Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 2 - Central Park: Time

This is part two of my seven-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo." The introduction and part one are here.

This walk isn't going to be a walk. Rain is forecast so I decide to go with Conrad to the Guggenheim. I do not know what exhibitions are on but think if we are going to be indoors, that is a fine place to be. We get the N train and I misremember that the museum is just a few blocks up from the Southern edge of the park. We disembark at the Fifth Avenue stop at the park’s South East corner, when I realize that it is much further up – at 89th Street, beyond the Met. There is still an hour until it opens, so clearly a walk up the park was meant to happen after all.

The rain threatens but does not fall as people in the park go about their early morning rituals. Among them are office workers talking into hands-free headphones. I recall hearing about the Summer evenings when my maternal grandfather decided to walk all the way home from work through London parks, a distance of about seven miles. He would set out from the engineering firm Binnie & Partners where he worked in Artillery House, on Artillery Row, and walk through

St. James’s Park

Green Park

Hyde Park

(then roads for a bit)

Regent’s Park

Primrose Hill

Parliament Fields

Hampstead Heath

and to his home in Highgate.

This being next to the Upper East Side, there are also well-groomed dogs out on walks with their owners, and white children with their dark skinned nannies. Soon before Conrad’s elder brother Jack was born, I had read the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s account of bringing up his children around here. It is called Through the Children’s Gate, after an entrance to the park at Fifth Avenue and 76th Street. “On most days you can’t even read its name,” Gopnik writes of the gate, “since a hot-dog-and-pretzel vendor parks his cart and his melancholy there twelve hours a day, right in front of where the stone is engraved.” The book captures some of the universality of childhood, along with a lot of a rarefied experience of child-rearing, one in which parents intellectualize the decisions involved – from coat purchase to school selection – deliberating over how those decisions will affect the child and how they will be perceived by others.

Splashes of bright yellow leaves are starting to appear on dark branches. The yellow echoes the taxis that are gliding along the roads and triggering a stream of memories of past Central Park walks. Here comes a walk up to the Jackie Kennedy Onassis reservoir one evening as dusk was falling, soon after I moved to the city. I felt like I was racing nightfall. There are my morning walks down the West side of the park, when I lived at 109th Street and sometimes went by foot to Columbus Circle where I got on the subway to work. Now I see the time that I was meeting a friend on the East side and wanted to cut through the park from the West. My mind wandered as well as my feet and I found myself an hour later back on the West side again. Here is the bright November day when Carlos proposed in a hut beside the lake.

In The Colossus of New York, Colson Whitehead describes how a different New York exists for each of its inhabitants. A travel agency will for someone else always be the pizza parlor that they knew it as, which for someone else will be the beauty parlor soon to open at the same site. “Thousands of people pass that storefront every day, each one haunting the streets of his or her own New York, not one of them seeing the same thing.” The city is a morass of memory. Carlos often says that, having been born and brought up here, wherever he walks there are memories to haunt him. Even for me many neighborhoods already jostle with them. The memories hanging about on the streets and hunched in entranceways can start to feel oppressive. But the city saves us from them too. There is always the next distraction that pulls our attention and keeps us afloat.

We pass the small lake called Conservatory Water, where I buy a bottle of water from a kiosk. A woman approaches with her son, carrying a remote controlled sail-boat. The son is about nine years old. “Do you know if it’s ok to sail anytime?” she asks the kiosk vendor.

“No,” comes the brief reply.

“Well we’re going to do it,” the woman announces. “They don’t have any signs.” She takes her little boy by the hand and off they go to the water’s edge.

We continue. The chance that at any moment it may rain or Conrad may wake up, or both at once, keeps me moving. My attention is absorbed by the present again. Here I am on a morning walk in Central Park, smelling the trees and with little Conrad asleep on my chest, and soon it too will be a memory. When I write the moment down it may be preserved but only to the extent that hieroglyphs capture anything of ancient Egyptians’ lives.

At 79th Street we exit the park onto Fifth Avenue. A row of construction workers sits on a ledge in front of the Met, which is about to open. They are art enough for me, I think. That said, I still carry on towards the Guggenheim.

Tourists mill outside then form an orderly line to filter in when the security guard announces that we can enter. “This his first museum visit?” a woman asks me of Conrad, who is now awake. I tell her he has been to the British Museum too. Once inside we learn that the main part of the museum, the galleries that spiral around the air in the center of the building, is closed to visitors while an exhibition on “Picasso Black and White” is hung. The side galleries are still open. From them we can see across to the spirals and get glimpses of Picasso faces looking back at us. There are also rows of flat crates marked FRAGILE and THIS WAY UP. People in jeans and t-shirts maneuver canvases on wheels.

Conrad is hungry. I nurse him in a small room of Kandinsky paintings. One is called “Simple Pleasures”.

On to photographs by Rineke Dijkstra. Some of her photo series freeze moments to convey passing time: a woman is photographed at intervals from childhood to motherhood, a French soldier periodically throughout his career. Other series show different people in a similar setting. There is one of adolescents on the beach at resort towns:

Brighton, England

Coney Island, USA

Kolobrzeg, Poland

Odessa, Ukraine


And a series of naked mothers just after they have given birth, holding their newborns.

Part 3: Roosevelt Island: Perspective

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo - part 1 - Flushing: Surprise

This is the introduction and part 1 of my 7-part essay "Thank You Conrad Manuel Hiraldo."

During the last month of my maternity leave with Conrad, we went on walks in the city. The rhythm of the walks was more or less up to me. I was free to choose where they started and which turns to take, what to stop to explore and what to let pass by. Conrad’s needs played a role too though. His feeds enforced pauses, and meant that I targeted parks and quiet benches more than I would otherwise.

These are accounts of the seven walks. Many of the words came to me as I walked. Footsteps became words, paths sentences. I jotted some of them down in a blue notepad. If I was walking at the same time as writing to keep Conrad asleep in his papoose or stroller, the writing would be a jolty scrawl across the page.

1. Flushing: Surprise

Our first walk is in Flushing, Queens. We get out of the 7 train at the 111th Street stop in Corona and walk a few blocks South to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. The park is on the site that F. Scott FitzGerald called the “Valley of Ashes” in The Great Gatsby. Once a salt marsh, riddled with rivers and periodically drenched by the tide, in the early 1900s it was a dumping ground for industrial waste, including mountains of ash from coal furnaces. In 1930, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had the area cleaned up. He chose it as the location for the World’s Fairs in 1939/40 and in 1964/65.

Public buildings constructed for the second World’s Fair still dot the park today, among them Queens Zoo, Queens Theatre, and the New York Hall of Science. Despite efforts to civilize it though the park has not shaken off a monochrome undertone of windswept wilderness, both natural and manmade. Much of it is covered in patchy thin grass, over which Canada geese roam as low flying planes on their way to or from nearby La Guardia airport skim overhead. We skirt around the edge of the Hall of Science and the zoo’s birdhouse. Through black railings and dense foliage I glimpse a scarlet macaw preening.

Near Queens Museum of Art, I talk briefly with a group of young people gardening in a rectangular rose bed. It turns out that they do community service in the park every Wednesday. One asks where my accent is from. London, UK I tell him. He replies with “that’s awesome,” then “I have a friend from Birmingham.” It is not always Birmingham, but invariably people have a friend from the UK who they refer to. I have lived in New York for five years, so it takes me aback when people ask where my accent is from. There are plenty of New Yorkers who do not have a New York accent. Often I tag “but I live here now” onto my answer.

In front of us is the Unisphere. It is a 12 story-high steel globe that US Steel donated to the 1964/65 World’s Fair. It has come to be a symbol of Queens, appearing on maps of the borough and in the opening credits to coverage of the US Open tennis, which happens to be underway at the stadiums right next to the park. This is the first time I see it with its fountains working. Tall vertical jets of water form a circle around it. They shoot high, then low, then high again. Just in front of the Unisphere a woman in a red jacket is practicing tai-chi. She seems to be conducting the fountains; as she raises her arms they rise.

With a swoosh the fountains stop. Their roar, which I had not really noticed before as I was so struck by seeing them, falls silent. I listen to the sounds that emerge in their space. There are cicadas. Birds calling, one (perched on a dormant floodlight) with a shrill single cry. People talking on their cell phones. A lawn mower at work. The rumble of cars on the close but unseen Grand Central Parkway, which we had crossed on a narrow footbridge to enter the park, its traffic streaming oblivious beneath us. Robert Moses liked parks but he liked big roads better. A light crunch of passing bicycle wheels. Footsteps. A cough. Then cranking, as two men get to work fixing something on the fountains, which presumably is why they have been turned off.

I started the walk planning to see an exhibition on Caribbean art at Queens Museum. It turns out that the museum does not open until midday on Wednesdays, and it is only 10 o’clock. So instead, after a pause to feed Conrad on a bench, during which the flow of people headed towards the tennis tournament thickens, we cross through the park towards Flushing.

We emerge on College Point Boulevard a few blocks East of Flushing center. I need to pee. “Kane’s Diner” beckons from the other side of the road. I enter, intending just to use the bathroom, but when one of the waiters greets us with a smile and a “sit anywhere you like” I decide to stay for a late breakfast/early lunch. Despite his welcoming words there is just one booth free, which I take. Conrad lies on the pleather-cushioned bench beside me, studying for much of the time the bottles of sauces gathered at the end of our table. The plastic-backed menu is an overwhelmingly dense collage of photographs of the food, with pictures of prominent republican types who have dined there popping up in places between the eggs and pancakes (Trump and Giuliani among them).

What works about diner food is not its individual ingredients but the combination of them. It is the fact you do not just get an omelet, but an omelet with lots of stuff stuffed into it and potatoes and brown toast on the side and ketchup or brown sauce or both to go on top. And coffee refills, and the familiar diner decor and atmosphere that is echoed from diner to diner while each retains a stamp of uniqueness too.

Post mushroom-omelet we set off again along College Point Boulevard. Chinese and English-language signs jostle for attention. The street is dominated by tile, bath and kitchen cabinet shops with the occasional anomaly like “Hisun LED,” which has dense lines of colored LED lights flowing around its walls. We hit Flushing town center by “Bland Houses” housing project. I am thinking what an unfortunate name that is when we pass a small, bright plot of flowers by one of the entrances with a hand-painted sign stuck in the ground:

“The garden of life after death.”

We wander up Roosevelt Avenue to Main Street, Conrad asleep by this time. I slip through tempting entrances along the way: into Iris Tea and Bakery with its fruit panacottas; a boutiquey-shopping center connected to Flushing’s Sheraton hotel where the d├ęcor is dark and lulled by falling water features; St. George’s Episcopal church, where a helium balloon trapped around a helicopter-fan up near the roof spins on its blade. Then a Chinese food market on the corner of 41st Avenue and Main where the seething fish counter features a tank of fat Baramudi crammed so tight they hardly have room to move.

It is time for a rest and more milk for Conrad at Flushing library, before we get on the subway home. Queens Library has just been saved from its annually threatened city budget cut, following a passionate campaign to prevent it. Sunlight slants through tall windows onto people accessing books, computers (more than a quarter of Americans now use a library for internet access) and advice from each other. In the children’s library I hear a girl telling a woman, her mentor of sorts it seems, about how she feels younger than her friends. She likes books for small children. She is afraid of things that her classmates find fun, like rollercoasters.

Part two: "Central Park: Time"

Note: the minimal maps that accompany this essay follow the paths we took