To be absolutely certain I rode the F train from my relatively quiet Lower East Side neighborhood to 34th Street and set myself adrift in the crowds around Penn Station and Herald Square. Short subway ride uptown in dark tunnels beneath New York’s sidewalks, twenty-five, thirty minutes of daylight aboveground, among countless bodies hurtling ahead like trains underground, each one on its single-blind track.
Quick trip yesterday, so today I’m certain and determined, though not in any hurry. Why should I be? All the time in the world at my disposal. All mine the moment I let go. How much time do you believe you possess? Enough perhaps to spare a stranger a moment or two while he sits on the Williamsburg Bridge, beyond fences that patrol the pedestrian walkway, on an extreme edge where a long steel rail runs parallel to walkways, bikeways, highways, and train tracks supported by this enormous towering steel structure, sky above, East River below, this edge where the bridge starts and terminates in empty air.
I heard Sonny Rollins play his sax on the Williamsburg Bridge once and only once live one afternoon so many years ago I can’t recall the walkway’s color back then. Definitely not the pale red of my tongue when I wag it at myself each morning in the mirror, the walkway’s color today at the intersection of Delancey and Clinton Streets where I enter it by passing through monumental stone portals, then under a framework of steel girders that span the 118-foot width of the bridge and display steel letters announcing its name. Iron fences painted cotton-candy pink guard the walkway’s flanks, and just beyond their shoulder-high rails much taller barriers of heavy-gauge steel chicken wire bolted to sturdy steel posts guard the fences. Steel crossbeams, spaced four yards or so apart, form a kind of serial roof over the walkway, too high by about a foot for me to jump up and touch, even on my best days playing hoop. Faded crossties overhead could be rungs of a giant ladder once upon a time that slanted red up into the sky, but now the ladder lies flat, rungs separated by gaps of sky that seem to open wider as I walk beneath them, though if I lower my eyes and gaze ahead into the distance where the bridge’s far end should be, the walkway’s a tunnel, solid walls and ceiling converge, no gaps, no exit, a cul-de-sac.
Tenor-sax wail the color I remember from the afternoon, decades ago, I heard Sonny Rollins the first and only time live. Color deeper than midnight blue. Dark, scathing, grudging color of a colored soldier’s wound coloring dirty white bandages wrapped around his dark chest. It was a clear afternoon a sax turned darker than the night. Color of all time. Vanished time. No time. Color of deep-purple swirls I mixed from ovals of pure, perfect color in the paint box I found under the Christmas tree one morning when I was a kid. An unexpected color with a will of its own brewed by a horn’s laments, amens, witness. That’s what I remember, anyway. Color of disappointment, of ancient injuries and bruises and staying alive and dying and being born again all at once after I had completed about half the first lap of a back-and-forth hump over the Williamsburg Bridge.
Walking the bridge an old habit now. One I share with numerous other walkers whose eyes avoid mine as I avoid theirs, our minds perhaps on the people down below, people alive and dead on tennis courts, ball fields, running tracks, swings, slides, jungle gyms, benches, chairs, blankets, grass plots, gray paths alongside the East River. Not exactly breaking news, is it, that from up here human beings seem as tiny as ants. Too early this morning for most people or ants, but from this height, this perch beyond the walkway’s fences, this railing along the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge, I see a few large ants or little people sprinkled here and there. Me way up here, ants and people way down there all the same size. Same weight. Same fate.
So here I am, determined to jump, telling myself, telling you, that I’m certain. Then what’s the fool waiting for? it’s fair for you to ask. In my defense I’ll say I’m aware that my desire to be certain is an old-fashioned desire, “certain” an obsolete word in a world where I’m able only to approximate, at best, the color of a bridge I’ve crossed thousands of times, walked yesterday, today, a world where the smartest people acknowledge an uncertainty principle and run things accordingly and own just about everything and make fools of the vast majority of the rest of us not as smart, not willing to endure lives without certain certainties. I don’t wish to be a victim, a complete dupe, and must hedge my bets, understand that certainty is always relative, and not a very kind, generous, loving relative I can trust. Which is to say, or rather to admit, that although I’m sure I’m up here and sure this edge is where I wish to be and sure of what I intend to do next, to be really certain, or as close to certain as you or I will ever get, certainty won’t come till after the instant I let go.
Many years passed before I figured out it had to be Sonny Rollins I heard one afternoon. Do you know who I mean? Theodore Walter Rollins, born September 7, 1930, New York City, emerges early Fifties “most brash and creative young tenor player.” Flees to Chicago to escape perils of N.Y.C. jazz scene, reemerges 1955 in N.Y.C. with Clifford Brown, Max Roach group — “caustic, often humorous style of melodic invention . . . command of everything from arcane ballads to calypso.” Nicknamed “Newk” for resemblance to Don Newcombe, star Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher. Produces string of great albums (1956–58). Withdraws again, no public performances (1959–61), practices on the Williamsburg Bridge “to get myself together” after “too much, too soon.” Brushes up on craft and returns with album, The Bridge. Another sabbatical, Japan, India (1969) — more time “to get myself together . . . I think it’s a good thing for anybody to do.” Returns (1971) to perform publicly, etc., etc. All this information I quote available at Sonny Rollins website; cocaine addiction, ten months he did at Rikers for armed robbery not in website bio.
Once I decided it had to have been Sonny Rollins playing, my passion for his music escalated, as did my intimacy with the Williamsburg Bridge. Recently, trying to discover where it ranks among New York bridges in terms of its attractiveness to jumpers, I came across alexreisner.com and a story about a suicide in progress on the Williamsburg Bridge that Mr. Reisner claimed to have witnessed. Numerous black-and-white photos illustrate his piece. In some pictures a young colored man wears neatly cropped dreads, pale skin, pale undershorts, a bemused expression, light mustache, shadow of beard, his hands curled around a rail running along the outermost edge of the bridge where he sits. Water ripples behind, below, to frame him. His gaze downcast, engaged elsewhere, a place no one else on the planet can see. No people there, no time there where his eyes have drifted, settled. His features regular, handsome in a stiff, plain, old-fashioned way. Some mother’s mixed son, mixed-up son.
If I could twist around, shift my weight without losing balance, rotate my head, and glance over my left shoulder, I’d see superimposed silhouettes of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges downriver, grand cascades of steel cables draped from their towers, and over there, if I stay steady and focused, I could pick out the tip of the Statue of Liberty jutting just above the Brooklyn Bridge, Lady Liberty posed like sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the winners’ stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, her torch a black-gloved fist rammed into the sky: We’re number one. Up yours.
Dawns on me that I’ll miss the next Olympics, next March Madness, next Super Bowl. Dawns on me that I won’t regret missing them. A blessing. Free at last. Not up here because I didn’t win a gold medal. Not up here to sell shoes or politics. Nor because my mom’s French. Not here because of my color or lack of color. My coloring pale like the young colored man in website photos who sat, I believe, precisely on the spot where I’m sitting. Color not the reason I’m here or the reason you are where you are, wherever you happen to be, whatever your color. Ain’t about color. Speed what it’s about. Color just a gleam in the beholder’s eye. Now you see it, now you don’t.
On the other hand, no doubt color does matter. My brownish skin, gift of the colored man my mother married, confers added protection against sunburn in tropical climates and a higher degree of social acceptance generally in some nations or regions or communities within nations or regions where people more or less my color are the dominant majority. My color also produces in many people of other colors an adverse reaction hardwired. Thus color keeps me on my toes. Danger and treachery never far removed from any person’s life regardless of color, but in my case danger and treachery are palpable, everyday presences. Unpleasant surprises life inflicts. No surprise at all. Color says, smiling, Told you so.
Gender not the reason I’m here either. A crying shame in this advanced day and age that plenty of people would tag my posture as effeminate. Truth is, with my upper body tilted slightly backward, weight poised on my rear end, arms thrust out to either side for balance, I must press my thighs together to maintain stability, keep my feet spread apart so they serve as bobbing anchors.
Try it sometime. Someplace high and dangerous, ideally. You’ll get the point. Point being of course any position you assume up here unsafe. Like choice of a language, gender, color, etc. A person’s forced to choose, forced to suffer the consequences. Like choosing which clothes to wear on the Williamsburg Bridge or not wear. I’ve chosen to keep my undershorts on. I want to be remembered as a swimmer, not some naked nut. Swimmer who has decided to swim away with dignity intact in homely but perfectly respectable boxers.
Just about naked also because I don’t wish to be mistaken for a terrorist. No intent to harm a living soul. No traffic accidents, boat accidents caused by my falling body, heavier and heavier, they say, as it descends. No concealed weapons, no dynamite strapped around my bare belly. I’ve taken pains to situate myself on the bridge’s outermost edge to maximize the chance I hit nothing but water.
And contrary to what you might be thinking, loneliness has not driven me to the edge. I’m far from lonely. In addition to my undershorts I have pain, grief, plenty of regrets, and prospects of a dismal future to keep me company, and when not entertained sufficiently by those companions I look down below. Whole shitty world’s at my feet. My chilly toes wiggle like antennae, chilly thighs squeeze together not because of fear or loneliness but like my mother’s hands when they form a steeple, and you might think she’s about to pray, but then she chants: This is the church / Here’s the steeple, a game Mom taught me in ancient days. I can’t stop a grin spreading across my face even now, today, when she starts the rhyme, steeples her pale long elegant fingers. I’m a sucker every time.
Yes, Mom, one could say I drink a lot, Mom, and drink perhaps part of the problem, but not why I’m up here. Drink a bad habit, I admit. Like hiring a blind person to point out what my eyes miss. But drink simpatico, an old old cut buddy — I gape at his antics, the damage he causes, stunned by the ordinary when it shows itself through his eyes. Only that, Mom. Nothing evil, nothing extreme, nothing more or less than the ordinary showing itself as a gift. The ordinary revealed when I’m drinking. You must know what I mean. I’m the hunter who wants to shoot it, wants to be eaten.
French my dead mother’s mother tongue and occasionally I think in French. If another person appeared next to me sitting on the steel rail where I sit and the sudden person asked, What do you mean mother’s tongue? What do you mean thinking in French? I would have to answer: To tell the truth, I don’t know. Carefully speak the words aloud in English, those exact words repeated twice to keep track of language, of where I am, to keep track of myself. Desperate to explain before we tumble off the edge. Desperate to translate a language one and only one person in the universe speaks, has ever spoken.
What words will I be saying to myself the instant I slip or pitch backward into the abyss? Will French words or Chinese or Yoruba make a difference? Will I return from the East River with a new language in my head, start up the universe again with new words, or do I leave it all behind, everything behind forever, the way thoughts leave me behind? East River behind me, below me. River showing off today. Chilly ripples scintillate under cold, intermittent sunshine. Water colors differently depending on point of view, light, wind, cosmic dissonance. Water shows all colors, no color, any color from impenetrable oily sludge to purest glimmer. Water a medium like white space yet white-space empty — thin ice, a blank page words sprint across until they vanish. White space disguises itself as spray, as froth, as bubbles, as a big white splash when I fall backward and land in the East River, my ass-backward swan dive, swan song greeted by white applause, a bouquet of white flames while deep down below, white space swallows, burps, closes blacker than night.
With my fancy new phone I googled the number of suicides each day in America. By speaking a few words into my phone I learned 475 suicides per year, 1.3 daily in New York City. With a few more words or clicks one could learn yearly rate of suicide in most countries of the civilized world. Data more difficult obviously to access from prehistory, the bad old days before a reliable someone started counting everything, keeping score of everything, but even ancient numbers available I discover if you ask a phone the correct questions in the proper order, answers supplied by sophisticated algorithms that estimate within a hairsbreadth, no doubt, unknown numbers from the past. Lots of statistics re suicide, but I could not locate the date of the very first suicide or find a chat room or blog offering lively debate on the who, when, why, where of the original suicide. You’d think someone would care about such a transformative achievement, or at least an expert would claim credit for unearthing the first suicide’s name and address, posting it for posterity.
Suicide of course a morbid subject. Who would want to know too much about it? I’m much more curious about immortality and rapture. If a person intent on suicide is also seeking rapture, why not choose the Williamsburg Bridge. Like the young man in the website photos who probably believed his fall, his rapture, would commence immersed within the colors of Sonny Rollins’s tenor sax, Sonny’s music first and last thing heard as water splashes open and seals itself. Rapture rising, a pinpoint spark of dazzle ascending the heavens, wake spreading behind it, an invisible band of light that expands slowly, surely as milky-white wakes of water taxis that pass beneath the bridge, expand and shiver to the ends of the universe.
Sometimes it feels like I’ve been sitting up here forever. An old, weary ear worn out by nagging voices nattering inside and outside it. Other times I feel brand-new, as if I’ve just arrived or not quite here yet, never will be. Lots to read here, plenty of threats, promises, advice, prophecies in various colors, multiple scripts scrawled, scrolled, stenciled, sprayed on the walkway’s blackboard of pavement. I’ve read that boys in Central Asia duel with kites of iridescent rainbow colors, a razor fixed to each kite’s string to decide who’s king. Clearly my kite’s been noticed. Don’t you see them? Bridge crawling with creepy cops in jumpsuits, a few orange, most the color of roaches. Swarms of them, sneaky fast and brutal as always. They clamber over barriers, scuttle across girders, shimmy up cables, skulk behind buttresses, swing on ropes like Spider-Man. A chopper circles. One cop hoots through a bullhorn. Will they shoot me off the bridge like they blasted poor, lovesick King Kong off the Empire State Building? Cop vehicles, barricades, flashing lights clog arteries that serve the bridge and its network of expressways, thruways, overpasses, and underpasses that should be pumping traffic noise and carbon monoxide to keep me company up here.
With a cell phone, if I could manage to dial it without dumping my ass in the frigid East River, I could call 9-1-1, leave a number for SWAT teams in the field to reach me up here, an opportunity for opposing parties to conduct a civilized conversation this morning instead of screaming back and forth like fishwives. My throat hoarse already, eyes tearing in the wicked wind. I threaten to let go and plunge into the water if they encroach one inch further into my territory, my show this morning.
Small clusters of people-ants peer up at me now. What do they think they see tottering on the edge of the Williamsburg Bridge? They appear to stare intently, concerned, curious, amused, though I’ve read numerous species of ant and certain specialists within numerous ant species are nearly blind. Nature not wasting eyes on lives spent entirely in the dark, but nature generous too, provides ants with antennae as proxies for vision and we get cell phones to cope with the blues.
Shared cell-phone blues once with a girlfriend I had high hopes for once who told me about a lover once, her Michelangelo, gorgeous, she said, a rod on him hard as God’s wrath, is how she put it, a pimp who couldn’t understand why she got so upset when he conducted business by cell phone while lying naked next to naked her, a goddamn parade of women coming and going in my bedroom and Michelangelo chattering away as if I don’t exist, him without a clue he was driving me crazy jealous, she said, her with no clue how crazy jealous it was driving me — the lethal combination of my unhealthy curiosity and her innocent willingness to regale me with details of her former intimacies, her chattering away on her end and me listening on mine connected and unconnected.
Not expecting a call up here. If I could explain white space, perhaps I could convince everyone down there to take a turn up here. Not that it’s comfortable here, no reasonable person would wish to be in my shoes, I’m not even wearing shoes, tossed overboard with socks, sweatshirt, jeans, jacket, beret, stripped down to skivvies, and intermittent sunshine the forecast promised not doing the trick. Each time a cloud slides between me and the sun, wind chills my bare skin, my bones shiver. On the other hand, the very last thing any human being should desire is comfort. World’s too dangerous. Comfort never signifies less peril, less deceit, it only means your guard’s down, your vigilance faltering.
On the bridge one day dark, thick clouds rolling in fast, sky almost black at two in the afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a man reflected in a silvery band of light that popped up solid as a mirror for an instant parallel to the walkway’s fence, a momentary but crystal-clear image of a beat-up, hunched-over colored guy in a beret, baggy gray sweats, big ugly sneakers scurrying across the Williamsburg Bridge, an old gray person beside me nobody loves and he loves nobody, might as well be dead, who would know or care if he was dead or wasn’t, and this man scurrying stupid as an ant in a box, back and forth, back and forth between walls it can’t scale is me, a lonely, aging person trapped in a gray city, a vicious country, scurrying back and forth as if scurrying might change his fate, and I think, What a pitiful creature, what a miserable existence, it doesn’t get any worse than this shit, and then it does get worse, icy pellets of rain start pelting me, but between stinging drops a bright idea — universe bigger than N.Y.C., bigger than America, get out of here, get away, take a trip, visit Paris again, and even before the part about where the fuck’s the money coming from, I’m remembering I detest tourism, tourists worse than thieves in my opinion, evil and dangerous because tourists steal entire lands and cultures, strip them little by little, stick in their pockets everything they can cart back home and exchange for other commodities until other lands and cultures emptied and vanished, tourists like false-hearted lovers worse than thieves in the old song, you know how it goes, a thief will just rob you and take what you have, but a false-hearted lover will lead you to the grave.
Once upon a long time ago I had hopes love might help. Shared rapture once with a false-hearted lover. I’ll start with your toes, she whispered, start with your cute crooked toes, she says, your funny crooked toes with undersides same color as mine, skin on top a darker color than mine, and when I’m finished with your toes, she promises, my false-hearted lover promises, I’ll do the rest. Hours and hours later she’s still doing toes, she’s in no hurry and neither am I. Enraptured. Toes tingle, aglow. How many toes do I own? However many, I wished for more and one toe also more than enough, toe she’s working on makes me forget its ancestors, siblings, posterity, forget everything. Bliss will never end. I read War and Peace, Dhalgren, Don Quixote, and think I’ll start Proust next after I finish Cane or has it been Sonny Rollins’s mellow sax, not written words, accompanying work she’s busy doing down there. Whole body into it, every tentacle, orifice, treacly inner wetness, hers, mine. Time seemed to stop, as during a yawn, blink, death, rapture, as in those apparently permanent silences between two consecutive musical notes Sonny Rollins or Thelonious Monk blew, or between heartbeats, hers, mine, ours. A hiccuping pause, hitch, an extenuating circumstance.
It’s afterward and also seamlessly before she starts on my toes and she’s still in no hurry. No hurry in her voice the day that very same false-hearted lover tells me she’s falling . . . slipped out of love.
Shame on me but I couldn’t help myself, shouted her words back in her face. Who wouldn’t need to scream, to grab her, shake her, search for a reflection in the abyss of her eyes, in the dark mirror of white space. I plunged, kicked, flailed, swallowed water, wind, freezing rain.
Sad but true, some people born unlucky in love, and if you’re jinxed that way it seems never to get any better. No greeting this morning from my neighbor ghost, not even a goodbye wave. Can’t say what difference it might have made if she had appeared, I simply register my regret and state the fact she was a no-show again this morning in the naked space above her window’s bottom ledge.
We speak politely in the elevator, nod or smile or wave on streets surrounding the vast apartment complex or when we cross paths in the drab lobby of section C of the building we share. Not very long after I moved into my fifteenth-floor one-bedroom, kitchenette and bath, the twin towers still lurked at the island’s tip, biggest bullies on the block after blocks of skyscrapers, high-rises, the spectacle still novel to my eyes, so much city out the window, its size and sprawl and chaos would snag my gaze, stop me in my tracks, especially the endless sea of glittering lights at night, and for the millisecond or so it took to disentangle a stare, my body would expand, fly apart, each particle seeking out its twin among infinite particles of city, and during one such pause, from the corner of one eye as I returned to the building, the room, I glimpsed what might have been the blur of a white nightgown or blur of a pale, naked torso fill the entire bright window just beyond my kitchenette window, a woman’s shape I was sure, so large, vital, near, my neighbor must have been pressing her skin against the cool glass, a phantom disappearing faster than I could focus, then gone when a venetian blind’s abrupt descent cut off my view, all but a thirty-inch-wide band of emptiness in my neighbor’s window, increasingly familiar and intimate as the years passed.
What if she had known that today her last chance. A showing as in Pentecost. No different this morning, though it’s my last. Her final chance, too. Sad she didn’t know. Too bad I won’t be around tomorrow to tell her so we can be unhappy about it together, laugh about it together. Her name, if I knew it, on the note I won’t write and leave behind for posterity.
Posterity. Pentecost. With a phone I could review both etymologies. Considered bringing a phone. Not really. Phone would tempt me to linger, call someone. One last call. To whom? No phone. Nowhere to put it if I had one. Maybe tucked in the waistband of my shorts. Little tuck of belly already stretching the elastic. Vanity versus necessity. So what if I bulge. But how to manage a call if I had a phone and someone to call. Freeing my hands would mean letting go of the thick railing, an unadvisable maneuver. Accidental fall funny. Not my intent. Would spoil my show. A flawless Pentecost this morning, please.
“Posterity,” “Pentecost”: old-fashioned words hoisting themselves up on crutches, rattling, sighing their way through alleys and corridors of steel girders’ struts, trusses, concrete piers. Noisy chaos of words graffitied on the pedestrian walkway: dheadt refuse, eat me, jew york, poop dick dat bitch, honduras. Ominous silence of highway free of traffic as it never is except rarely after hours, and even during the deepest predawn quiet a lone car will blast across or weave drunkenly from lane to lane as if wincing from blows of wind howling, sweeping over the Williamsburg Bridge.
“Why” the most outmoded, most vexing word. Staggering across the Williamsburg Bridge one morning, buffeted by winds from every direction, headwind stiff enough to support my weight, leaning into it at a forty-five-degree angle, blinded by the tempest, flailing, fearing the undertow, the comic-strip head-over-heels liftoff, and I asked myself, Why the fuck are you up here, jackass, walking the bridge in this godforsaken weather, and that question — why — drumming in my eardrums, the only evidence of my sanity I was able to produce.
Why not let go. Fly away from this place where I teeter and totter, shiver, hold on to a cold iron rail, thighs pressed together, fingers numb from gripping, toes frozen stiff, no air in my lungs.
Always someone’s turn at the edge. Are you grateful it’s me not you today? Perhaps I’m your proxy. During the Civil War a man drafted into the Union Army could pay another man to enlist in his place. This quite legal practice of hiring a proxy to avoid a dangerous obligation of citizenship enraged those who could not afford the luxury, and to protest draft laws that in effect exempted the rich while the poor were compelled to serve as cannon fodder in Mr. Lincoln’s bloody unpopular war, mobs rioted in several northern cities, most famously here in New York, where murderous violence lasted several days, ending only after federal troops were dispatched to halt the killing, beating, looting, burning.
Poor people of color by far the majority of the so-called draft riot’s victims. A not unnatural consequence given the fact mobs could not get their hands on wealthy men who had hired proxies and stayed behind the locked doors of their substantial estates in substantial neighborhoods protected by armed guards during the civil unrest. Colored people on the other hand easy targets. Most resided in hovels alongside hovels of poor whites, thus readily accessible, more or less simple to identify, and none of them possessed rights a white man was required by law or custom to respect. Toll of colored lives heavy. I googled it.
So much killing, dying, and after all, a proxy’s death can’t save a person’s life. Wall Street brokers who purchased exemption from death in the killing fields of Virginia didn’t buy immortality. Whether Christ died for our sins or not, each of us obligated to die. On the other hand, the moment you learn your proxy killed in action at Gettysburg, wouldn’t it feel a little like stealing a taste of immortality? Illicit rapture. If suicide a crime, shouldn’t martyrdom be illegal, too? Felony or misdemeanor? How many years for attempted martyrdom?
When you reach the edge you must decide to go further or not, to be free or not. If you hesitate you get stuck like the unnamed fair-skinned young colored man in Reisner’s photos. Better to let go quickly and maybe you will rise higher and higher because that’s what happens sometimes when you let go — rapture. Why do fathers build wings if they don’t want sons to fly; why do mothers bear sons if they don’t want sons to die.
When I let go and topple backward, will I cause a splash, leave a mark? After the hole closes, how will the cops locate me? I regret not having answers. The plunge backward off my perch perhaps the last indispensable piece of research. As Zora Neale Hurston said, You got to go there to know there.
But no. Not yet. I’m in no hurry this morning. Not afraid either. I may be clutching white-knuckled onto the very edge of a very high bridge, but I don’t fear death, don’t feel close to death. I felt more fear of death, much closer to death, on numerous occasions. Closest one summer evening under streetlights in the park in the ghetto where I used to hoop. Raggedy outdoor court, a run available every evening except on summer weekends when the highfliers owned it. A daily pickup game for older gypsies like me wandering in from various sections of the city, for youngblood wannabes from the neighborhood, local has-beens and never-wases, a run perfect for my mediocre, diminishing skills, high-octane fantasies, and aging body that enjoyed pretending to be in superb condition, at least for the first five or six humps up and down the cyclone-fenced court, getting off with the other players as if it’s the NBA Finals. Ferocious play war, harmless fun unless you get too enthusiastic, one too many flashbacks to glory days that never existed, and put a move on somebody that puts you out of action a couple weeks, couple months, for good if you aren’t careful. Anyway, one evening a hopped-up gangster and his crew cruise up to the court in a black, glistening Lincoln SUV. Bogart winners and our five well on the way to delivering the righteous ass-kicking the chumps deserved for stealing a game from decent folks waiting in line for a turn. Mr. Bigtime, big mouth, big butt, dribbles the ball off his foot, out of bounds, and calls a foul. Boots the pill to the fence. Waddling after it, he catches up and plants a foot atop it. Tired of this punk-ass, jive-ass run, he announces. Motherfucker over, motherfuckers. Then he unzips the kangaroo pouch of his blimpy sweat top he probably never sheds no matter how hot on the court because it hides a tub of jelly-belly beneath it, and from the satiny pullover extracts a very large pistol, steps back, nudges the ball forward with his toe, and — Pow — kills the poor thing as it tries to roll away. Pow — Pow — Pow — starts to shooting up the court. Everybody running, ducking to get out of the way. G’wan home, niggers. Ain’t no more gotdamn game today. Pow. King of the court, ruler of the hood. Busy as he is during his rampage, brother finds time to wave his rod in my direction. What you looking at, you yellow-ass albino motherfucker. Gun steady an instant, pointed directly between my eyes long enough I’m certain he’s going to blow me away and I just about wet myself. Truth be told, with that cannon in my mug maybe I did leak a little. In the poor light of the playground who could tell. Who cares, is what I was thinking if I was thinking anything at that moment besides dead. Who knows. Who cares. Certainly not me, not posterity, not the worker ants wearing rubber aprons and rubber gloves who’ll dump my body on a slab at the morgue, drag off my sneakers, snip off my hoop shorts and undershorts with huge shears before they hose me down. Sweat or piss or shit or blood in my drawers. Who knows. Who cares.
A near-death experience I survived to write a story about, a story my mother reads and writes a note about on one of the pamphlets she saved in neat stacks on top of and under the night table beside her bed, each one containing Bible verses and commentary to put her to sleep.
I saw the note only after Mom died. A message evidently intended for my benefit, but she never got around to showing it to me. She had underlined words from Habakkuk, the pamphlet deemed appropriate for the first Sunday after Pentecost — “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise — law becomes slack and justice never prevails . . . their own might is their God” — and in the pamphlet’s margin she had printed a response to my story never shared with me.
Of course I had proudly presented a copy of the anthology containing my story to my mother, one of two complimentary copies, by the way all I ever received from the publisher as payment. Mom thanked me profusely, close to tears, I believe I recall, the day I placed the book in her hands, but afterward she never once mentioned my story. I found her note by chance years later when I was sorting through boxes full of her stuff, most of it long overdue to be tossed. Pamphlet in my hand and suddenly Mom appears. Immediately after reading her note, I rushed off to read all of Habakkuk in the beat-up, rubber band–bound Bible she had passed on to me, the Bible once belonging to my father’s family, only thing of his she kept when he walked out of our lives, she said, and said he probably forgot it, left it behind in his rush to leave. I searched old journals of mine for entries recorded around the date of the pamphlet, date of my story’s publication. After this flurry of activity, I just about wept. My mother a busy scribbler herself, I had discovered, but a no-show as far as ever talking about her writing or mine. Then a message after she’s gone, ghost-message Mom doesn’t show me till she’s a ghost too: This reminds me of your story about playing ball.
Why hadn’t she spoken to me? Did she understand, after all, my great fear and loneliness? How close I’ve always felt to death? Death up in my face on the playground in the park. Probably as near to death that moment as any living person gets. Closest I’ve ever felt to dying, that’s for damn sure. So absolutely close and not even close at all, it turns out, ’cause here I sit.
Yo. You all down below. Don’t waste your breath feeling sorry for me. Your behinds may hit the water before mine.
At the last minute, for comfort’s sake, for the poetry of departing this world as naked as I arrived, maybe I will remove these boxers. Why worry about other people’s reactions. Trying to please other people a waste of time at my age. I understand good and well my only captive audience is me. Any person paying too much attention to an incidental detail like shorts is dealing with her or his own problems, aren’t they, and their problems by definition not mine. I have no words to soothe their pain.
Can’t seem to get underwear off my brain this morning. Not mine, we’re finished with mine, I hope, though a woman’s underwear that day in Paris, my undershorts today on the Williamsburg Bridge surprisingly similar, made of the same no-frills white cotton as little girls’ drawers used to be. I’m seeing a lady’s underwear and recalling another unlucky-in-love story. Last one I’ll tell, I promise. A civil war precipitated by underwear. Not a murderous war like ours between the states. A small, bittersweet conflict. Tug-of-war when I pull down a lady’s underwear and she resists.
I was young, testing unclear rules. I wished/wish to think of myself as a decent person, an equal partner, not a tyrant or exploiter in my exchanges with others, especially women. Which means that whatever transpired in Paris between a lady and me should have been her show, governed by her rules, but I was renting her time, thus proxy owner of her saffron skin, slim hips, breasts deep for a young woman. Why not play. Wrap a long, black, lustrous braid around my fist, pull her head gently back on her shoulders until her neck arches gracefully and she moans or whimpers deep in her throat.
I asked her name and when she didn’t respond immediately, I repeated my French phrase — Comment t’appelles-tu — more attention to pronunciation since she was obviously of Asian descent, a recent immigrant or illegal, maybe, and perhaps French not her native language. Ana, I thought she replied, after I asked a second, slower time. Then I shared my name, and said I’m American, a black American — noir, I said, in case my pale color confused her. I asked her country of origin — De quel pays? Another slight hesitation on her side before she said Chine — or she could have said Ana again or the first Ana could have been China, I realized later. Her name a country. Country’s name spoken in English, then French, an answer to both my inquiries.
Her eagerness to please teased me with the prospect that perhaps no rules need inhibit my pleasure. I assumed all doors open if a generous enough tip was added to the fee already collected by a fortyish woman on a sofa at the massage parlor’s entrance on Rue Duranton. In my mind, only unresolved issue the exact amount of pourboire. I didn’t wish to spoil our encounter with market-stall haggling, so like any good translator I settled for approximate equivalences, and we performed a short, silent charade of nods, looks, winks, hands, blinks, fingers to express sums and simulate acts, both of us smiling as we worked.
I trusted our bargain had reduced her rules to only one rule I needed to respect: pay and you can play. Her bright, black eyes seemed to agree. Resistance, they said, just part of the game, Monsieur. Just be patient, s’il vous plaît. Play along. I may pretend to plead — no no no no — when your fingers touch my underwear, but please persist, test me.
Easy as pie for a while. Underwear slid down her hips to reveal an edge of dark pubic crest. Then not so easy after she flops down on the floor next to the mat, curls up knees to chest, and emits a small, stifled cry. Then it’s inch by inch until underwear finally dangled from one bobbing ankle, snapped off finally and tossed aside. A minute more and not a bit of shyness.
Wish I could say I knew better. Knew when to stop, whether I paid or not for the privilege of going further. Wish I believed now that we were on the same page then. But no. Like most of us, I behaved inexcusably. Believed what I wanted to believe. Copped what I could because I could. No thought of limits, boundaries. Hers or mine. No fear of AIDS back then. Undeterred by the threat of hordes of Chinese soldiers blowing bugles, firing burp guns as they descend across the Yalu River to attack stunned U.S. troops, allies of the South in a civil war, Americans who had advanced a bridge too far north and found themselves stranded, trapped, mauled, shivering, bleeding, dying in snowdrifts beside the frozen Chosin Reservoir.
No regrets, no remorse until years later, back home again, and one afternoon Sonny Rollins practicing changes on the Williamsburg Bridge halts me dead in my tracks. Big colors, radiant bucketfuls splash my face. I spin, swim in colors. Enraptured. Abducted by angels who lift me by my droopy wings up, up, and away. Then they let go and I fall, plunge deeper and deeper into swirling darkness.
Am I remembering it right, getting the story, the timing right, the times, the Fifties, Sixties, everything runs together, happens at once, explodes, scatters. I will have to check my journals. Google. Too young for Korea, too old for Iraq, student deferments during Vietnam. Emmett Till’s exact age in 1955, not old enough to enlist or be on my own in New York City, slogging daily like it’s a job back and forth across the Williamsburg Bridge those years of Sonny’s first sabbatical. When I hurried back to Rue Duranton next morning to apologize or leave a larger tip, it was raining. No Ana works here, I believe the half-asleep women on the sofa said.
I wish these dumb undershorts had pockets. Many deep, oversize pockets like camouflage pants young people wear. I could have loaded them with stones.
Before I go, let me confide my final regret: I’m sorry I’ll miss my agent’s birthday party. To be more exact, it’s my agent’s house in Montauk I regret missing. Love my agent’s house. Hundreds of rooms, marvelous ocean views, miles and miles of wooded grounds. One edge of the property borders a freshwater pond where wild animals come to drink, including timid, quivering deer. Stayed once for a week alone, way back when before my agent had kids. Quick love affair with Montauk, a couple of whose inhabitants had sighted the Amistad with its cargo of starving, thirsty slaves in transit between two of Spain’s New World colonies, slaves who had revolted and killed most of the ship’s crew, the Amistad stranded off Montauk Point with a few surviving sailors at the helm, alive only because they promised to steer the ship to Africa, though the terrified Spaniards doing their best to keep the Amistad as far away from the dark continent as Christopher Columbus had strayed from the East Indies when he landed by mistake on a Caribbean island.
I know more than enough, more than I want to know, about the Amistad revolt. Admire Melville’s remake of the incident in Benito Cereno but not tempted to write about it myself. One major disincentive the irony of African captives who after years of tribulations and trials in New England courts were granted freedom, repatriated to Africa, and became slave merchants. Princely, eloquent Cinqué, mastermind of the shipboard rebellion, one of the bad guys. Cinque, nom de guerre of Patty Hearst’s kidnapper. Not a pretty ending to the Amistad story. Is that why I avoided writing it? Is the Williamsburg Bridge a pretty ending? Yes or no, it’s another story I won’t write.
Under other circumstances, revisiting my agent’s fabulous house, the ocean, memories of an idyll in Montauk might be worth renting a car, inching along in bumper-to-bumper weekend traffic through the gilded Hamptons. My agent’s birthday after all. More friend than agent for years now. We came up in the publishing industry together. Rich white kid, poor black kid, a contrasting pair of foundlings, misfits, mavericks, babies together at the beginning of careers. Muy simpático. Nearly the same age, fans of Joyce, Beckett, Dostoevsky, Hart Crane. (If this were a time and place for footnotes, I’d quote Crane’s most celebrated poem, “The Bridge” — “Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft / A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets / Tilting there momentarily” — and add the fact that Crane disappeared after he said, “Goodbye — goodbye — goodbye, everybody,” and jumped off a boat into the Gulf of Mexico.) We also shared a fondness for Stoli martinis in which three olives replaced dry vermouth, and both of us loved silly binges of over-the-top self-importance, daydreaming, pretending to be high rollers, blowing money neither had earned on meals in fancy restaurants, until I began to suspect the agency’s charge card either bottomless or fictitious, maybe both. Muy simpático even after his star had steadily risen, highest roller among his peers, while my star dimmed precipitously, surviving on welfare, barely aglow. How long since my agent has sold a major piece of my writing, how long since I’ve submitted a major new piece to sell? In spite of all of the above, still buddies. Regret missing his party, Montauk, the house. House partly mine, after all. My labor responsible for earning a minuscule percentage of the down payment, n’est-ce pas? For nine months of the year no one inhabits the Montauk mansion. In France vacant dwellings are white space poor people occupy and claim, my mother had once informed me. Won’t my agent’s family be surprised next June to find my ghost curled up in his portion of the castle.
Last time in Montauk was when? Harder and harder to match memories with dates. One event or incident seems to follow another, but often I misremember, dates out of sync. Sonny Rollins’s sax squats on the Williamsburg Bridge, changes the sky’s color, claims ownership of a bright day. Was I in fact walking the bridge those years Sonny Rollins woodshedding up there? I’ll have to check my journals. But the oldest journals temporarily unavailable, part of the sample loaned to my agent to shop around.
I’m sure I can find a university happy to pay to archive your papers, he said.
Being archived a kind of morbid thought, but go right ahead, my friend. Fuckers don’t want to pay for my writing while I’m alive, maybe if I’m dead they’ll pay.
Stoppit. Nobody’s asking you to jump off a bridge. Nothing morbid about selling your papers. Same principle involved as selling backlist.
So do it, okay. Still sounds like desperation to me, like a last resort.
Just the opposite. I tempt publishers with posterity, remind them the best writing, best music, never ages. Don’t think in terms of buying, I lecture the pricks. Think investment. Your great-great-grandkids will dine sumptuously off the profits.
Truth is, I’ve got nothing to sell except white space. You know what I mean: white space. Where print lives. What eats print. White space. That Pakistani guy who wrote the bestseller about black holes. Prize client of yours, isn’t he? Don’t try and tell me you or all the people buying the book understand black holes. Black holes. White space. White holes. Black space. What’s the difference?
White space could be a bigger blockbuster than black holes. No words . . . just white space. Keep my identity a secret. No photos, no interviews, no distracting particulars of color, gender, age, class, national origin. Anonymity will create mystery, complicity — white space everybody’s space, everybody welcome, everybody will want a copy.
The Amistad packed with corpses and ghosts drifts offshore behind me. Ahoy, I holler and wave at two figures way up the beach. No clue where we’ve landed. I’m thinking water, food, rescue, maybe we won’t starve or die of thirst after all. The thought dizzying like too much drink too fast after debilitating days of drought. Water, death roil around in the same empty pit inside me. The two faraway figures scarecrows silhouetted against a gray horizon. They must be on the crest of a rise and I’m in a black hole staring up. Like me they’ve halted. I’m not breathing, no water sloshing inside me, no waves slap my bare ankles, roar of ocean subsided to a dull flat silence, my companions not fussing, not clambering out of the flimsy rowboat behind me. Everybody, everything in the universe frozen. Some fragile yet deep abiding protocol, ironclad rules obscure and compelling, oblige me to wait, not to speak or breathe until those alien others whose land this must be wave or run away or beckon, draw swords, fire muskets.
The pair of men steps in our direction, then more steps across the whitish gray. They are in booths making calls, counting, calculating with each approaching step, each wobble, what it might be worth, how much bounty in shiny pieces of silver and gold they could collect in exchange for bodies, a rowboat, a sailing ship that spilled us hostage on this shore.
My friends, calls out the taller one in a frock coat, gold watch on a chain, his first words same words Horatio Seymour, governor of New York, addressed in 1863 to a mob of hungover, mostly Irish immigrants, their hands still red from three or four days of wasting colored children, women, and men in draft riots.
I’m going to go now. What took you so long? I bet you’re thinking, or maybe you wonder why, why this moment — and since you’ve stuck with me this long, I owe you more — so I’ll end with what I said to my false-hearted lover in one of our last civil conversations when she asked, What’s your worst nightmare? Never seeing you again. Come on. Seriously. Seeing you again. Stop playing and be serious. Okay. Serious. Very super-serious. My worst nightmare is being cured. Cured of what? What I am. Of myself. Cured of yourself? Right. Cured of who I am. Cured of what doesn’t fit, of what’s inappropriate and maybe dangerous inside me. You know. Cured like people they put away — far away behind bars, stone walls, people they put in chains, beat, shock with electric prods, drugs, exile to desert-island camps in Madagascar or camps in snowiest Siberia or shoot, starve, hang, gas, burn, or stuff with everything everybody believes desirable and then display them in store windows, billboard ads, on TV, in movies, like perfectly stuffed lifelike animated cartoon animals.
Lying naked in bed next to naked her I said my worst nightmare not the terrible cures or fear I fit in society’s category of people needing cures. Worst nightmare not damage I might perpetrate on others or myself. Worst nightmare, my love, the thought I might live a moment too long. Wake up one morning cured and not know I’m cured.
P.s. The other day, believe it or not, I saw a woman scaling the bridge’s outermost restraining screen. Good taste or not I ran toward her shouting my intention to write a story about a person jumping off the Williamsburg Bridge, imploring her as I got closer for a quote. “Fuck off, buddy,” she said over her naked shoulder. Then she said: “Splash.”