Compressed Sensations in Upper Manhattan

I am standing at the lights on West 181st street and Fort Washington Avenue, waiting to cross the road.  Next to me is a businessman, hot and sweaty, overdressed in the intense hundred degree heat. On the other side of me, a workman stands with his hands in his pockets, his muscular arms thick with dark hair. A young mother stands directly in front of us with a small child in a pushchair.  The child eats a rainbow colored ice cream and has the different colors smeared over her face. A homeless man stands next to them; even in the heat, he has a blanket slung around his thin shoulders. The smell of dog urine and old cigars rises from the hot pavement, mingling with the unwashed homeless man smell.

I shift my weight from foot to foot. Come on, come on, let’s cross already. When I’m impatient I have a New York accent inside my head.  The most determined road crossers already stand halfway across the road, forcing the cars to drive around them. A yellow cab driver leans out of his cab. He yells, “Get out of the road!” No one pays attention to him. He honks his horn furiously. The sound travels slowly through the compressed air.

Finally, the lights change and the crowd crosses. The child drops her ice cream; it is lost underneath the rush of feet. She starts to cry, a high whine; her mother cuffs her, gently and without any passion, on the ear. I observe the mother’s enormous, split fruit bottom as she crosses in front of me, voluptuous russet flesh bursting from spandex clothing, her leggings so thin and tight that I can make out the dimples in her thighs.

A teenage girl stands on the corner outside the Chinese, surrounded by a group of tall boys in large, loose jeans. She is showing off her newly pierced belly-button. She talks in a loud, shrill voice. “So he got a needle and stuck it right in, yeah … ” I see the gleam of a gold tooth in the mouth of one of the boys.  The greasy smell of Chinese food hangs in the air.

I continue.  A woman with full dark hair is walking towards me, she stands head and shoulders above most of those around her, her pale face in contrast to the dark complexions on this street. She holds her nose up slightly, as though she were too proud to look down at the ground, her dark eyes fixed on a distant point ahead of her. Her dog walks beside her, his handsome face held equally high.  The child who lost her ice-cream sees the dog too. “Doggy!” says the child, no longer crying, waving her chubby arms at the dog, her tiny gold bangle flashing in the sun.

A door opens as I walk past a building, an orthodox Jewish couple come out. For a moment, I can hear the piped music playing in the lobby inside, the super’s attempt to recreate a high-class hotel atmosphere. The smell of home-cooked dinners wafts out from a basement; garlic, cumin, chile, boiled meat.

Bennett Park is full of children, running, screaming, crowding around the ice cream seller with his small metal cart. Mothers stand in groups in the shade, wiping their brows, one eye always on their child. Dogs sit at their owner’s feet, too hot to play or run. A Buddhist monk in saffron robes stands, gazing at a pigeon pecking near his feet.  His presence in the park seems natural, as though he has always stood there. All around the edges of the park elderly people, wearing subdued grey clothing and comfortable shoes, sit in rows on the benches, murmuring to each other in Eastern European languages.  An elderly lady I recognize from my building looks up momentarily as I walk past her and nods at me almost imperceptibly.

I continue up Fort Washington Avenue. A group of neighborhood boys have opened up a fire hydrant. The water rushes gladly upwards and washes down the dirty concrete all around, filling up the gutter, drowning the wheels of the parked cars; the spray mingles with the sunlight and throws rainbows up into the air.  The boys stand as though poised to run, bouncing their weight from foot to foot. They run in and out of the spray, frolicking in nothing but baggy shorts and glistening seal-pup skins. I can feel the cool mist on my face as I walk past.

I turn down West 190th Street and I pause for a moment and close my eyes. I imagine myself sitting down on a stoop amongst the pigeon droppings, the stone hot against the back of my thighs. I still remember the sound of the honking horn and the yelling of the cabbie. I open my eyes again; the sunlight glints on some metal trash cans; a pigeon feather floats down slowly through the air and lands near my feet.

The homeless man I’d seen earlier with the blanket across his shoulders is now standing in the middle of the road on Overlook Terrace. He stares intently upwards, his face with an expression of wonder.  As though he can see something truly astonishing up there, high above the buildings, beyond the empty blue sky.

Pippa Anais Gaubert