Washington Square Park is a multi-layered cake of noise. Not all flavors compliment each other, but a thick slice of sound is always delivered whether you ask for it or not. It’s just what you get when you go through the park.
I cut through it all as I cross the park to a café on the east side. In the northwest corner men play card on the chess tables. Who knows where the chess players went. The men are slamming the cards down with heavy hands, as if they would like to smack the world upside the face. This is not just a game for them. I wonder if rent money, child support, Con Edison bills and subway fares are probably riding on the outcome.
I continue through a gauntlet of jazz musicians and pigeons who flock around a man who tosses them chunks of a pretzel. Vagrants are ensconced in their sleeping bags and blankets. They are sprawled out on the grassy lawn like elephant seals. On the same stretch of grass the children of the upper crust who live near the park are playing soccer. A ball jets past a goal marked by two backpacks and nearly bumps into an unkempt man who lays prostate on the grass.
“Don’t hit the homeless people!” calls one of the mothers.
Dogs of all shapes and sizes parade by. An old Great Dane with subcutaneous fatty cysts is prompted along by his owner. A little Jack Russell Terrier nearly yanks his owner off his feet to chase a teenager on a skateboard. The startled youth dismounts, leaving the dog to chastise the skateboard and nip at its wheels.
I sit on a bench and realize the man next to me is rolling a blunt. A lanky college student walks by in nothing but a cape and a thong. In the empty fountain three boys are playing with a remote control motorcycle. A few feet away a girl is hammering away on a keyboard, singing Stay with Me.
Next to the benches a man with a saxophone plays Summertime. His daughter is sitting next to him. The man is playing beautifully, but his daughter looks nonplussed. I give him a dollar because his music moves me and also I’m thinking it might staunch the disapproval emanating from his daughter’s eyes. She stares off into the distance, willing herself to become invisible. Fathers are always embarrassing, no matter how cool they are. But maybe they are more embarrassing if they make their money off the street.
The sound of the saxophone crashes into the sound of the keyboard, and both sounds are punctuated by someone who is mercilessly and arrhythmically pounding together two drumsticks. I cannot tell if it’s supposed to be music or performance art.
Wafting above all of it is the sound of bagpipes. I look towards the far reaches of the park but instead of seeing a bagpiper I see two college students practicing martial arts on a patch of grass not occupied by children or homeless people. One of the guys is wearing bright blue tights. The other sports a mustache. The bagpiper remains elusive—accomplishing the rare feat of being heard but not seen on this Serengeti Plane of sound. Each noise fights the other off to gain the upper hand in a fight for New York City’s least available resource: space. So does each person, rat, cockroach, pigeon, floating plastic bag, tossed water bottle, takeout container and weed growing through a crack in the sidewalk. Today I fight the other computers at the café.
The café is the size of a small warehouse, but every square foot of surface is occupied by books, elbows, spilled coffee and computers. But I spy a space on a counter near the door and hurry to it, planting my computer as a flag. The guy next to me is a NYU student who is sipping a latte and studying math notes in a Moleskin notebook. I ask him to watch my computer while I grab a coffee.
When I head back to my computer I am greeted by the smell of sweat and garlic, which I hadn’t perceived before. Maybe deodorant wasn’t in the student’s budget after lattes and Moleskin notebooks. But as soon as I get back the student hastily closes his notebooks and nearly jumps out of his seat as if he thinks I am the source of the odor.
Across the void left by the student I see that another man has sat down. He has a tan leather bag and a flappy and filthy brown jacket. He doesn’t immediately look homeless, but he immediately smells it. This is the sweat and garlic offender. And he is talking to himself. From a pike of bags gathered at his feet he takes out a Walkman, changes a CD, and puts on his earphones. At first I think he’s singing, but conclude he’s just trying to drown out the voices in his head. Turning his head this way and that, discoursing with the wall, his hands, the counter.
Fine. Have it your way.
Why don’t you say something interesting.
I get a little nervous when he looks too long in my direction. But I don’t budge. Space is precious in New York.
On the subway back to Brooklyn I sit next to a young woman who is reading. I am also a young woman who will be reading, so we sit reading together but separate for the next few stops. A large barrel-bellied man steps onto the train. He carries disintegrating Duane Reade bags and wears a baggy grey shirt that has endured serious abuse since its last wash. Giant blotches of grease look like continents on an alternative map of Earth. Brown smears look like a storm system hovering over North America. A shit storm for sure. His khaki pants are in a similar state of misery.
He emits a grunt as he lands in his seat. I think of leaving, because I certainly don’t want to be around in case this one’s a shouter. But the man doesn’t seem to have any bitter diatribe or invisible foe. He sprawls his bags on the two nearest seats. An empty can of Hi-Life nearly teeters out. The man has mismatched shoes and grubby socks that look like they were fished out of the La Brea tar pit. His white hair that sticks up like down on a baby bird. He digs into one of his plastic bags and pulls out a bottle. Expecting to be hit by a whiff of whiskey, I am happy to see that it is just apple juice.
I decide to stay put. But a couple of people evacuate in a hurry at the next stop and run to the car next door. At another stop the door opens and a young man hovers at the entrance before opting to go to a different car. I must be in the eye of the storm because I don’t smell anything.
Suddenly there is a wealth of space on the train. I turn around to see who else is left, and then the smell hits my nostrils. Now I am immersed in stink and space. Before the next stop I have to choose if my value for one outweighs my revulsion for the other.
At Jay Street I got up and moved to the next car. I stood the rest of the ride home.