I am a student of public places. Cracked water fountains tucked in the overgrown corner of a public park. The dirt under a massive weeping willow trampled to a caked polish. An academy of bums teaching each other how to fall asleep on the steps of the public library.
I have my camera. I am standing outside the public library, waiting for the sun to split through the clouds. I have an album of photographs in my backpack. Italian piazzas. Roman coliseums. French amphitheatres. The Nazi "virtual" stadium designed by Speer. Columns of light thrown up by searchlights.
I have my textbook. I am sitting in class. Professor Leitz, who is an expert on the anthropological origins of all public places, has lost his place again. A student behind me coughs. There is an embarrassed shuffling of feet. I watch the professor trace a glossy page with his pale forefinger, a carpet of white hair bristling on the back of his hand. He looks up helplessly.
"Enjoy the long weekend," he says. Desks scrape on all sides of me. Velcro is pulled apart and sealed again.
After class, I follow Professor Leitz at a safe distance, watching him push the useless pedestrian buttons on stoplights. I want to talk to him about my term paper, a study of extraordinary events in city parks titled "Private Acts/Public Places." He turns and sees me coming.
"Beautiful night," he says automatically.
A boy in a hooded sweatshirt, riding low on a bicycle, nearly knocks us over. He glares at
us as he goes by.
"This is a public sidewalk," I shout.
He waves his middle finger behind his head and peddles on, separating husbands from wives and startling strangers. They dance to the right and left and then pause angrily.
Professor Leitz is already a block away, stabbing at the groin of another stoplight. He
looks at me suspiciously.
I wave sadly.
"Goodnight Professor," I yell.
His shoulders hunch with embarrassment.
A public goodbye.
I have my notebook. I have my pen. I am taking notes in the near dark. Inspired by the blue shadows that drift across this statue at the east end of the public garden. Three nymphs with outstretched arms and a dedication to the doctor who invented anesthesia. The lamps on the path have come on at once, light green halos spreading in random trees. A polluted underbelly of purple cloud and the last of the sunset. A few ripped condoms lying around. Someone’s blue sweatpants. Two empty glassine packets. A dead squirrel, its remains being sucked from within. The man-made lake beyond the elms, three feet and five inches deep. In 1997, a man was arrested for wading there on a scorching July day. Imagine the cops clustered on the footpath, waving him in, the deranged man sloshing toward them, ripples traveling out to all the spectators. A slight breeze of applause as he is taken away, sweating profusely, his blue pants now wet and black. Barefoot. I have clipped the photograph.
Do you remember Hermann Duvoil?
He was the immigrant from Czechoslovakia who scaled the fence at the Central Park Zoo to join the polar bears. He scrambled up the man-made rocks in the middle of the night.
They lumbered toward him and sat on their haunches, campfire style. Two kids smoking pot nearby heard him talk to them in a loud voice about the political situation in his
"But what do you know?" he said to the bears, as if he suddenly realized where he was.
In the morning, his remains were removed by several humorless morgue technicians.
Or Edmund Allison? One of the most respected venture capitalists on the East Coast. His life was changed forever, just a few yards from where I’m sitting now. In April 1994, on a glassy spring day, he bumped into a man wearing an olive three-piece suit and was as-saulted. Five punches later, he was on his knees. His hand pressed against his shattered nose, blood leaking from beneath his eyes, his voice gone hoarse from pure shock. A circle of Good Samaritans formed around him and touched his shoulders, his back, his hand.
Now half blind, he forgives all, and can be found on the bench near the south gate, spilling out his story at all hours. He cannot remember the face of the man who hit him.
"Who knows," he always says. "It could have been you."
At home, on the computer. In a chat room. I am typing real-time thoughts to Blux583. We are talking about the world’s greatest public places. The garden of one-thousand roses in Madrid. Bethesda fountain in New York. The Embarcadero in San Francisco.
"What are you drinking?" he types.
"A somewhat disappointing Côtes du Rhône," I answer. Then I get to the point.
"I am sitting by an old statue on a wedding cake of stone steps. A car or van backfires and all the pedestrians stop. Over the roof of a nearby building, a flock of pigeons, already curving back to their roost . . ."
I wait for Blux583’s answer, but there is nothing after my sentence. Just white space about which I can infer anything. He is having a cigarette. He is having a coughing fit. He is angrily inspecting the shard of cork in his wineglass.
"Are you out there?" I type, ashamed of my slight panic.
"Yes," comes the answer, seconds later.
"The spires of the catheter in Barcelona," he writes. His voice recognition software is screwing up again. I imagine Blux583 in his five thousand-dollar wheelchair. The Charlie McCarthy remains of his legs. He’ll be fuming at the latest technical glitch. He tries again.
"The spires of the cathedral in Barcelona. Urine reek. Black mold on the walls. Echo of voices of other tourists. I climb higher and higher. Catch my breadth. Above me, someone has thrown a paper airplane from one of the slits. It sales out and goes into a helpless, tight spin. Out there, the hazy see. Islands I can’t name. Great stretches of history I have no clue about. This is all I know. What the person before me sees and the person after. They scratch their names in the window . . ."
"I’ve never been," I type back.
"Shame," he types back.
I am standing near the dusty rectangle where the Lanford building once stood. Now it’s just smoothed-over dirt. A chain-link fence. A strip of plastic paper running across the ground. A billboard illustration of the future skyscraper. Each window glazed and reflecting. Passersby become out-of-focus sticks. Unrealistic shrubbery. A sameness of trees. All saplings. No one smokes and everyone walks alone.
I am standing near the community garden. Taking notes. The fists of withered sunflowers. The tufts of dusty grass. The glass and wood coffins that hold this summer’s seedlings. Cracked panes of glass. Windows buried in the earth.