Excerpts from Songs to New York
I. THE CYCLIST
When we used to live in the old neighborhood, it was not unusual to see Marco Polo pull his bicycle down the stoop of 242 West 103rd Street, mount it, and head for new adventures: not unusual in the sense of its day-to-day occurrence.
Marco Polo was an astonishment to some; to others he came with the territory. “‘Only in New York,’” they would mutter, shaking their heads.
When Marco Polo entered the life of a 28-year-old man named Peter Roux, Peter was pouring himself into his latest creation, a novel on two writers and their artistic differences. It was based in part upon his experiences with Claude, a former roommate, with whom he had tempestuously debated on the merits of narrative writing over descriptive. It wasn’t until Claude married his girlfriend of three years and took a studio apartment on First Avenue near 70th Street, that each realized the inspiration he had derived from the other’s unique calling.
The autumn chill, the rain and the Riverside wind had penetrated every opening in the early twentieth-century brownstone with its own inspiration. And as Peter sat at his typewriter pondering the wording of a phrase describing the winds of change, he heard through the telling wind a tiny, distinct, cold and wet “Mew!”
He opened his apartment door. Then he looked outside his windows. “Hmm,” he murmured, and sat again.
Several more “Mews!” touched upon his sensitive nature, and once again he checked his door, then his windows. Nothing. He went into the halls barefooted, but the halls were still.
When he opened the downstairs door, a diminutive orange and white ball of velvet with two persuasive green eyes fixed solely on Peter entered the building.
After discovering the kitten’s insatiable appetite for curious exploration of everything and for spaghetti and meatballs, Peter named him Marco Polo.
When Marco Polo was a wee lad, Peter would put him in a basket with a lid on top and take him bicycling. He soon learned that to poke his head out of the basket was a source of great delight: to himself, to Peter and to everyone who saw him.
While Marco Polo was undergoing the transition from kitten to cat, Peter Roux was completing his novel; but in between times they still took the bicycle. Marco Polo sat perched in Peter’s lap, his daily elongating paws reaching for the handle bars. A little further on, he would place his paws over Peter’s hands to get the feel of the steering.
Not long after Marco Polo had become a full-grown cat and Peter Roux’s novel, The Ripening Wind, had been published, Peter awoke one April morning to find Marco Polo and the bicycle gone. Visions of theft plagued him; yet he sensed an innate detachment from them.
He put on his coat and stepped outside. It was 7:45 and 58 degrees. The sun smiled through a mist, turning it to translucent gold. The building-lined streets were filled with faces old and young of every nationality possible, bathed alike in the golden sweetness.
Underneath their feet, the ground trembled in rapture to the rhythm of the subway.
It was a beautiful morning.
Peter turned left and walked in silent wonder at the day’s beginning.
When he was past West End Avenue, he peered through the mist at the hill leading down to Riverside Park. He heard children’s laughter, and saw grownups walking dogs and dogs walking grownups. Then somewhere in their midst a bicycle passed.
Peter quickened his pace to a run. He saw the bicycle pass again, going in the opposite direction. And when he had crossed Riverside Drive, he heard people speaking in hushed voices. “Oh, my goodness!” “I can’t believe my eyes!” “I think it’s a sign.”
The bicycle returned again. It was his bicycle. And in the driver’s seat was Marco Polo, front paws on the handle bars, back feet on the pedals. He came to a stop and focused on Peter as if to say: I knew you’d be proud of me. Thanks to your expertise I can now go solo.
Peter’s face lost all color, and he collapsed onto the nearest park bench. An older lady said, “Oh dear, he must be the owner.”
“And he must have had no idea,” her companion answered in kind.
A young man holding a Dominican flag smiled and extended a hand to Peter. “God has given you and the cat a gift. You’re living in the city of miracles.” He disappeared into the mist.
Marco Polo jumped off the bicycle and onto the bench. He licked Peter’s forearm once or twice, then took to licking his own fur.
Peter stared at him, unable to speak. He rose and stood next to the bicycle, unsure whether mounting it was a violation of something sacred.
Marco Polo ascended the driver’s seat, his eyes gazing into Peter’s. Then he dismounted and faced him again. Although I am a cat, his eyes spoke, And I went out on a lark as cats do, you are still my master.
Peter gingerly climbed up, Marco Polo settled into his lap, and the two pedaled home.
It became routine for them to take turns using the bicycle, and often they would ride together throughout New York. They even took a day’s outing to Staten Island via the Verrazano Bridge.
Somehow Marco Polo’s exploits had not yet reached the media, for which Peter was ever grateful.
At night, after the bicycle was put away, they would sit and drink espresso in the brown and tan houndstooth recliner Peter’s parents had sent him last Christmas. From across the good-sized window close by, they could see the windows of the Constance Hotel, where lived the poor and afflicted, many of whom were strung out on drugs and alcohol. Marco Polo would rub himself against Peter’s chest because he knew he was feeling troubled over their plight. “Marco,” he would sigh, “I write about things I believe in, and people read my works. Still, life doesn’t change for those poor souls next door. It’s as if my books and my poetry mean nothing, because they’re not making a difference in the real world.”
Yet, the ink would continue to flow from Peter’s pen, as did the words from his heart.
IV. THE BAR
“Wisdom… hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. -Proverbs.
Our friend, Timothy Green, his wife, Sarah, and their 11-month infant, Timmy, Jr., moved out of their two-bedroom apartment in Coney Island a while back and headed upstate for Poughkeepsie. IBM had offered him a job at their immense building complex for more money than what they paid him here in New York. It was a supervisory position for which, as an engineer, he well qualified. After discussing the offer with Sarah, he accepted. “New York has gotten too dangerous, anyway. No place to bring up our son.”
IBM helped arrange for a rental with an option to buy: a three-bedroom ranch with a good-sized yard located four miles from the plant. Two elm trees, one in the back, the other in front, sheltered the house from the morning and late afternoon sunlight. Smaller trees and shrubs formed the borderlines of the property.
The Greens loved their new dwelling. In their minds, it was the ideal in every aspect: a perfect life for their son. Timothy wondered how they had survived city living for so long.
Born in St. Vincent’s Hospital in Staten Island, Timothy spent his youth in Port Richmond in a 1930s two-story cedar home with a fenced-in yard and large porch. As a child he frequented the Ferry with his parents, Lyle T. and Dorothy, who traveled often to Lyle’s widowed mother on West 99th Street in Manhattan. Both the ride and the Upper West Side appealed to Timothy. The former was due to the view of the Statue of Liberty, and to the ferryboat itself, which he scoured from bow to stern in search of hidden treasure and of pirates.
The latter held Timothy with an attraction not so easily explained. It was not just on account of such tangible things as the stately splendor of Riverside Park where he played catch with his grandmother; or the majestic antiquity of the residences overlooking a Broadway more quietly paced than Midtown, with an endless center divider filled with trees and flowers, and park benches at every corner. The Upper West Side had a spirit all her own, a benevolent, mysterious woman who spoke little, but who smiled in welcome greeting each time he visited her; whose distinct perfume lingered long after his departure.
But, as one-by-one the years advanced, and with them the unrelenting increase of crime and urban neglect, the perfume faded from Timothy’s conscious memory. The Staten Island Ferry, Coney Island (where he had met Sarah and afterwards resided for two-and-a-half years) and the city in general became routine, a habit he could rid himself of without regret.
Instead, memories surfaced of his studies at Penn State University College of Engineering in State College, Pennsylvania, a town surrounded by farmland. Over four years’ time, spending leisure hours in meadows reading books on returning to basics and humankind’s role in the natural order, he had come to believe the tranquility of his surroundings far surpassed the steel and concrete into which he had been brought forth. In fact, he began to link the inner city with the decline of man into a soulless, materialistic hell on earth of his own making.
In his boyhood, Timothy had always desired to take up engineering, and he graduated Penn State among the top five of his class. But now, he found it harder to equate an engineering career with his quest for perfect harmony with nature. He yearned for a brighter future.
Thus, it was with these thoughts, that he packed up and left New York on the day which, in his estimation, marked an upward start.
Sarah, while sharing her husband’s love of nature, expressed her continuing feelings for the city she had called her own since age three when her parents moved from Omaha. “There’ll be no beaches up here. No Astroland. No subways.”
“No hypodermic needles sticking up out of the sand,” her husband would smirk. “No muggings on the subway, no crowds, no hallways reeking of urine. And no kids puking on top of your head from the roller coasters.”
“Oh Tim, you’re so sarcastic,” Sarah would give him a playful shove. “Seriously, though, I miss New York. We’ve got to go visit. I mean it.”
Two years passed, and the Greens settled in. The baby grew big and played in the yard with the neighbors’ children, while their parents sipped drinks and spoke of past hits and misses, present pursuits and future prospects.
Timothy’s honed skills earned him a raise. With few exceptions, his colleagues and those under him admired his dedication and perseverence. But Timothy continued to take little pride in his achievements: as this was not the job to which he would devote the rest of his life.
When they did manage to get back to the city, Sarah remarked that their stay had passed too soon, that their visits were too infrequent. Timothy turned his nose up over the litter-strewn streets and looked at his watch, hoping they would reach Grand Central Station in time to catch an early train home to Poughkeepsie, the city of trees.
Then, in the middle of the third year, the dreams began.
They were barely noticeable at first. Timothy brushed them off with a: “Can you believe, last night, I actually dreamed…” Oftentimes they were fragmented; brief glimpses through a frosted pane of glass melted in one tiny place. But as they recurred in the early morning hours, their impression lingered more and more, like perfume scarcely acknowledged until compounded by the wearer’s frequency.
It was the wind rippling his shirt and tousling his hair when an approaching subway train rocketed through the tunnel. Or a hot chestnut and pretzel vendor holding out a sack of culinary treats. Or the Midtown Symphony Orchestra of honking car horns. Or the towering grace of the skyscrapers shading his head from the sun. Or the sun setting on a waterfront inhabited by sky rises beaded with jewels of light.
He awoke with a strange emptiness he could not explain.
“What’s wrong, honey?” his wife asked him one morning in bed. “You keep waking up and just lying there.”
“I… I don’t understand it, Sarah. But for… I’d say around two months now, something’s been happening inside me that seems against everything I believe in. I’m… almost afraid of it.”
“What is it? Tell me.”
“I… keep having these dreams. About New York. Always New York. Little things. Little dreams.”
“Well, perhaps deep down you miss New York.”
“No way! That’s why it bothers me that I’m even dreaming this: like the very thing I’m trying to escape is haunting me like some kind of ghost. Remember in The Bible: ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak?’ Well, it’s as if my spirit says, Go back to earth and to nature, but my flesh says, No, no, the big city’s where you belong.”
Sarah’s eyes met his straightway. “Maybe you are not aware of what your spirit truly is saying.”
Excerpts from The Geyser Girl of Yellowstone Park
In a sacred and pristine land called: Yellowstone Park, the story has been recounted of the baby found crying amid the geysers with none but a diaper cloth for her cover, some many snowy April nights ago.
After the western sun has faded, the trails of car headlights and tail lights dissipated and the campfires laid low, it is echoed throughout the mountains and hills from Wyoming to Montana and Idaho, from the deeps of the blue waters to the winds that sweep through the tall and stately pines.
The bears taking up residence in the eastern region of the park recall it was a mother buffalo named: Bearer of Song, who pitied the girl and longed to take her in. But as she approached, the child crawled towards the elder geyser spring called: Old Faithful and disappeared down into his hole.
The cries of the mother alerted the families of buffalo and bears in the southwestern parts. They sent word, to learn if any humans had reported a missing child to the U.S. Cavalry. There had been one report two days prior, that of a five-year-old boy discovered wandering off into the woods to chase a whitetail deer. His distressed parents, overjoyed at his return, had fallen upon him tearfully, hugged him and spanked him.
But neither did the animals inside Yellowstone Park nor those outside its borders know of anyone coming forward to claim this infant girl.
All the animals feared that she had died.
But she did not die.
The flakes of snow swirling in the icy gusts of wind heard Old Faithful call the child, that night, as they danced close to the earth. “Come; take your refuge with me. Warm yourself in my abode, and drink of my waters.” As the flakes were lifted high again, they carried Old Faithful’s words to the tops of the pines in the surrounding woods.
When the grieving Bearer of Song awoke to nurse her newborn son whom she had named: Races with Lightning, an elk was passing. “Why are you crying?” he asked her.
“I mourn the loss of a child never having known the good and sweet things of life. And I, robbed of the opportunity to give her these. Oh, had I been but a few steps closer...”
“The baby has been given these even as we speak,” the elk told her in gentle tones.
“Only in the Kingdom of Heaven.” She continued to weep.
“She has been taken in by the Faithful Elder,” the elk explained. “To be reared as his own. All the treasures of his wisdom will be hers.”
Overcome by great relief and joy mixed with a mother’s longing, Bearer of Song fell silent, her son nursing at her side.
At daybreak, she arose and hastily prepared to leave. Her husband, named: Sires with Grace, sensing her urgency, enquired where she was bound.
“I am going to see the Faithful Elder.” She stood erect and determined.
“My wife, few better places to be brought up than in the house of the elder of our land, whose inspired ascent is teacher to us all. Would you seek to take away from the child such extraordinary gifts?”
“I was also there, my husband,” she reminded him. “And have tasted the salt of a mother’s tears as they flowed down upon my lips. I will do no such thing as deprive her of her gifts; only speak in the way a mother speaks: from the soul within her frame.”
“Then, you must do as your heart bids you.”
Bearer of Song waited silently to be recognized at a respectful distance from the geyser hole. “You have a beautiful son,” Old Faithful congratulated her. “Strong and comely is he, and also hungry. He is eager to grow.”
“Thank you, Faithful Elder,” the mother acknowledged quietly.
“But you are not here to speak of the child you already have, but because you are troubled over a child you feel you have lost, perhaps forever.”
“It is true,” she began to weep again. “I loved her from the moment I laid eyes on her. Have pity on me, Elder, and do not turn me away.”
“What is your wish, my daughter?”
The buffalo hastened to speak and then withdrew, as her heart spoke of an equity which must prevail. For, surely the geyser loved the child as she, and her husband’s words rang clear within her. “That I may be given but a little time with her. Time for a child to learn the lessons of a mother and feel a mother’s embrace.”
Bearer of Song retreated further, as Old Faithful readied himself to erupt. And now, as she beheld him with renewed wonder, he spoke his answer amid the thundering waters and steam spouts:
“Your hours will be many and not few. Your loving, generous heart will want for nothing. But for her first season, she must remain sheltered within the earth. And, after that time, she will continue to live with me.
“When the season has ended and you behold her emerging, all things will you see clearly, and you will understand.
“Your patience and your trust are all I ask of you in return.”
Races with Lightning grew tall in the shadows of his parents and ran with the herd. The blanket of snows had thinned with the onset of heavy rainfalls, and the grasses beneath became nourishment more easily found. The rains continued less so in July, and many a day, the beads of rainwater bedecking the thousands of pines like precious jewels glistened and danced in the sunlight and wind.
Three months to the day, at dawn, Bearer of Song returned to the geysers, bringing her son with her. Sires with Grace and other members of the herd accompanied them, and behind them several families of elk and mule deer. Two black bears followed and then the squirrels and chipmunks of the woodland. Flying above them, the crows and the ravens kept pace. Higher still, an eagle made perfect circles in a partly cloudy sky.
A handful of human visitors remained at a distance observing the animals’ every move. Perhaps, one said, this had to do with some alteration in the geyser’s patterns.
Having erupted forty minutes before, Old Faithful was reposed, a small cloud of steam quietly and steadily rising in even rhythm.
When the animals had assembled, a few moments passed. Then, a tiny hand reached from within the geyser hole and grasped an edge of the mineral formation, and an infant’s head looked out upon the land and upon her astonished beholders.
The child who crawled out from the geyser wore an array of mineral deposits as her garments, beauteous and fragile, with which she had inseparably bonded, and due to which, she was not easily discerned by the human eye. Her cheeks dimpled and rosy, her eyes which searched her surroundings beamed like little stars in the healthy glow of her countenance. “Is this the child of whom you have spoken as my sister?” Races with Lightning asked his mother.
“Indeed, my dear son. But how can I so much as approach a miracle as this?” Bearer of Song knelt. “It is as your father told me. She has her place carved out for her already, and who am I, but one to watch her continue in her course?”
The child crawled towards the bears, giggling. One bear cautiously backed away; the other lowered his head defensively. Unafraid, she reached out to stroke him, and his anger softened, and he laid his massive head gently down into her hands. “I have never seen the likes of this!” an elk doe called to another.
The child saw Bearer of Song kneeling and drew close to her. She watched her attempts to conceal her emotions and hugged her longing frame. Bearer of Song enveloped her, as her son gently nuzzled her. Unable to speak, Bearer of Song remained motionless as the other animals greeted the infant.
Races with Lightning asked permission of his mother to approach Old Faithful; to which, she bade him behave in the manner in which he was raised, then allowed him to go. Quietly, he came forward and stood but a small pace in front of the other animals, facing the geyser. “Child, have you a word for me?”
“Faithful Elder,” Races with Lightning asked him, within the hearing of all who had gathered. “What is her name?”
Old Faithful was silent a moment, then replied: “Ask of your mother, Bearer of Song.”
Bearer of Song could not contain herself and wept openly, and as she hugged the child, her tears moistened her tiny cheeks. Accompanied by Sires with Grace and Races with Lightning, she drew nearer with the infant girl and waited for Old Faithful to erupt again, as the trees close by swayed excitedly in an anticipating wind. When he appeared in his splendor, she held the girl above the ground:
“I name the child: Flower of the Steam Basin.”
When Flower of the Steam Basin was five years old, she ran with the buffalo alongside Races with Lightning. As she coursed, the mineral deposits neatly entwined with the curls of her hair resounded through the air like a wind chime. Bearer of Song had always known when she would emerge, and would wait for her close to the geysers. And, upon Sires With Grace’s return with the bull herd, he had none but heartening words. “Daughter of the herd, may the strength of your feet carry you afar to where your indomitable heart and spirit will lead you.”
By age three, Flower of the Steam Basin had already endeared herself to all the animals in the park. She played tag with the bear cubs and wolf pups in the sight of their mothers, whose trust she had taken the time, patience and gentleness to earn. Even the mountain lions allowed her audience, at first from a distance; then gradually she was called to draw closer as their fearfulness abated. No rattlesnake dared strike at her lest his own spirit be wounded. And coyotes had been spotted following her on her way home amid the geysers.
Now, as she took place at her tender age among the herd, she realized the peace born of belonging to others, and of the outstretched arms.
And when she returned to Old Faithful, she brought him stories laden with her adventures:
Even as, from the very beginning, he would sit her down and tell her the tales of his experiences spanning the many years of his life, forever imprinted upon the walls of the secret places of his heart.
“Faithful I have sought to be in all my ways
Since my conception in fire and in water.
“To be a fount of wisdom and purity of spirit
Far more prized than veins of gold and silver
And to this my soul has aspired.
“Not due to my own pursuits
That man named me the Faithful Elder.
A Higher Oath than mine has fixed
My pleasant boundaries
And the times of my bursting forth into the open
Not of my choosing.
“The countenances of multitudes I have beheld
And have seen them take delight in my greeting.
They throng close to my doorway
Men, women and children
Eager witnesses of my mystery.
“From every corner of the earth, bringing
The languages of ancient lands upon their lips
And their spices upon their garments.
“And what they find takes on a meaning of its own
Amidst the resplendent pillar.”
“Once, a man there was who, visiting me daily, stood solitary behind the crowd. A man who opened the doors of his thoughts to no one, he sought me out through a slit between the hardest of rocks compiled to block out the world around him.
“It is said, that he and his lone companion, an old horse named Butte, were the only two remaining after his ranch in Montana caught fire. His wife and two daughters, his other horses, his cattle and his home all left to dwell on a bigger ranch in the skies.
“He sold his land, saddled his horse and was seen riding in towns, on prairies and through the trees of the woods: riding and speaking not to man nor beast, save but a word or two to his horse. People would call him ghostlike, because, as soon as they caught sight of him, he would quickly vanish.
“The first time, he tied Butte to a nearby post and walked in with a slow and even gait. When came my emergence, a grimace of panic swept across his brow. He backed away and, mounting Butte, rode off into the forest.
“But compelled to return he was, and did so. And though he continued to leave, afraid, for quite some time, each day had become an exercise of great determination, as a lone soldier doing battle with an entire army of his fears.
“His unexpected arrival one morning before daybreak caused a few elk close by to observe his actions. A bear crossed the road several yards ahead, turned to look, then continued onwards. He rode Butte in closer than customary and approached me. He stared straight at me unflinchingly, waiting for me to erupt.
“For over an hour’s time, he did not move. From high above the pines, the moon illumined his figure in a soft white glow. A cool wind rippled through his garments, and the dew gently crowned his head.
“When erupt I did, he did not turn from me, and although stricken with fear, there was more the mastery. Having beheld his own reflection within my waters, his feelings, long-buried beneath the surface like steam, now at last were forced out into the open air.
“The man and his horse never returned, the purpose of his coming fulfilled, that day, in the lessons learned both by him and me. His coming taught me of the likeness between man and geyser: how never certain that what we hold inside, in the heat of our disposition, will remain buried indefinitely; nor ought it to be contained beyond its time.
“I taught him to let go.”