Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"A strangely costumed ballet on wheels," Part 1

"You sort of get glided into a surgery. It's like a strangely costumed ballet on wheels." -- Juliana Francis-Kelly

A week and a half after she got her crutches – got them, like a trophy, after enduring a long and arduous, if slow-moving, emergency-room drama – she was standing by the flowers outside the bodega on 2nd Avenue and 6th Street. Rather, she was balancing there with the crutches tight under her arms, resting her weight right upon the purply bruises she had discerned in the mirror yesterday. Bunches of full-blown peonies, their ragged-tissue glory veined in dark purply-pink, breezed themselves in little dufts in the warm May stormy city evening.

“Dufts,” that was the word she was busy inventing for the little wafty gusty drifts of peony fragrance that found their way into her nose, when she saw another gimp approaching from uptown. With a drawstring purse dangling from his cane-gripping hand, and the other hand grappling with a cell phone. “I’ll call you then,” he was saying, “let me call you later. I’ll call you from home.”

Little bunches of late-Spring pleasure seekers sauntered by, oblivious to the quality of their own jaunty steps, to that extreme, thoughtless ease of ambulation. “I used to be one of them,” she thought, and turned to watch the gimpy guy fumble with his cellphone and try to tuck it away somewhere on his disheveled person. He was rather a large gimp, wearing lots of black, with black sneakers, slightly shiny with thick orthopedic soles, the uppers pulling away from those soles (probably daunted by the demands of their occupation).

She felt for him, hard as it was for him to get down the sidewalk – and then realized that, far from being the kind of quiet observer that she could usually impersonate, she herself was currently a gimpy curiosity in the cabinet of the busy New York sidewalk. She and the gimpy guy exchanged a wry smile, and he gimped slowly on down the way, and she went on smelling the dufts from the peonies. Her husband emerged from the bodega and kissed her on the head. She re-entered the layer of the city that was more familiar to her: a youngish woman with her youngish husband, poor enough and rich enough to live here on the edge, and live here well.

For a moment she had felt herself to be part of another city, the one made of the watchers, the slow-movers, the people on the edge who stand out of the way of the restless momentum on the streets. The people in wheelchairs and with canes who make their way through the city as if the streets were strands of taffy, feet sticking there. Invisible curiosities.

There is another city, the one she sees from her bicycle, in which the walkers are hopelessly slow, and clumsy. In that city, everything stands still as you go through it, and the expressions on walkers’ faces are frozen there because you only pick up one split-second of them, only enough for a snapshot. Perhaps that’s what she and the gimp guy look like to the walkers.

New York has a particular charm in its striations, the way that it is made of millions of simultaneous cities, almost a kind of extradimensionality – when you are a gimp, you are in the gimp city. When you are a biker, you are passing through the solid brick and potholed still city, in the city of the wheels.

There is a knishery on Houston Street, Jonah Schimmel’s. Much of the old character of this city, much of what made its reputation back when – the tenements on the Lower East Side, pickle shops, pizzerias, accordion stores, cobblers – is disappearing, or becoming an imitation of itself. Jonah Schimmel’s is different, and, some believe, is one of the anchors holding the alleged character of New York City in its somewhat tenuous form. If Jonah Schimmel’s were to shut down, the city would become something other than itself, which would of course become itself – but that’s the way of living cities.

Anyway, in Jonah Schimmel’s bakery, they have never removed a coat of paint. No, they have painted over them – and over them, and over them – until the place looks layered, kind of like Queen Elizabeth’s eggshell makeup (with poppy seeds, white lead, borax, and alum), estimated to be an inch thick at the time of her death. The paint at Jonah Schimmel’s is at least an inch – probably 3 – thick. It is one thing from the outside, and many discrete layers within – each layer encasing its own coat of matter, tree-rings of flour and – yes, eggshell, borax, and dust.

She thought of this as her husband kept a modest pace, walking with her, bridging her gimp city and the walking city. She swung herself down the sidewalk.


Blogger amy said...

beautiful! bring on part 2!

11:59 AM  

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