Saturday, May 22, 2010

Washington Square Park

It has come to my attention recently that Sylvia hates pigeons more than I do, which I thought to be impossible. But she does, and I don’t begrudge her for it. We lunch together every day. It isn’t quite enough for either of us, but it’s the best we can do for the time being. There’s a place we meet—usually around 2 or 2:30, or somewhere thereabouts—in Washington Square park. Sometimes a lady is there who suns in her motorized wheelchair. She puts the back all the way down and lies there as if she were lounging in an outdoor hospital bed. If Sylvia is running late (which is quite often, as she has little respect for the way watches and clocks keep time) I will do my waiting on one of those short-backed green wooden benches that line the walkway wending about the park’s perimeter. There is a motorcade of Segway riders who stop at the park on most afternoons. They disembark their scooters, lining them all up in a row on the sidewalk, and amble around with their shiny orange helmets still strapped on, throwing bread crumbs to pigeons, petting dogs, and doing some general prancing and jabbering. I like to watch them. I don’t know why. Displays of the absurd like this often bring me great joy, and joy is something I find hard to find, so I take what little of it I can get. They don’t hang around for long, and have usually whirred away by the time Sylvia arrives.

The trees in the park are not kept in the best of condition. A few of their gnarled branches hang low enough so as to almost pop me a good one on the head if I’m not sagacious enough to duck. Mostly they’re pines stretching out their prickly arms festooned with tiny pinecones, and maybe some cypress and spruce too, a few strung with dangling viny moss-like stuff that reminds me of seaweed or witch hair. I’m not sure. Many of them do things like weep and droop and let fall their leaves, which crumble, crunching underfoot, as the pine needles gather to the wind’s embrace, sprinkling the grass and tattooing the sidewalks, scattered about like thousands of uncooked spaghetti noodles. I am no expert when it comes to trees. Most of these observations come by way of Sylvia, who understands such arboreal matters better than I do. If she describes a tree’s bark as being pumpernickel, I do not doubt the veracity of it, though when I tell her “pumpernickel” means “devil’s fart” she puts a pout in her face that means, “Why do you have to ruin everything?” It’s done lovingly though, as I know for a fact that she finds this fault of mine very endearing. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. Sure, I might be fooling myself in this regard, but if one can’t fool one’s self, then whom can one fool? As a fairly decent man once said, “Just let me keep my beautiful illusions. The rest is eyewash.” I’m paraphrasing of course, but you get the picture.

People lie supine on blankets, spreading across the grass under the gildings of afternoon sun. Slimming shadows stretch and leak between games of catch, twirling Frisbees, croquet balls, the terse swiftness of tai chi disciples, and parties of touch footballers. The spires of Sts. Peter and Paul Church rise to the north, and I often gaze up at them and wonder about God. This doesn’t last long though, as I am easily distracted. All around me the boomcrush of traffic prowls its course around the park, which is bounded by Filbert, Columbus, Union, and Stockton. The buses crawl up to the curbs and heave their weary moans, unloading off and loading on the hordes of anxious MUNI riders who pass through this way every day. You never have to wait long for a bus to arrive around the park, but the ride will surely be stop-and-go slow and fraught with claustrophobia, as these lines are the most crowded and turtle-paced of the fleet. A feeling of distant calm will often waft over me as I marvel at this spectacle from afar. To be not of the chaos, but near enough to know its taste is always somewhat of a tranquil pleasure.

Sometimes Polaroid Millie will stop by and take my picture. She’s been a North Beach fixture for many years, tugging her Polaroid camera along with her through all the bars, and selling the uniquely styled portraits she takes of the patrons right to them for as little as 5 dollars. “Rugose, cheery and bright-eyed,” would do well to describe the constant state of her face, and many of her teeth have gone the way of Beta videotapes, but the ones she has left are quite nice. I’ll chat with her, tell her how young she looks, and hand her a five for her instant-film depictions of my person. Her Polaroid portraits are not to be taken for granted. I horde them all in a drawer reserved for such priceless treasures. On occasion my head will be cut off, or she’ll snap a blurred shot of me while I’m stumbling, or maybe I won’t even be in the picture. One time she shook over to me a still-wet white-bordered image containing a black Labrador that had been sleeping on the bench next to me. I told her she’d gotten my good side for once. She laughed and showed me all of her wonderful remaining teeth. I even have one of Sylvia and me; neither of us is looking at the camera; we had other things on our minds that night. Sometimes it’s hard to take your eyes off somebody. That was one of those times I guess.

The old Italian men who sit smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, soigné and at ease in their fusty, flood-water suits on the benches by the park’s northeast corner, will often speak kindly to me if I choose to sit in their vicinity. They are of a gentle ilk, and enjoy my company. These genial septuagenarians have a predilection for knock-knock jokes, and of this genre of humor I am well versed. I give them a few good guffaws, and they teach me a few Italian phrases. It is not such a good trade off though, as I can rarely remember any words of another language, nonetheless try to pronounce them. But there are worse ways one could spend one’s time than mingling among old Italian men in démodé suits while waiting the arrival of one’s better half.

Avoiding pigeon droppings can be a difficult task in the park. I’ve become rather efficient at it though. It might be that I’ve developed a sixth sense when it comes to the location and bowel habits of the pigeons around those parts. The things one hates are often the things one is most aware of, attuned to, or, sadly, consumed by thoughts of. Pigeons swarm my nightmares. They pluck out my eyebrows and peck at my toes. To say that I abhor the very idea of a pigeon’s existence would be a grave understatement. But Sylvia’s level of hatred for pigeons is even more admirable. She, unlike myself, applauds the murder of these “winged rats” by any means necessary—though she does realize that poisoning them only leads to bigger problems upwards on the food chain, which might even come to endanger us top-of-the-food-chain creatures. It’s more about intimidation with her. She will chuck rocks at them, and scream bloody murder if one of them even happens to dare close enough to warrant it. (Anywhere within a stone’s-throw radius will usually do to incite her to these acts of violence.) Sylvia fancies herself the Genghis Kahn of this pigeon war, and will stop at nothing to rid the earth, or at least certain parts of San Francisco, of them. I’ve never seen her kill, but do not doubt that it’s possible, though would not want to be around when it happens. I have a weak stomach when it comes to such things.

A wide expanse of grass runs across the park’s sloped craggy torso, and the slender trunks of willowy elastic trees rise like acupuncture needles stuck into its gut. I tilt my head back and put my arms up on the back of the bench, sliding my bottom out to the bench’s edge, as its low back is very unsuitable to this reclining position for a gangly fellow like myself. The sky might be flecked with thin strips of cirrus clouds that spool like dental floss, or maybe a band of migrating birds is winging recondite V-patterns in the thin, paling, salmon-tinged wash of the sun’s decline. I’ll try to whistle, to no avail, as always, and instead will start to hum something like When Johnny Comes Marching Home. It passes the time. If I am unlucky, somebody’s leash-less dog will prance over to me, panting and aflutter, and will commence drooling and slobbering all over my pant leg. Petting dogs is okay, and I partake in this ritual, scratching it behind the ears and calling it a, “Good boy,” and all the likes, but my heart’s not in it. I will forever love only cats. There is nothing to be done about it. It is too late in the game for me to change my inclinations when it comes to certain things. Either way, the wet mark on my trousers always gives Sylvia a good chuckle.

Behind one of my favorite benches—which is long and very accommodating, and, because of its habitat ‘neath umbrageous foliage, rarely occupied—there are patches of weeds sprouting here and there amongst a large accumulation of woodchips. I have no idea whose idea it was to spread these particles of biomass about here, and I cannot fathom why, but they cover quite a large expanse of the area between the sidewalk and the bench. I avoid walking on them at all costs, as I am not thrilled by the prospect of splinters stabbing into my feet. My thin-soled and many-holed Vans were not made for walking on such rough terrain. Padding along the park’s blackened walkway, which is composed of millions of small pebbles and cracked with juts of tarry gunk, without stubbing my toe is enough of a challenge. An antiquated spinach-green lamppost resides close to the bench. Its top is an opaque white orb during the day, but by night serenades the moths with a hazy sodium-yellow glow. The back of the bench has a silver metal plaque affixed to it which reads: “In honor of Elizabeth Livermore.” I have no idea who this person is, or possibly was, nor why this bench was dedicated to her, though I have speculated to Sylvia that she may perchance be one of the founders of that dear nuclear-famous city to our east. Sylvia thinks she was an under-appreciated bacon aficionado who was raised by Indians in a hidden village nestled snugly between the peaks of Mount Diablo, and who introduced her famous salt-cured bacon to the miners in the gold-rush days, sizzling and selling the thick, tasty strips out of a small storefront next door to a bordello. I have no reason not to believe this story.

Late as ever, Sylvia arrives. I pretend to ignore her when she drifts her way gracefully towards me, and then, gentle as a lamb in the bible, drips her lithe curves down and curls in next to me on the bench. She nudges me with an elbow to my shoulder. I look over in her direction, but pretend not to notice her presence. Instead I look quizzically over into the street, and then brush my shoulder where she’s tapped me, crafting a confused crease into my countenance, as if baffled over this strange occurrence. But she manages to catch my eye, and winks at me, and it is so sweet, so goddamn adorable, that I can’t help but crack a smile. My heart melts like a popsicle on a hot summer day, and I put one of my wiry, lanky arms around her. Her head falls into the crook of my arm, and we recline there on the bench without a word, gazing up at the trees and the sky and whatever else happens to be up there.

“You’re late.”

“No I’m not. You’re just early.”

“But I was here at…”

“You know I don’t have a watch.”

“But I…”

“I know when I’m here. I’m here now. And you’re here too. That’s good enough, isn’t it?”

It’s hard to argue with Sylvia sometimes, and mostly I don’t even want to.

We sit there like that—her head cradled close to my chest, our hands all tied up together in crazy knots, my nose lost to the blossoms in the wilderness of her hair—for what could easily pass for forever. At some point maybe we get up and go find a place to lunch. Or maybe we don’t. At this point it never really seems to matter.