“He has so much of you in his face,” says the elderly woman opposite us in the Q train carriage. “And he seems very calm.” Conrad is perched on my knee observing the occupants of the train. The lady has been looking at us. I appreciate her two comments. Jack’s facial expressions are so much Carlos’s that now I am beginning to know how he feels, seeing his traits echoed in his child.
Family resemblances fade in and out over generations. When I was about ten I went to a birthday party dressed as Dame Edna Everage. God knows why I decided to be her. Looking at a photograph of me in that costume, feather bower, long gloves and all, my parents immediately said, “there’s your great aunt Eileen.” She was one of my paternal grandmother’s five sisters, many of whose stories have disappeared with their passing. (When the sixth was about to be born, their father apparently said that if the baby was another girl he would leave the family. He did).
I appreciate the comment that Conrad is calm too. The lady is right. From day one he has had a peaceful way of watching the world.
We get out of the train at Canal Street and go straight to Columbus Park. The park flickers with morning rituals. Chinese men sit on benches reading newspapers or at tables playing mah-jongg. The chips clink beneath the trees which are not yet turning autumnal but soon will be. Women and men do their exercises (separately – the genders don’t mix here), gentle thai-chi on an asphalted surface, or slow pull-ups using the park fences and playground equipment.
That asphalted surface has been a space of contention. In 2003, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city would use a large chunk of a bequest by Polish immigrant Joe Temeczko to resurface the sports field in Columbus Park with artificial grass. The mayor had made a campaign promise to replace asphalt play areas throughout the city with artificial turf, on the basis it was safer and easier to maintain. But a group of park users campaigned against the change. They were worried the new surface might be unstable for elderly exercisers, and would not last a long time. In the end the area was split in two. Half turf, half asphalt.
The park is next to the site of the former slums “Five Points” and “The Bend,” where newly-arrived immigrants made their lives in over-crowded tenements. Dickens described the area as “reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” while Walt Whitman pointed out that the inhabitants were “not paupers and criminals, but the Republic's most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work."
We sit on a bench in front of some bamboo that keeps Conrad entertained as he waits to poop (it can be a long process). When the park was re-developed, botanists advised on plants that are common in East Asian parks. They got it mostly right, except for planting a few bushes with white flowers. Some Chinese believe that white symbolizes death.
As it happens, Mulberry Street, which runs down the East flank of the park, is lined with funeral homes. A funeral procession is gathering outside one of them while we are there. A band wearing olive green uniforms plays on pipes, accordions and cymbals as the mourners and limousines gather. One of the cars has a photograph of the deceased on its roof, with his name: Yi Xing Chen. Relatives huddle as his coffin is slid into the car, some of them circulating with video cameras.
A man wearing a bright yellow t-shirt comes to sit on the bench adjacent to ours. “75 Years – Goya” it says on the front. On the back: “If it’s Goya it has to be good.” I am tempted to tell him that I agree. Carlos uses a lot of Goya products in his Dominican cooking, like their black bean soup (which we have with rice and pork chops), small red beans (in salads), and adobo spice-mix (on pretty much everything).
Conrad and I get on our way, working East. Opposite the Transfiguration Church on Mott Street we find ourselves passing through the funeral cars as they drive around the block from the park. Their tinted windows have labels in English and Chinese according to who is inside: “friend,” “relative,” “daughter.” The street is lined with shops whose owners are setting produce out on the sidewalk for the day. Among them are pharmacies – in one a pair of businessmen skims the shark cartilage shelf. I take a photograph of the two street signs at the intersection of Henry and Catherine Streets. I will send it to my friends Henry and Katharine. The three of us lived for a few years in a house in Camberwell, London soon after we had left college, and despite the different spelling of her name the signs prompt me to get in touch with them.
At a point between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, with the FDR Expressway roaring above our heads we reach the river. I do not intend for most of these walks to feature the East River but they do, as if it has me on an extendable leash. This river and its sister the Hudson on the West side of Manhattan are the margins down the side of the city’s page. They are taken for granted but without them the city would make no sense. They are a continuum as the city and people between them change. As we stand there an occasional solitary person stops to admire the view of glinting water beneath the bridges, or jogger pounds the sidewalk. I close my eyes and imagine the crowd that used to fill this place, when it was a tangle of docks and markets and counting houses.
Our next stop is back inland. We rest by Little Flower Playground. The playground is perched on the edge of the LaGuardia Houses project, built in the 1950s – “Little Flower” was mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s nickname. Alongside it is a concrete space with picnic tables and we sit at one of them. This park does not have the varied botany of Columbus Park, just some dusty plane trees. But it too has its rhythm and clearly is an important fixture in the neighborhood. Doctors and nurses from the adjacent hospital come here to grab their lunch, let off steam or to give elderly patients a walk.
I read as Conrad nurses. I am reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Its narrator, a Nigerian psychiatrist called Julius, goes on walks in New York City that become a prominent part of the book. I read a section in which he is headed for a party on the posh Western edge of Washington Heights. He is a bit early so walks up there from his apartment near Columbia University. I can trace the path he takes in my mind and have flashes of recognition with the landmarks: I explored Washington Heights a couple of times when I first arrived in New York, then it became more familiar after meeting Carlos who was brought up there. Julius mentions El Mundo Department Store, the perennially busy restaurant El Malecón, the United Palace Theatre, and the narrow steps reminiscent of a funicular railway (that is how they look, I think as I write this later, then realize that is the word Cole used as well), with their steep slope and railings that connect 181st Street with the sedate environment of Pinehurst Avenue. Here I am in that comforting world where writer, reader and place meet.
From Little Flower Playground we walk up Clinton Street into the Lower East Side. Gentrification has been sliding Southwards, with realtors dressing sub-neighborhoods up in new acronyms like BELDEL for “Below Delancey.” Evidence of the creep is in two establishments tucked at the corner of Clinton Street and East Broadway, a craft beer and cheese place called “Malt and Mould,” and Pushcart Coffee with its little benches outside for people to sip their lattes, and t-shirts on sale saying “Pushcart Coffee – est. 2011.” As we walk North those kinds of places are everywhere of course. The streets are filled with memories of my first two years in New York, so nocturnal compared with the predominantly diurnal habits of my life now with children, a procession of nights of music and dancing in places like Nublu, Drom, Nuyorican Poets Café, National Underground, 555 and Macondo, where Carlos and I first met. These are interspersed with memories of coffee and laughter with a girlfriend, Mia, before she died of ocular melanoma at the age of 33. She loved this part of the city.
We pass Cooper Union. It is the site of many moments of social change, including a speech by Abraham Lincoln soon before he stood for the presidency. In it he unraveled a statement by Senator Douglas, which suggested the founding fathers would have considered the federal government forbidden from controlling the use of slavery in the federal territories. He meticulously built his evidence to show the opposite. He focused on setting out facts but pulled back a little at times to make points that seem equally relevant today. If any man sincerely shared Douglas’ belief, Lincoln said, “he is right to say so, and to enforce his position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can. But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that ‘our fathers who framed the Government under which we live’ were of the same opinion – thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.”
Just above Cooper Union we reach Astor Place. Huge billboards wrap around a building site and announce the pending arrival of “51 Astor Place,” a thrusting glass office development. Commercial Observer, a real estate magazine, celebrates its arrival on the scene with the declaration that “Noho is finally turning into a swan.” It quotes a leasing agent for the building: “Whatever tenant moves into this building can brand the Astor Place area, like Google branded its neighborhood and AOL branded Columbus Circle. It goes way beyond just having a name on a building.”
Part 7: "DUMBO to Red Hook: Destination"