“I got an idea the other day when I had to go downstairs to tell the restaurant to turn down the music,” I said to Barry. He was sprawled on my torn couch (newly torn by his calico kitten, Tammy), eating a watermelon wedge, dribbling pink juice onto the slashed couch and letting the seeds he spit into his hand slide through his fingers onto the floor.
“Idea for what?” he mumbled, his mouth still full.
“About an online directory about how to avoid interactions with people you’re obligated to interact with, but who you don’t like,” I said.
Barry, his matted graying dark hair in a loose ponytail, and his shirttails out, and his jeans cuffed unevenly so that the two legs were mismatched, had no idea what it meant to calculate to do anything—including practicing avoidance.
“The thing is,” I said, “there are a lot of restaurants in New York that are so loud you could meet people you don’t like there, and then go through the whole meal just smiling and nodding at each other because the music is so loud. Or, if you’re expecting a phone call from the person you’re trying to avoid, you could arrange to be at the restaurant when the call is comes in, and then pretend like you’re disappointed you can’t talk because of all the noise.” I started laughing with my eyes cast down, much like the inventor of an ingenious or revolutionary device would laugh, feigning humility. I found myself brilliant. I was brilliant at the art of avoidance.
“Or you could just tell them you’re busy,” Barry said. He had finally finished the watermelon, and now put his feet in white sports socks, with dirty under-sides, up on the couch Tammy had punctured. He was pushing the clutter he brought with him (harness for Tammy, multiple notebooks, an old fashioned tape recorder, dice, an eyeglasses toolkit and a kit with colored drawing pencils) around looking for the television’s remote control.
“You’ll find in life sometimes that there are people you don’t feel good about brushing off, and who, even if you tried, wouldn’t go away,” I said. “Remember, it’s always the ones you don’t like that stick around.”
With that, Barry belched and kept his eyes, which he rubbed constantly for some reason, fixed to the TV screen, which he had turned to a dumb romantic comedy. The heroine of the movie was experiencing a mishap with her blender, and the hero got covered in whatever she was mixing up after the top of the blender blew off. It was idiotic. Tammy was now sprawled on my windowsill, cleaning her beautiful orange and black mottled calico paws, a dainty counterpoint to her master. “You should be more like Tammy,” I said. Barry grunted, and refocused on the movie.
“Well, you’re probably already on your way to becoming like her on one score,” I said. “I bet you’ll ruin my couch, too, sooner or later.”
Barry and Tammy were staying with me for a week, while his apartment got de-bed-bugged. You could say it’s not smart to invite a bed-bug infested person and his cat to stay with you, but, for one thing, I didn’t invite him, and for another, I made him take all his clothes, and anything that wouldn’t catch fire, and put it in a dryer on high heat at the laundromat down the street. We couldn’t de-bed-bug Tammy, but we called Barry’s vet, and he said the cat probably wasn’t carrying any on her fur. Tammy was the charm, and Barry was the company who tagged along with her—a necessary part of the package, but it was Tammy I mostly enjoyed spending time with, even if she did tear my couch. It’s just that in life sometimes you have to accept the human companions who come with cats.
I figured the week with Barry would go by faster if we could work on my human-avoidance directory together. “Do you think we could charge money for people to use it?” I asked him.
Barry the next day had gotten through the three watermelons he had brought with him to my apartment, and rolled under the bed to keep cool, and was now on to a bucket of apples he had picked several days ago at a Hudson River Valley orchard. The beauty of being unemployed is you can spend a Tuesday afternoon with an entire orchard practically to yourself, picking off the best of the fruit, while your sad fellow humans reach beneath their cubicle desks to recharge their phones, or pick up the stray potato chips that missed the crevices of their computer keyboards. “Naw, I don’t think so—at least not at first,” he said. “I think the way to do it is offer it for free first, and then if people like it, and it catches on, what you do is come up with a more in-depth, a better, version of it, like an app people pay for.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. “What do you think of calling it ‘Avoidance New York’?”
Barry started laughing and shaking his head. “Too honest,” he said. “People like to practice avoidance, but they don’t like to acknowledge to themselves—or anyone else—that that’s what they’re doing. It needs a name that would sound like something an evolved person would do.”
“How about ‘Meditative Moments New York,’ or ‘New York City: Space for Growth?’ That sounds like something the evolved people would like,” I said.
Barry nodded his approval and tipped an invisible hat at me. “The whole thing is giving people a way to feel like they’re better than they really are—all the while enabling them to do whatever they wanted to do anyway,” he said.
“Well, for instance, if you walk all the way up the subway platform, so you can get in at the head of the train, you can have a ‘meditative moment,’” I said.
We both were bent over laughing at that one. You avoided unnecessary human contact by arranging to sit in the least populated train car, but who would ever call 10 minutes—anywhere—on a New York subway a meditative moment? Or how about deliberately waiting until a pouring-down-rain day to run all your errands, thinking it’s better to have the rain on your tail than a person itching at your heels, or right in front of you, blowing second-hand smoke in your face?
The question was whether space from other people could be considered an ASAP service—as in, “If I don’t get away from these people immediately, I’m going to have an emergency.” From that perspective, I thought an app for phones might be a good idea. No matter where you were in the city, you could just turn on the app, and it would give you a tip about distancing yourself from your fellow human, or would direct you to the nearest least populated spot.
“I think an app for emergency alone-time would be a great thing,” I said. “Do you want to help?”
Barry, who had begun picking off loose strands of white rubber from his high-top sneakers took a deep breath. “How much work would it involve?”
It was like living with a person who was a hoarder because he was too lazy to walk to the garbage, and then also too lazy to then take the trash outside to the dumpster. The Saturday morning (not that early; 11 am) when the search for solitude was set to begin, I found Barry nearly using an empty pizza box as his pillow. I had gotten home late the night before, and not wanting to disturb him, hadn’t turned the light on near the alcove where the couch was that he slept on. When I woke up, I noticed the tangy smell of pepperoni, onions and garlic. Then I saw him lying half on and half off the couch, the paper box practically under his head. He talked jibberish when I tapped him on the shoulder, opening his eyes and blinking a few times like a newborn calf. “Well, well, yeah, OK, maybe later,” he mumbled. I just rolled my eyes and turned on my heel. I was off on my own to find places in New York City less human-ful.
A big part of being alone is finding the off-hours and off-weather. If you can live in off-time, you’re lucky. But in the quest for least-populated places in the city, that’s cheating. Plus, I usually worked during the times when everyone else worked, so that wouldn’t help me. One way of being alone during on-hours is to find places to roam that are close enough to others to be safe, but in places other people don’t want to walk to, or sit near. Then, the question becomes: are there certain people who don’t count as enough of a presence to ruin alone time?
A man in a multi-colored turban and mirror eyes, a t-shirt with holes and stains and rolled-up jeans was at the edge of a bench in Madison Square Park. He had a cigar in his mouth, which he didn’t light, but kept chewing on the end of. He didn’t seem to see me, so did I see him, or count him as a presence? As long as he didn’t try to talk to me, didn’t seem to see me, didn’t light his cigar, didn’t whistle, didn’t hum, didn’t make popping, sucking, or any other strange noises with his mouth, didn’t smell, didn’t make any distracting movements, didn’t twitch involuntarily, didn’t lean forward (and yet not too far back) and didn’t extend his legs. If he just didn’t, could he then be disregarded, and my time on the bench be considered “alone?”
I waved my arm up in the air and twirled around my fingers, seeing if his eyes turned my way, or if he even grumbled, but nothing. “Gee, my oh my, it sure does feel like good sun today,” I said, as if talking to myself. He still didn’t turn his head or make any noise. I was tempted to put my feet up in his lap to see if he finally turned my way, but decided against it. Basically, it was like sitting next to a humanoid statue, so I thought I could disregard his presence and consider myself alone.
The yelps of a child about three years old chasing an inflatable blue ball, and tapping the head of her companion Westie dog, turned me away finally from the humanoid statue and toward the edge of the grass. The kid was there with what looked like her nanny—a hefty brown-skinned woman with a fat mole above her lips wearing one of those medical tech-looking smocks. She had jeans on the bottom half, and the medical personnel smock on for a top. It was meant to look cheery with hearts and stars alternating in its pattern. “Get up, Ava, get up,” she said to the toddler, who was in what looked like the tiniest designer jeans I had ever seen and a short-sleeved leopard-print shirt. “I don’t want you sitting in the mud,” the woman said, finally, walking over and pulling the whimpering little girl to her feet.
The two of them walked toward me then, the woman with her arm stretched down toward the child, ready to pick her up if she decided to drop into the dirt again, and the child bouncing on the balls of her purple-sneakered feet. I moved over on the bench to make room for them, but the funny thing is they didn’t seem to see me. It felt like if I hadn’t moved, they would have just sat down on top of me, or carelessly pushed me aside like a pile of toys. I looked at them, nodded and smiled. I wasn’t a greater lover of children than of cats or hamsters, but thought I should at least acknowledge that the child was pretty cute. The woman flitted her head toward me fast, like she just saw an insect passing by in her peripheral vision, but then straightened her head forward and began talking to the child again.
I smiled in their direction again. “What a cute leopard top,” I said to them both. The woman’s head briefly turned in my direction again, but just as swiftly turned away. She had no expression on her face when she turned toward me. It was the same head movement and expression she might have had if she had turned her head at an unexpected sound that she quickly realized was nothing worth paying attention to.
So be it, I figured. They can’t see me; I can’t see them. It was mutual un-seeing, and I could take it.
When I got back to the apartment, Barry and Tammy were napping, with Tammy curled up in the crook of Barry’s arm. She was shedding all over him, and you could tell he never bothered to pick any cat hair off of himself. I always seemed to be on the verge of waking him up, and yet, even when he was awake, I wondered if Tammy and I were the only ones present. Tammy’s big green eyes opened, and after looking at me briefly, she began staring with wide eyes at something beyond me I couldn’t see. “Tammy, pretty girl, what are you looking at?” I cooed. I petted her gently between her eyes with two fingers, but she was distracted, and kept her eyes fixed to the other end of the apartment. Barry was still in a deep sleep, with a whistle sounding through his nose whenever he inhaled.
“Lazy man lying on my couch,” I snapped, hitting his forever-dirty-bottomed feet with my hand. “Time to get up—it’s 2 in the afternoon. What have you been doing all day?”
Barry grunted and smacked his lips up and down slowly like he was chewing on something. “Well,” he said sleepily. “I did get up at 9 to feed Tammy.”
I had to laugh at that—that was his day’s work. He was lucky he didn’t have to pay the exterminator in his building, I thought to myself.
“The thing is,” I said, sitting on the edge of the sofa, which he didn’t bother to free up any space for me on, “you’re here for a week for the de-bed-bugging of your apartment, and I’m letting you stay here for free, which saves you from having to get a hotel room, which you couldn’t afford anyway. So, I think you should accompany me on my search for Avoidance New York.”
Barry was now propped up on the couch, having moved my lobster pillow behind him. He was also reaching for and figuring out how to position the octopus pillow behind him. “OK, if you want. But if you’re writing about how to be alone in New York, why do you want company?”
“Because I don’t have anyone to share my discoveries of solitude with,” I said.
“If I’m there, you won’t be alone. “
“Yes, I will. You can be with people, and still be alone.”
Barry laughed in a grunt. He wasn’t offended that I found him easy to disregard. “That’s true,” he said. “You’re used to me; I’m used to you, why bother paying attention?”
“What’s funny is you don’t even need to be used to people to be alone around them,” I said. “There was one guy today I had to concentrate to remember was there, and there was a woman—a nanny I think—with a little kid, and I could have been sitting there naked and I don’t know if they would have noticed me.”
He laughed, rummaging through a dirty duffle bag on the floor. Tammy sat up, arched her back to stretch and extended a paw out as if reaching for my hand. I knew she was probably just stretching, but I took it as a sign of companionship and sympathy. “Oh, Tammy, what do you think is going on? Do you think we’re all just ignoring each other?” I asked her.
Barry continued with his chuckling, obviously finding Avoidance New York—and my quest for solitude in the crowd—a little “mental,” as they used to call crazy people. “Well, don’t expect a cat to be sympathetic about being ignored. They’re the world’s most famous ignorers,” he said.
Tammy, as a calico, seemed to know she was a higher-order cat. The next morning, or early afternoon (by the time I got Barry off the couch), she had her back turned to us, and was looking up at the sky, and then leveling her gaze straight ahead into the apartments across the alleyway. When we came over to say goodbye, and patted her head, she didn’t even turn. “Tammy, you’re the perfect Avoidance New York gal,” I told her.
When we got outside, the usual smears of dog poop and urine and cigarette butts were punctuated by the smell of a garbage truck making its rounds. It was down the block, one man outside the truck in the back, the other two in the vehicle as the man outside heaved bags into the back. “Why is garbage an all-day affair here, and yet no progress is ever made?” I said.
Barry, who was wearing an old Moody Blues concert t-shirt (mostly without holes) and his everyday jeans, snickered. “Why don’t you give them a break? They’re making progress. There’s just a lot of garbage.”
“I think it’s a matter of disorganization and a distribution of resources that’s not well thought out,” I said. “They should be paid more to do all the garbage pick-up between 11 pm and 6 am, Monday through Thursday, and if you happen to be out and about during that time on a weeknight, you should never run into two different garbage trucks—or even three or four—within a span of mile. At any rate, this time of day, especially, you shouldn’t keep running into them—and that stink—all the time. Let’s try to go another way whenever we see them—those trucks really gross me out.”
Barry didn’t change course, and just chortled. “Oh, forget about it,” he said. Then, of course, there was Mr. Sunflower-Head Man—the Asian greeter and his sister, wife or friend (who knew who she was?) with their little wooden fold-up table outside a Japanese restaurant. They were there until noon every day pedaling coffee and rolls. But why would anyone want to go to a Japanese restaurant for coffee in the morning? Were the Japanese now great purveyors of coffee? I called him Mr. Sunflower-Head Man because he had a big bouffant of black hair on the top of his head, where a widow’s peak would be, and as soon as I left my apartment’s front door his head would turn toward me, so high and eager it reminded me of a tall sunflower blowing in the breeze. But a sunflower doesn’t ask for any interaction or exchange of you; this Asian greeter with his wooden table seemed to be reaching out for something, a gesture I hated.
“And here they are again,” I said, side-eyeing Barry, who was picking at his brownish gray mouse hair tail, which he had just pulled up onto the back of his head. “Mr. Sunflower-Head Man and his little friend,” I sneered. Barry shook his head and laughed—he was always laughing at what I said.
“So, they’re cheerful, they enjoy life, who gives a shit?” he said.
“Well, they can see everyday I obviously don’t want to interact, and they won’t stop—every day it’s the same thing with the good morning-ing or good afternoon-ing,” I said.
As we approached, Mr. Sunflower-Head Man seemed to be on the balls of his feet, practically swaying back and forth. “Good afternoon!” he said in a singsong voice. “Good afternoon,” I said very softly through gritted teeth, like a dog snarling.
“You don’t have to say hello back, you know,” Barry said after we passed Mr. Sunflower-Head Man and his friend.
“I just don’t want them to know they’re getting to me.” Barry patted me on the shoulder then.
“They don’t care about you, believe me, they don’t care,” he said.
“Then, why does he make a point of good morning-ing me every morning? He can see—anyone can see—that I don’t want to be bothered.”
“Well, he may not care, or even think about, what you want,” Barry said.
The possibility that Mr. Sunflower-Head Man didn’t care what I wanted was hard to believe. He wasn’t selling much coffee. Let’s face it, who thinks of going to a Japanese restaurant specifically for coffee? So, maybe he filled the void of his day by waiting to irritate me with a “good morning!”
“Whatever,” I said. “Let’s move on.” Next on our avoidance tour came the homeless man seated on a director’s chair on the corner of 10th St. and 2nd Ave. He mumbled constantly with no apparent logic. “The bats, the bats, the bats,” he said as we approached. “The bats are there, just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean they’re not there—even in the day,” he said in a loud mumble, like a person might mumble nonsense in his sleep. I quickened my step, but Barry paused, even after I pulled on his arm. “What’d you say?” he asked The Director. The homeless man, gray shaggy hair, grizzled beard, short and fat with a turtleneck under a sports team t-shirt of a team I didn’t recognize, smirked at us and turned to his side to spit. The Director’s chair raised him up, so even sitting down he was at eye level with us. “You’ll know, you’ll know,” he said. I quickened my pace, and deliberately didn’t look at him, but Barry lingered. He turned and stood still, like he was at a lion’s exhibit at the zoo. If there had been a pane of glass in front of The Director, he would have tapped it.
“Where’d you get that cool chair?” Barry asked. The Director looked at us with glassy eyes, almost the kind of foggy eyes an old person with cataracts gets. But this man wasn’t especially old. He didn’t seem much older than 45 or 50, at the oldest. His hair was gray and shaggy, and he was unkempt, but his face was free of lines and wrinkles. He looked at us, but through us, too. He made a quick stop on our faces, and then moved past, just like you’d see a subway train coming through the station, expecting it to pause, but since it’s out of service, just keeps going.
“Come on, I’m getting bored,” I said to Barry, tugging on the ends of his t-shirt. He’s not interested in us.”
“Here you go,” Barry said to The Director, placing a wrinkled dollar that looked like it gone through the washing machine, in his lap.
“Why bother?” I said. “It’s not like he asked us for anything. Not like he even sees us—at least he acts like he can’t see us.”
I just saw Barry’s brown rat-tail ponytail when I looked over at him. He was turned away from me, looking up at the buildings across the street. “The artwork around the window frames is amazing,” he said.
“Yeah, well, that’s nothing new or unusual. That’s all over New York. Do you think that guy could see us or not?”
I started walking faster, ahead of Barry, knowing his usual laggard’s pace would have to quicken to keep up, and we could miss a lot of the people he found interesting along the way—to wherever it was we were headed—I just wanted to get there. It was galling that on a mission to find strategies to be alone in a crowded city, he felt the need to acknowledge every person we met. He would nod at the street musicians, one time even giving them a thumbs-up, or putting a quarter in their hat.
We passed a rolling Jesus, and other religious icon statues I didn’t recognize, getting pushed down the street on a cart by what looked to me like the people they call expeditors in restaurants—the ones who aren’t important enough to take your order, but clear your plate and refill your water. “Do they have a home delivery app for Jesus now?” I asked. Barry reached out and touched the hem of one of the icons as it slowed down to cross the street.
“Maybe—I bet a lot of people would like that—church in your living room, whenever it’s convenient for you.”
“I think we should test out the first-two-cars rule about the subway,” I said. “About how a lot of people new to the city—or dumb people maybe—don’t realize there’s usually the most room in the first couple of cars. I never understood why everyone crowds into the cars right in the middle, as if they feel compelled to get onto the train at the exact spot where they enter the station. Are they just too lazy to walk up the platform, or just dumb? Could they enjoy being part of the crowd?”
After we walked to the head of the platform, watching a couple of large, brown rats scurry across the tracks below, I felt safe, but only in so far as I could stand far away enough from the other passengers. As Barry and I solidified our position, in prime place for one of the first cars, others would inch up, and then we, in turn, would inch up farther. “No matter how far you go, there’s always someone pushing farther—or else you have to share space with them,” I said. “What do I have to do in this city to not share space?”
Barry was twirling that brown mouse tail of his and staring into space again. “That’s the flaw of your whole plan about a guide of how to avoid people in New York. The city is too small and crowded to avoid people.”
“You can’t be alone here, but you can be apart,” I said. I wanted nothing more than to feel safe in my space, with no desire to push into anyone else’s space. Yet it seemed like I was being accused by others of encroaching into their space.
The subway rumbled into the station, and the doors opened with an automated beeping, and a short, thin man—probably 20 years younger than me—methodically pushed me to the side. He pushed me to the side as methodically, efficiently, and without thought (or word), as you would move a napkin dispenser, or a vase that you needed to clean under. No “pardon me,” no “excuse me,” no “oh, I beg your pardon.” Not even embarrassment or an expression of regret. His systematic touch on my shoulder angered me enough that I would have turned to say something, but it happened so fast, that by the time I realized what had happened, he was gone.
I was right, anyway, about the first car being less full than the rest, so I sat down right away. I didn’t bother to see if there were any old people or pregnant women around because I figured that with all my anxiety problems, I was about as good a candidate for a seat as anyone. Barry, apparently, arrived at a similar conclusion about himself, and sat down, too. “Did you see that? Did you see that?” I hissed in his ear. Barry sighed and looked up at the ceiling, where in front of us a very tall man was leaning his hand for support, the way all the others standing in the car were leaning their hands against one of the poles. “Yeah, what?” he said, looking at me sidelong. “You were blocking the way. You have to get out of the way so people can exit the train.”
“It’s never OK to push another person out of the way, especially without saying ‘excuse me,’ or ‘sorry.’ Anyway, I thought I was out of the way.”
Barry was picking now at the dirty rubber edges of his Converse sneakers. I had the same ones as his, except mine were purple, and his were white. We could hear the lip smacking of a man eating potato chips a few places down the long seat from us, and a teenage boy was jumping up against one of the poles, and swinging himself around it, pole dancing.
Every time the kid’s legs swung around the pole, I felt my chest constrict. I knew he was too far away to hit us, but the repetitive swinging, and the repetitive sight, was aggravating. I could feel myself breathing too fast to breath at all. I began pulling at the ends of my hair, twirling strands around my fingers, both as a way to look casual, and also as a nervous tick. I looked at my palms and they were shaking slightly and becoming sweaty. My stomach felt like it was in my mouth.
“Have you given any thought to the Dog Days of Revolution?” I asked Barry, tugging on his shirt sleeve to get his attention.”
“It’s not a bad idea, but do you think people would be open to the founding fathers rendered as dogs?”
“Well,” I said, tapping away the perspiration on my upper lip. “It’s like Avoidance New York; there’s a market for everything. I think Benjamin Franklin could be one of those wire-haired terriers, maybe wearing a sweater, and Thomas Jefferson could be an apricot colored standard poodle because I heard he was a redhead, and he was the ambassador to France, and then maybe George Washington could be a bull mastiff because he was such a big, formidable figure, a general. And maybe Hamilton could be a basset hound.”
“A basset hound? That one you have to re-think,” Barry said.
I was fidgeting on my seat, and I had become conscious of my breathing, but not in a good way like you’re supposed to do in a yoga class; more like a feeling that I was liable to stop breathing if I didn’t fixate on it, and the feeling that I could never get enough air into my lungs.
“Well,” I continued, anxiously keeping one eye on the window to watch the stops go by, “Martha Washington could be an Old English Sheep Dog. I don’t know what she looked like when she was young, but all the pictures I’ve seen of her remind me of Mrs. Claus. She’s comfortable looking, like a grandmother baking cookies in her kitchen.”
I started pulling on the ends of my hair again when the subway stalled between stations and the automated announcement came on: “We are being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher.”
“And Abigail Adams would be a Doberman Pinscher,” I rattled on, “and her husband would be one of those pointer dogs people take hunting.”
I had started gulping for air, maybe wheezing slightly, so I sank against the back of the chair and tried to hold my breath for a few seconds to stop hyperventilating. Barry finally paused and looked me in the eye for more than a beat. “You’re sweating,” he said.
“Hyperventilating, actually,” I said, trying to force myself not to breathe again for a few seconds. “Ever since my mother died a couple years ago, I’ve been having these panic attacks.”
Barry was picking at the rubber on the edge of his sneakers again, head down, looking like he was inspecting feet, the way I liked to do sometimes instead of having to learn people’s faces. Feet and shoes were sometimes more telling—how close together they’re standing, what kinds of shoes, how worn, what color, what shape the toes are in if it’s sandal weather.
“It’s really hard—in fact it’s getting harder rather than easier,” I said. The train stopped just then at 86th street, where we planned to get out to head to Central Park to continue our study of avoidance. “But the thing is—“ I said, getting pushed by other riders moving toward the door ahead of me, “I—“ I couldn’t get a word out before another person was standing in front of me, angling to get out. Weren’t we all getting out? What difference did it make whether you got out first? When we were on the platform, I continued: “I just can’t believe I’ll never speak with her again. It makes me physically ill.”
The sun was blinding on the street as I put on my sunglasses, enjoying the chance to hide my eyes and feel shielded. I didn’t want the crow’s feet I heard you got through squinting, but I also didn’t want the imprint on my skin of eyes—eyes more than the sun was what troubled me. I made a point of deliberating making my eyes go out of focus when too many people were looking at me.
I felt myself slowly calm down with the sun on my skin and my eyes out of view. “I’d just like to sit down for a while in the park, if that’s OK,” I said. Barry, eyes up in the treetops, nodded.
“We can do that.”
“I think I’d like to see what we can about feeling space from the vantage point of sitting still,” I said. “Just not moving for about an hour, and seeing if everyone else moves around us, or if they start getting in our face.”
“Sure,” Barry said swinging that rat tail of his and letting a loose shoelace drag on the ground. I wished Tammy were with us. It would have felt reassuring to wear her like a scarf around my neck.
I kept my eyes cast down and watched the wads of gum stuck to the ground and the cigarette butts. I wondered who drops gum on the sidewalk. Come to think of it, I never saw anyone as an adult take gum out of their mouth and then throw it down onto the sidewalk. Everyone I knew threw it in the garbage, and usually after wrapping it in paper, or the tinfoil the gum came in, to prevent it from sticking to the can. “Who just throws their gum on the ground?” I asked, nudging Barry in the elbow.
“Huh?” he said, looking down at me for a split second and then moving his head up toward the sky, inspecting the treetops and putting his hands up in the air as if to see if rain was coming.
“I said, who just throws their gum on the sidewalk? I’ve never seen anyone do it as an adult, but wherever you look on the sidewalk you see old gum mashed into the cement.”
“Lots of people, probably.”
Barry smiled, and sometimes even high-fived strangers in the street, but tended to overlook the companion at his side. His eyes were steadfastly up and away, and mine were averted down to the sidewalk, counting the old spat-out gum.
“What about the Great Lawn?” I said, referring to one of the park’s most famous expanses of shared open space. “What about if we sit there, and see if we can have a sense of peace—at least a feeling of not being bothered?”
“Sure, that sounds good,” Barry said. It looked like he was studying the architecture of the buildings lining the streets. “A lot of history,” he said in a foggy, off-hand way, like a person talking to himself in his sleep.
The cloud formations that seemed to be following us on an otherwise sunny day reminded me of a rabbit menagerie, so I studied them, trying to see their faces. The faces of the people passing me by were grotesque by comparison. “My father always said humans are the ugliest of all the animals.” Barry wasn’t listening, but I just kept talking. We had stopped at a corner to cross the street, and I thought that maybe some of the people standing around us could be listening. “Yeah, he always said that whenever he went to the supermarket, he couldn’t believe how ugly the people were waiting in line to check out. He always thought it would be a prettier scene with cheetahs or giraffes, or even dogs, waiting in line with shopping carts.”
We weren’t prepared with a towel or blanket, like the old lady, and what looked like her son (or young lover?) next to us, or the young couple who looked like tourists—big, showy cameras hanging around their necks—with their toddler and other small child. It looked like they had thought out the day in advance. I imagined them thinking Barry and I looked like we were just plopping down haphazardly after a long walk—which we kind of were. We had no blankets or food, and didn’t think a minute before sitting down cross-legged. It was the product of having an even lazier-than-myself companion to travel through the city with—no plans, no preparations, no forethought, just watching for vacancies to fill.
The mother and the oldest child got up and began throwing an inflatable beach ball back and forth, while the father stayed on the blanket doing that irritating goo-goo talking to the littler one. “Isn’t that the worst?” I sneered. Barry, as usual, was directed into the beyond, picking at the calluses on his palms, which God must have put there because surely no work did. Two times the beach ball rolled over to us, and two times Barry smiled, laughed, and rolled the ball back.
“I think we should just make them come here to get it themselves,” I said, beginning the raking of the ends of my hair again, and the rapid breathing. My stomach felt like it was rising again into my mouth, so that I longed for a good belch. I was fidgeting in my seat. “I heard that years ago it wasn’t uncommon for people to have picnics in cemeteries,” I said. “The great thing about cemeteries is most of the people there aren’t throwing balls back and forth.”
Barry laughed, and gave my shoulder a playful shove. “Right,” he said.
I felt like getting up to start pacing, but settled for fidgeting and hair raking. It had been like this for a while now, since my mother died. I couldn’t get past that anxiety of the phone call that isn’t coming, or the anticipated knock on the door that doesn’t arrive. It was like being on my tippy toes, ready to dive, or to reach for something on a high shelf, and then at the last minute having to abort the move, or maybe making the move, and finding that there’s nothing there.
I felt the beach ball game in my peripheral vision was sooner or later going to smack me in the head. It was a soft, inflatable ball, but I felt uneasy waiting for the impact.
“You know, I think I’ve already had enough of this,” I said, tapping Barry on the shoulder.
“I said I’ve had enough. That I can see already that there is no possibility for avoidance here. I think I’d like to observe a place where there’s a gate. “
“We’ve only been here for about a half-hour,” he said. “You want to go already?”
That was Barry for you. He didn’t particularly appreciate Central Park. But he didn’t want to get up and get moving again so fast. He was the kind of person who didn’t want a long car ride to end because he had settled himself and was comfortable.
“Yeah, I just don’t think I want to stay here any longer.”
We ended up going home that night—the last night of the de-bed bugging stay in my apartment. I took a nap on the couch with Tammy curled up around me while Barry was in the shower. I didn’t hold it against her that she had ripped a hole in my couch. I would have pent up aggression, too, if I had a roommate like Barry. I was glad I only had to suffer through a temporary co-habitation—with a human, that is. Tammy, I would have been glad to keep.
Tammy had been spayed, or else I would have begged for a kitten. As it was, I spent that night looking through animal shelter listings for stray cats to adopt. Anything was preferable to the press of people in the streets, on the subways, and the rolling ball always in danger of smacking you in the face. Those were the things I associated with humans, and which I wanted to avoid. Cats played with balls, but usually they were small balls, and, let’s face it, they were a lot cuter than humans when doing it.
I bounced between cat noses and whiskers and black iron bars and fences that night, looking for the place in New York City where you can feel set aside—by choice. What could you do for the times you wanted to feel that you were safely off to the side? Was it just that you could feel pushed to the side, but you weren’t allowed to feel sheltered on the side?
The next afternoon I met Barry at the nearest good gate I could find—Gramercy Park. He showed up in his usual disarray, or schlump elegance—t-shirt so worn out the words on the front were illegible, loose jeans with a ragged cuff on the bottom (it looked like he had done his own “tailoring” at home with a scissor) and flip-flop sandals. His mousy brown hair, though, was freshly washed for once, and down along his collarbone. He was late, of course. By the time he showed up, I had already circled the enclosure at least five times getting exercise as I waited.
“Hey,” he said, his customary greeting. “How long have you been waiting?”
“Oh, maybe a half-hour. I lost count after a while.”
We paused, looking through the black slats of the Gramercy Park gate. I started staring first without talking, and then a minute later Barry noticed that I had stopped talking, and he started watching, too. A man, who looked like he was in his seventies or eighties, was reading a newspaper, with plaid newsboy cap on and drug store reading glasses at the tip of his nose, and at the other end of the park, two women, who also looked elderly, were sitting side by side on one of the benches talking. One was talking nonstop while the other nodded her head solemnly, like she was listening to a diagnosis.
“Gate’s locked. We’re not going to be able to get in,” Barry said.
“Yeah, of course—I know that, dummy. I’m just observing from the other side. I’m trying to see if the people lucky enough to have a key to the gate actually get to avoid anything, or whether they also have to have these irritating interactions.” I said this while nodding toward Barry, almost pointing with my head toward him. I wondered if he had caught on yet that I only let him stay at my apartment for the de-bed bugging because I wanted the time with Tammy.
Barry, anyway, could never be offended because his eyes were always trailing away. No matter what you were telling him—that he had won the lottery, that he had a terminal disease, that a bomb was about to detonate a few feet away—his eyes followed an upward path to the treetops, or at least to the top of a homeless man’s head. “Whatever,” he said, laughing, and nudging me in the shoulder.
The locked park was still nearly empty 10 minutes later, and from where I stood, almost silent. I was too far away to hear what the two women were talking about, and the man with his newspaper wasn’t saying a word, or even picking up his head to glance around. None of these people noticed my face pressed up to the slats, peaking in.
Barry was now sitting on the curb behind me fiddling with his phone—probably reading those lists like Top 10 Signs You’re an Unknown Genius or 12 Ways to Extend Your Life or 15 Changes to Expand Your Buying Power. For someone who made an art of doing as little as possible, he loved to read self-help articles. I felt bad for him waiting on the curb for me like a child waiting for his mother. I walked over and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hmm?” he said, startled. “What’s going on?”
“I think you probably should just go do something else for a while. I can always text you when I’m through. I may be here a while.”
He took a deep breath and picked up each of his feet to inspect the soles of his sneakers. Like he was concerned he had stepped in dog shit.
“Why do you always do that?” I snapped. “If you had stepped in something you would have smelled it by now.”
Barry laughed and turned his head. “I see you’re in your usual good mood. I think I’ll take your advice.” He got his ass up after waiting at least a minute, with those slow movements that looked so languid and elegant in Tammy and so slothful in him—a human.
After he had slumped away—probably to high-five a homeless man or stare purposelessly at the roofs of buildings—I stood inspecting through the black slats. The two women, who had been chatting about something one was much more vocal about than the other, had gone, and the man with the newspaper was nowhere in sight. I thought maybe he was still there somewhere because, with all the trees in full bloom, I couldn’t tell where the leaves began and ended and the possible presence of a flesh-and-blood creature began. Was the shadow a leafy branch, a rat, a dog, a squirrel, a garbage can, a discarded newspaper or magazine, cigarette butt—or a human?
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen you!” a youngish male voice see-sawed behind me. It was effeminate, like my hairdresser’s. I jumped and spun around, pushing back against the black metal fence. He was wearing tight jeans and a fitted jacket with a hood that had fringe around the border. He had close-cropped light brown hair with gel in it and strangely shaped black-rimmed glasses—they were overly angular. He was riffling through his pockets for something, pulling out gum wrappers, a folded-up miniature map and toothpicks wrapped in plastic. Until, after about a minute, a key appeared. “Oh, good,” he sighed. “I thought I lost it. I’ve been wondering where you were.” He was talking to me without looking at me, fixated now on his phone. He held the door to the park open for me to follow him in. “I’ve been traveling myself—out to Baltimore last weekend for a wedding, then down in Florida, at my parent’s place, then the last few days out in Vegas for a convention. You’ve—“ He stopped then, grunted, looked up for a split second, and then back down at his phone. “Oh, shit!” he said suddenly. “I’ve got to go. We should catch up, though. Let me know when you’re around.” He tapped my shoulder, and with just the fastest sidelong glance, he left, the door clanging behind him, and me, standing behind—inside now—the locked gate.
The wind in the trees made dancing patterns on the pavement, and I thought I heard a far-off radio, so for a few minutes I thought there might have been other people in the park with me dancing. But when I caught up to the shadows, I didn’t see anyone. I walked along the parameter again, this time from the inside, and stopped now and then to inspect a tree or take in the landscaping. It was a beautiful park for the small group allowed in.
I saw others doing the same thing I had done just five minutes earlier—looking through the slats, peering in past the lock. I wondered if they were wondering about me like I had wondered about the old man reading his newspaper and the two women having their diagnosis-seeming conversation. But as quickly as they peered through the slats, they turned back down toward their phones, or toward each other, nodding their heads, laughing, giving each other playful nudges, or pointing their fingers in another direction.
I decided just to sit down for a while and take in the protected solitude. This was the Holy Grail of New York City voluntary isolation, and without a key to return, I probably would never be back here. After all, what were the chances that I would be mistaken again for a person somebody knew?
There was something, though, about the quiet from inside the locked park, and the playing of the shadows over my feet that agitated me. I started to feel one of my panic attacks coming on. I had that sensation of never being able to get enough air into my lungs, and my heart rate exhilarated. I was shaking slightly. I was confused because up until then, my attacks came on when I was in crowded places. Now, I was entirely alone, and, yet, it was happening again. I told myself over and over again: “You’re alone, you’re alone, you’re OK. You’re in control when you’re alone.” I would calm for a few minutes and then that panicked feeling that made me pull the ends of my hair, wring my hands, and pinch the sides of my thighs, would come back. “I better just get out of here and head home,” I said to myself. I got up, and could feel myself shaking as I walked.
I had to look around for a few minutes to find the gate where I had followed that man in. The gate’s black iron felt cooler than I would have expected, like it was deflecting, more than absorbing, the sun. I pushed at the door, but nothing happened. I tried then grabbing hold of one of the bars that made up a slat and using my weight to pull it back toward me. Nothing happened. People kept walking past on the sidewalk on the other side of the gate. Some would glance over for a second, but none seemed curious. None were about to pause.
I cleared my throat loudly and coughed. “Oh, excuse me,” I said meekly, in the tone you would use to ask a friend to pass the popcorn in a darkened movie theater. No one heard me. One woman looked swiftly in my direction and then began talking in a serious way to her Golden Retriever. “Now, Charles, we’ve been out here for over an hour now. It’s time for you to get down to business. Be a good boy,” she said, patting Charles on the head.
“Excuse me,” I repeated to no response. “Charles?” I finally added in desperation. The dog’s ears pricked up and he looked in my direction. His human companion looked in my direction, too, but unlike Charles, she looked past me, toward the green of the park. “What is it Charles?” she asked the Golden, “What is it? Do you see a squirrel? Is there a squirrel you want to chase?”
“Excuse me,” I said again, louder. The woman glanced at me, half-smiled, and took Charles with her down the sidewalk.
I kept trying to pull the gate back and forth, but found it locked in place, or was it just stuck?
A man, maybe in his 20s, with a baseball cap turned backward on a skateboard paused, watching me. “Having a problem?” he said, smirking. Ordinarily, I would have given him the finger, and a swift “screw you!” or “asshole!,” but, under the circumstances, I just nodded. “Yeah, I can’t seem to open this gate. I think it’s stuck.”
He laughed. “Not stuck; locked,” he said. “It locks both ways. Outside and inside.”
I turned to see if I had overlooked anyone who might be in the park with me, but I saw no one, and when I turned my head back toward the sidewalk, the man I had been speaking to had already walked away. I could see him down the block, about to cross the street.
Well, if it was locked, then someone, who had a key, would still be in here with me, I thought to myself. I was still shaking slightly, but forced myself to walk the periphery of the park—from the inside this time. I saw no one. I kept seeing the same shadows over and over again, and when I looked to see where they were coming from, all I saw were rustling leaves, shrubbery and flowers with their heads lilting in the breeze.
Sooner or later, someone would come into the park, and when that happened, I could use it as my opportunity to leave. I sat by the bench closest to the gate and twirled my hair in my fingers and tried not to breathe too quickly. The warm air and the smells of the greenery made me think of my mother, who loved the summer, was born, and died in the summer. My breathing became more rapid and I noticed my fingers becoming slippery with sweat again.
It was no use trying to catch the attention of someone passing by on the outside of the gate because, chances were, most of them didn’t have a key. About every 10 minutes, from where I was sitting, I would look around the inside periphery to see if there was a person there I had missed who would have a key. But never saw anyone.
I knew, logically, that there must be a way to turn the lock, without a key, to open the gate from the inside, but I couldn’t find where to turn or pull. I had never been good with locks, and with my heart racing, I was having trouble focusing.
Eventually someone would open the door—either on their way in, or the person who must be in the park with me, who I couldn’t find, would open the door on their way out. Until then, I could study the shadows of the trees, flowers and bushes, and the feet moving past on the sidewalk outside the gate. It was too tiring to look at all the faces.