I joked about it. I called it Queens Times Square. Every time I told a new friend where I was living there was a predictable moment of hesitation and a laugh. I had found myself a nice little apartment right near 42nd and Broadway, thankfully free of the harsh light and the awful crowd of its eponymous twin.
I would leave for work in the morning around 7:45, with my sleepy soul drifting out of my room slowly towards the Steinway Street station, one of the few making the walk. Outside Andy Grocery an old man sat in a folding chair, scolding a passing dog or swearing at an angry baby. A bearded homeless man, looking older than his age, stood on the corner and never asked for a single cent. A canopy for the office of a local newspaper hung out over the street all the way to the curb; there was a flash, a shade, a flash in my closed eyes as I rubbed the sleep away. Little red dots danced and bobbed around my vision and rolled down the street and under cars like ghosts of stray spaldeen stickballs. My neighborhood began to take shape as a little fixed universe, and I was a lonely satellite in orbit in its empty space between the few spots that I knew.
Then I found it. One evening after work, resolved to clean my new place and make a home for myself, I found it. In the cabinet under the kitchen sink, pressed between the moldy cardboard I had meant to throw away, there was a city street map book. It was the kind they keep in the front of the supermarket after you’ve already paid and passed the checkout aisles, the kind with yellow and pink roads and black dotted lines. It was filled with writing in smeared green ink, entries written and dispersed through the pages, all capital letters with an incidental dotted “i” or little “e”.
Marked with a circle drawn around Newtown and 41st Street: “Girl on skateboard rides down street, five men turn their heads to watch her. An old Muslim man is walking towards them and does not acknowledge the girl but sees the five looking at him happily and he smiles.” Further north, 41st Street is crossed out and “ALBERT” is written in. Then, a circle around the playground on 35th Avenue and Steinway: “Early morning snowfall. There is a big snowman in the playground surrounded by undisturbed snow.” One circled near my apartment simply reads: “Bread, every night.” It is a non-linear journal, a record of events more relevant to places than times.
The more I read, the more obsessive the notes became: “dead body in the alley of Walbon Hall,” “sirens are too far, man lowers baby from the window in bed sheet sling,” “three scratches deep in a door,” “homeless man drinking from carton of milk.” I turn the page to Jackson Heights: “ring the bell at Benham Street.” Then Harlem: “awful whistling in the alleys.”
I turned the page back to a familiar place and put my finger down on the map, and I was in Astoria Park as the streetlights began to flicker on. While reading the notes that evening, I had begun to wander to the circled locations as I found them. Here, on the promenade, a man pointed out to his son where he said a German submarine was caught in the harsh currents of Hell Gate. Nearby, water dripped from the train trestle onto a dog which, startled, leaped and bit its owner. Then, simply, “a bird lands and disappears!” I realize I am passing through a progression of events bound not by time, but by location alone, and every sport leads to a restless new ghost.
I discovered that wherever I stood, I could summon up the spirits of something that had come and gone in that spot, and the knowledge would cast light on this place in my mind. Each location held on to its past, and the moments were engraved into the bricks in luminous letters just like the words scrawled in the book. But if this is what just one person witnessed, how deep would be the book of spells of the bearded homeless man who stood in the same place, always watching? And what of the books of all those people whom he saw pass by? What of all of Astoria, and what of all of those within the city limits, and what of the wonder of the ephemeral tourists?
Then it feels as though the knowledge becomes too great a burden. When it is all overlaid, the green ink bleeds together, the words run into each other and they begin to thicken the pages until every spot has been seen from every angle, from the wanderers in the street, and from the windows like witnesses with pleading eyes and the little heads inside darting about as do pupils in dream sleep, with conflated symbols smearing the ink and making the names of people and places unreadable. When the pages all turn that deep green, do I begin to know the things that you know, and you know the things that I have seen? Does the book beckon me into a collective mind, does it threaten my individuality, my very existence? And I think, as I stumble down the glorified alleyway known as Newtown Road, if I could only see something that no one else has seen, I could keep it secret, and then I could be alone again, away from the light and noise and the threatening crowd. Yes, I thought, then I could be free!
But the words cover every block, every street. “Worker pulls shirt up over his awful stomach and shakes off his sweat.” The smeared green ink blends into the paper. “Slow-moving parade of disinterested children on foreign holy day.” I looked to the next nearest entry, and then I moved on to the next just a block away, and over and over, and then it is the deep, late night but every spot I find is filled desperately with light.
I hear a bird, and I see starlings appear and amass and twist themselves up over the triangular building in a wisp of living smoke, and there is a black burn mark under a windowsill where a baby is tumbling into the grass, and the sun is rising and I am outside Andy Grocery. Andy rolls up the gate with the old grouch at his side, and when it is up, the grouch takes a folding chair from Andy’s doorway and puts it in front of the store without a word until he begins to swear at everything, and I think, “this is it!” The book had me here not just to learn their strange connection and that he is anchored to that place, but to hear the silence of their unspoken bond, and to witness that moment burn into the bricks. Yes, now I can be free!
Then the morning sun is so strong with the light dancing in through the leaves of the valley of the eastern street, and it is reflecting off the windows, and it is reflecting in the stare of the bearded homeless man gazing down at me on the ground, and it is so bright that I rub my eyes and I am subsumed and become one with the crowd of summoned ghosts.