I was walking down the sidewalk on 23rd Street just before eleven o’clock last Sunday. The weather had turned a few weeks earlier; there was a cold thread in the air like a bass note dropped in underneath everything else. The sidewalk was bright with streetlights and lit storefronts but hardly anyone was around.
A kid in a hoodie was leaning against the wall of a building and he walked up to me and asked me if I had a minute. I don’t think I’ve ever had a minute to talk to anyone on a sidewalk in New York. Even walking to the grocery store in this city has a sense of competitive urgency.
It’s absurd and anti-social, but I can feel the second hand moving around the clock when the nice woman with a clipboard on the street asks me if I want to sign a petition for Planned Parenthood. I would, but then I might risk not getting one of the big handcarts at the grocery store, they go so fast.
The kid asked me if I wanted to buy a knife. He said he needed some money and he didn’t have anything to sell except for this really nice, big knife that was supposed to be worth quite a lot. I kept walking, and he kept pace next to me for a few seconds. I was trying to analyze what was happening without letting on that I was now imagining the possibility of being stabbed.
Was this some kind of code that I hadn’t been aware of before? When someone tells you they want to “sell” you a weapon is it sort of like going into a bank and giving the teller a note that asks her to give you all the money?
“I’m okay,” I told him. “I don’t need a knife.” He nodded but didn’t say anything, and then his walk slowed and I pulled ahead of him. I kept listening for footsteps behind me. I half-expected to have triggered a mugging or some kind of random assault. I heard him complain to his friend who must have been waiting on the same wall with him. “Damn, nobody wants to buy this knife.”
I walked to 3rd Avenue and then started heading down to the East Village. After a few blocks I came to a red light and notices an old man with a long white cane holding his arms out as his side, flapping like helpless bird. “Can anybody help me? Can someone help me?” he called out.
I thought he was blind at first. His stick was the kind a blind person would carry and his face was aimed straight ahead not focusing on anything. There wasn’t anyone else at the intersection.
“Are you alright?” I asked him.
“Can you help me cross the street? I need to get across the street,” he told me, his head still aiming off into the air in front of him.
I held my elbow out and he slid his hand through the crook, his flingers clasping a handful of my sweater. His name was Pat. He looked like he was in his sixties, and there were little tremors inside his hands. They calmed as we walked together. He asked me to read the names of the restaurants on the other side of the street.
There was a sushi restaurant, a dry cleaner, a bodega, a coffee shop. “Do you think any of them have sandwiches,” he asked me, his New York accent made this idea sound childish and naïve.
“I don’t think so,” I told him. “It looks like everything is closing up.”
He had lived in the neighborhood, a nowhereland between Grammercy, Flatiron, and the East Village, for five years. He didn’t like it. He wouldn’t say where he had been before. I assumed he lived in a home of some kind.
I walked him to the corner where he had wanted to be taken, 3rd Avenue and 16th Street. He seemed to sense it before I told him. Maybe there was a special smell to it, or the sidewalk felt just so at this corner. I didn’t see any homes or open doors. I told him I could walk him all the way to his front door but he shook me off.
“No, no. Thank you, mister,” he said and he started another careful walk up 16th Street. He looked like tightrope walker with arms keeping wobbly balance.
I kept walking to the East Village. I was supposed to see a show, my friend’s sister plays folk music and I promised to go see her play while she was here. The bar was almost empty when I walked in. The bartender had curly blonde hair and thick Coke bottle glasses in black plastic frames.
The backroom was dark, lit only by candles. There was a group of four people at a table in the corner and another woman sitting up front next to the stage. I sat down by myself. A woman I had gone out with last week was supposed to meet me here. We had spent our last night together kissing in a bar. She had emailed me a few hours before the show and told me she wasn’t “feeling it” and didn’t want to waste my time.
Utah Green marched in place as she sang, her fingers picking at the metal strings of her guitar. She sang about waking in the middle of the night, the trees turning into hands, someone’s voice coming to her in the air, and a road spread out with diamonds on it. She said curiosity helped her to stand. In between songs she would use her fingers to talk, fluttering in the air trying to cull out some shape that wasn’t clear. Just like her sister.
I thought about my ex-girlfriend. I once called her my phantom limb, my sail, and my friend. She was gone too.
After the show, they passed around a broken mandolin asking for tip money for the band.
This was Sunday night, October the 4th, 2009. I’ll say goodbye, never having quite understood what happened.