t put towels in the bathroom?
J: I’d left mine there the first week or so, but it acquired an awful smell.
A: From the room itself?
J: Well it made contact with Mrs. Merlin’s towel, and ordinarily—I mean which shocked me, since she herself I thought smelled nice…
A: Oh see, I’d wanted to say, I also remember the smell of hip-cream permeating not just the living-room and kitchen areas, but your bedroom as well.
A: I’ll remember the smell of…
J: The smell of dead mice too, do you remember that smell?
A: Yeah I was going to say: I remember the smell of mice, stews, hip-cream, smoke (cigarette smoke) and altitude, tenth-floor altitude.
J: Tenth floor. Most afternoons I’d [Voices] sun set over New Jersey. I’d sit reading Montaigne at my desk, smoking half-cigarettes, as was my style back then, and look out two windows toward pink sky.
A: I seem to recollect square pillows? Almost couch pillows?
J: Mrs. Merlin, like most women I’ve met, had an excess of pillows. And the room came furnished with a half-dozen square pillows. Some nights you stayed until four-thirty before catching the first bus back to Astoria, where you lived then, and we would use these pillows. I’d spread some a across the bed and you’d sleep off bits of the hangover.
A: I would wake with with contacts stuck flat to my eyeballs, in a way they never get from a full night’s sleep, then exit with my organs shivering to catch an M-60 bus to Astoria. That fall I’d enter the bagel shop just as it opened—4:50 a.m.
J: Did the owners call you by name?
A: The man who opened this store didn’t own it. He came from Central America and couldn’t speak English, yet…
J: Were there any…
A: though still he recognized me.
J: So he showed signs of recognition?
A: Oh absolutely, and joy. He’d unlock both doors and face the consequence cranky customers followed me in, but I was like the sun to that place.
J: And you’d enter a shop filled with warm bakery smells?
A: Yeah I’d watch conveyor-belts of bagels (somehow in water). They seemed to float like inner tubes. I don’t know if you’ve seen a bagel operation like this.
J: I haven’t.