Walking along Battery Park Esplanade in lower Manhattan on a recent Saturday night, I turn to head back to "civilization" of city streets and elusive (in these parts) subway stops. Perhaps that's why I am drawn to such places as the Hudson River. I feel a clean and safe vibe, which helps me open and experience space as incomprehensibly vast. The transition "back" fascinates me. Signs of urban planning elicit their share of criticism. What I experience as "safe and clean," others might call "exclusive" and "antiseptic." This tension of views encourages me to explore. I head east towards the West Side Highway, a stretch of road one crosses as if traversing a mighty river. I have learned to proceed with caution.
I approach the highway, following a flurry of headlights and tail-lights. With few people in sight and unsure of how to cross over, I see a tall figure approaching. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I ask, "Do you know where's the closest subway stop?" "Come with me," he replies in a confident tone as his tall frame resumes moving at lightning-fast pace. I match his stride, struggling to keep up with my much shorter legs, thankful to be wearing hiking boots. As light spills out briefly from a tower of apartments, I notice the red/blue striped shirt draped over his shoulders. Crisp, neat, and with an understated elegance; he glides along, his cropped brown hair bobbing just so below his ears.
He asks if I'm new to the area. I reply, "no, though I am new to this part of town." What I mean is that in one sense I am very familiar with the terrain AND there's always something new to discover. These subtleties are swept away as we move. I ask him, "Have you been here a while?" figuring the question is sufficiently open-ended. I hear an accent, European though not quite familiar. He says, "I'm from Bulgaria," and has been here less than a year. "I live down here and work down here. I like it."
As we get to the highway, the "Walk" light flashing red, he says with emphasis, "Let's make that, quickly." I feel comforted and keep stride, thinking here's someone who knows where he's going, or at least where he's heading. "Bowling Green," he interjects as we get to the other side. My mind scans for a reference. Context informs. This must be the name of the subway stop. His cell phone lights flash. In the swirl of night traffic, I don't hear the phone ring as we continue to move and he speaks, "yes, you're in the Honda. I'm 100 yards from you." He listens, then updates his report, "Yes, yes, now 80 yards." He hangs up and continues, "Bowling Green - it's where they tore down the statue of George III." He notes my quizzical look as I sift through memory banks for a clue.
He clarifies, "In Bulgaria, we learned American history. During the American Revolution, Bowling Green and the Boston Tea Party. . ." "Tea," I think to myself encouragingly, now you're speaking my language. My mind flashes to that harbor, imagining the rebellious taste of that bitter brew. His pace leaves little space for musings. "There used to be a wall." Again I'm confused. "Wall Street. It's named for that wall. They used it to keep the animals in, also for protection but they didn't really have to worry about that." Noting our location, blocks south of Ground Zero, I pause even as our pace quickens. "What animals?" I wonder, picturing something akin to Noah's ark arriving at these shores. Dutch accents. Two by two. How did they navigate the cobblestones? Or did that come later?
My newfound friend stops as we arrive at a street corner noticeably quieter and darker than where we've been. He points east, "There. Go straight 100 yards. Don't go left. Don't go right. Remember." I promise I will, nodding yes. "Bowling Green," he says one final time. "Thanks," I reply hurriedly. "OK," he says then turns and is gone as quickly as he arrived, leaving what feels like a wake moving through me. There, in a moment where wilderness and civilization meet and time resonates with itself as history, I stand still in awe. Then much slower now, I make my way to the station and get on a train heading north.
The next evening, I return to that river, following an instinctual impulse to catch the final rays of a spectacular sunset on the walkway slightly uptown of Battery Park. Soon after, I notice a man finishing up construction work and ask if he knows where's the closest subway stop. He points to a man standing beside the highway who's waiting for the light to change. "Go with him. He's going there." When I get to the light and share my request, this man smiles and introduces himself, "My name is Joseph," in an accent, which I place as West African.
He says he's from Ghana has been here nearly five years. When I respond, "that's a long time," he replies, "not so long" and remarks, "When I get here, I see on the train, everybody looks up. I look up too. Nothing there. In Ghana, people look at each other, look when they see something they like, what's beautiful. Here nobody looks." "People read, listen to music," I add, "or look down." Joseph affirms, "yes, or look down." He turns to face me as we walk at a brisk pace. I remark, "it's cold here," guessing this is a factor in his pace. "Yes," he responds, "it's the wind from the river." He asks if I'm a tourist. I tell him, "I'm a traveler." He laughs.
I ask, "How long does it take you to get home?" "An hour," he tells me, clarifying that he lives in the Bronx. He asks what country I'm from. when I tell him which states I've lived in the U.S., he says, "Oh, you're American." He asks me about Oregon, a state I lived in for seven years. "Is it mostly white people?" "Yes, it is," I admit. "And in Ghana?" Right on cue, he says, "It's mostly black." We smile again with wry recognition and fill in details. I ask him about the terrain and seasons. "It's tropical. We have Harmattan December, January, and a little of February." I comment, "not long like winter here." "No," he agrees. I feel his sigh.
When we get to the subway at Chambers Street, the train is right there. He flashes a smile once more and gets on the #3 train. I return that smile, "Goodbye, Joseph." "OK!" he exclaims as the doors close. I stand still. The train pulls away. Within minutes, the #1 train arrives. I get on. Riding home, a flurry of images and sensations tumble through one another. Somewhere in the midst of that collage, I feel myself settling into the rhythm. I wonder, "Whatever happened to that wall?"
A week later, I get on a train and head to the burbs for an outdoor "camping" birthday party. It's for an 8-year old friend. As evening comes and we light a campfire, a girl her age shows me some bugs she's collected in a small glass jar. There are holes in the screw-on top. She asks, "will they live in there overnight?" I hesitate, unsure.
Sitting by the fire as she shows me the creatures she's gathered, I think again of that wall. I smile and answer her as best I can, "I think so. I don't know for sure. What do you think?" I invite her to explore.
She sits beside me studying their movements and starts telling me what she sees. I realize she's seeing it from her side of the glass. I'm thinking about how it might be on the other side. I start playing with her, imagining what it's like for them. She laughs.
The next morning, I find the jar. It's empty.