Friday, January 30, 2009

Sucking Icicles



Have you ever ridden the J train and looked out the window late on one of those cold winter nights when everything is shades of black and the stars are out with the whole city outlined by the faint reflection of your own face; everything is frozen, the river has stopped and you can see the lightest sheen of ice on its surface and above the dark water reflected in it the city sits like a great crystal palace? You can see the Brooklyn Bridge and the ice hangs off its cables like the ice that hung from old Walt Whitman’s beard when he crossed the river on the ferry for they say the old man of American letters always had a passion for crossing rivers even when ice floes floated by the barges and his words hung in the air before his face from their heat.

The spire of the Empire State building is an icicle, the Chrysler building a silver skater’s giant blade in the north sky and for just a moment you know that you were put on this earth just to see this and nothing more and it is enough. You don’t have to save the world and the wind howls your mother’s name and the story of the children, three of them that you will be the parent of one day and you will be able to sit on a porch with all of them on your lap and it will be summer and the breeze will cool your brow and the woman you love will come to you with water and wet your lips with her kiss.

The next morning I awoke in Williamsburg with my bicycle walking past a bodega with the door open and all the windows fogged the radio is playing the news and the announced temperature is officially ten degrees. No money for the train and without the heart to hoist the bicycle over the turnstile I decide to walk back over the bridge. The slush from the day before has frozen with everyone’s footsteps cratered in the ice, hard shoe prints, even one boot frozen lost in the slush you can hear the suction sound it made and the drunken laughing of the mad cold footed sojourner who gave up the shoe for lost and left it to freeze as you realize helplessly why would anyone do this.

It was impossible to ride the bicycle over this odd once in a lifetime terrain. The crossing took an hour. The wind is never harder than on a high suspension bridge over a North American sea bound river. My hair froze from sweating and tiny icicles grew in my nose, but the view down the gray river was superb all the way to Queens.

At nine a.m. in the bustling crowd of Delancey Street, I walked by a young Jewish man with beard, yarmulke, and ear curls holding a bank deposit bag. My eyes welded to the bag with heat that could melt metal. The man saw me looking at him and furtively he tugged it up under his shoulder. With all my life’s heart and ambition I wished to grab that bag from him and run through the crowd as he chased me among the multitudes knocking over a fruit cart in my imagination like my indigent immigrant Scottish grandfather Hamilton might have except he would never have done anything like that and that’s where something happened that I am trying to describe here.

“But you couldn’t, could you?”

“No.”

“That’s good, man.”

I was standing at the cop spot talking to some guy I used to see there. He never got more than a chippie. He never had enough money to get anything more. His name was Brackett and his ambition was to be an actor. He put on plays with the New Theatre that no one understood and said that was the point. He was good looking with long brown hair and a beautiful girlfriend, he could have had Hollywood but he would rather put on plays in parking lots under the bridges. He told me they were doing one later.

“When it gets dark.”

“Under the bridge?”

I told him about the frozen crossing and he laughed out loud. He had just done a bag as I was walking up and he had no money either. I told him about how I felt about the man and his money. I was suspended between right and wrong. I had left who I was and I didn’t know what I was going to become.

"I don't know when I might make it over there y'see." I was sweating and I was scared, pale, even for the cold. He could see that and wanted to help.

He lit a cigarette. His eyes were pinned and I wanted them. I wanted to take his eyes from his skull and put them in mine if with them I could see the frozen solid world that the dope had given him.

“Suspended is a good word.”

“But it's abstract, I still think you need a metaphor you need something physical you can see, touch and feel and maybe a really evocative image.”

That’s when I thought of the bridge and told him about the view from the window. But he had not been there.

“You couldn’t have opened it anyway.”

“You think?”

“I know. Those bags are impossible to open without a key, man. Try to come to the performance,” he said and he gave me a cigarette, walking off. He had seen the way I was looking at his eyes and I think that spooked him, but I could be wrong about that. I could be wrong about anything.

“At least you’re not a criminal,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”

If he only knew what I wanted to do with his eyes, I thought and I leaned back against a brick wall. It was painted with a colorful mural, greens, blues, reds and yellows of springtime in Los Dominica and you could have seen me standing there if you walked by with the smoke from my cigarette frozen in time and space. It partly obscured my face in one frame of the photograph you didn’t take of me that day. If you had I would have it to show my children on the porch that golden day.

It’s that corner of Houston and Avenue B where they used to have works for sale.

“Clean works,” the barker called, as if when his mother patted her belly with that special gleam in her eye on the el train from Brooklyn riding to her ball bearing factory job when they still had such things on the great isle of the Manhattoes tribe that sold it to the likes of Herman Melville’s father-in-law, Gansevoort’s the name, as if this is what the barker’s mother dreamed he was born to do.

I stood there smoking like a faint fire flashing on the two or three other times I had crossed on to the frozen bridge that divides right and wrong. I had found a bank statement in our mailbox once addressed to a man named John Jonah Hechtmann. When I opened it there was a balance of some hundred dollars. I went to the Citibank south of Bleecker past the great statue of LaGuardia intent on committing fraud.

Another time in the same mailbox I found a check for one of my colleagues in my mailbox. Often I went to the check cashing storefront around the block and the proprietor had stopped asking me for identification. I realized all I had to do was sign the check. I became a petty larcenist and passed bad checks in my ex-wife’s name.

I was unable to take the bank bag from the son of the shop owner. My sense of right and wrong was suspended somewhere above the river. The bridge was frozen over. It is possible to ride back and forth on the trains all night with one single token even without if you jump and never get anywhere. On the other side of the bridge awaited the vision of the sunny porch and the three children, it would be a long time before I got to the other side.

Brackett’s play that night was underneath the Manhattan Bridge on Catherine Street. It was freezing and you could hear the wind howling as it whipped off the East River and swooped down that narrow lane under the great steel and concrete columns. Someone had built a bonfire and you could see it reflected in Brackett’s eyes as he danced and chanted. People stood in the middle of the street, reciting lines of Shakespeare. A pretty woman in a corner sang an aria from La Boheme. Construction workers in yellow hardhats walked on and off the street stage carrying ladders and shaking their heads. The vulgar pigeons watched from a girder. For a moment it was almost possible for me to believe that it was my life and I was there.

Download:

"In A Misty Morning" mp3
by Gene Clark, 1972
available on Roadmaster

"Tried So Hard" mp3
by Gene Clark
available on Echoes

"Gene Clark" mp3
by The Teenage Fanclub, 1993.
available on Thirteen

photograph:
Williamsburg Bridge, Brooklyn, New York, 1997.

© Ted Barron