Whenever I whine to my sister about distractions that seem to constantly be getting in the way of my writing, she says that if I want to really finish my manuscript—which I’ve been talking about and toiling over, for way too long now—I need to work like I’m on a deadline. I have to act as if I’m turning it in for a grade. And sometimes, I need to say no, even if I really want to say yes. Like this past weekend, Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of beach season…where everyone in New York City gets out of town.
I got on the pale-skin bandwagon at least a decade ago, after years in Florida, striving to achieve a permanent honey brown. These days, I accept my naturally fluorescent-white complexion (that has only become more blinding by living in the north), and have gotten used to the ritual of tanning by way of a bottle. Still, a little Vitamin D will always do a body good, and who doesn’t love a day at the beach? So when my friend invited me to head out with her on Monday, I jumped. But then the scene of me standing on the rooftop, shouting that I have FINALLY FINISHED MY BOOK flashed in my head. And though I really wanted to say yes, I had suck it up and politely decline. Because as much peace as the beach is to me, the hot sun on my skin, the powdery sand the most comfortable bed, it’s a place to shut off and not feel guilty about doing so.
So I’d turned down Robert Moses, but I still needed a plan. Finally seeing sunshine after the long, grey, winter, almost overnight, the trees alive again with lacy leaves, the sky a comforting, chalky blue, I felt like I’d be sinning, staying cooped up inside my apartment, or anywhere inside for that matter. But ‘outside’ in New York City pretty much means a day at the park, and a day at the park—be it Central Park or Prospect Park, Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, or even Washington Square Park (though the bravery quotient in the squirrels there has me a little on edge)—means a day of napping in the grass. But then it came to me—Bryant Park. I’ve been there countless times for summer movies, and I tell myself I should visit more during the weekday lunch hour so to maybe find my husband, but I don’t think I’ve really ever given it enough credit. It really is a masterpiece, with the feel more of a classic garden than your typical city park. Aside from its central lawn, that is the only part of it I’ve really ever paid attention to, there’s a bubbling fountain, two grand tree allées, ping pong tables and Pétanque, a carousel, a reading room, and best… for a writer… café tables and chairs lined all along its promenade. So as my friend headed to the beach, I packed my bag…and headed for midtown.
When I arrived at the Bryant Park subway station, it being one I rarely travel through, I was clueless as to which staircase would lead me where, above ground. So I chose the nearest one, and lucky me, I landed in a quiet corner where an empty table was calling my name. I sat down and positioned my chair inward, so that just beyond the sprawling blanket of wild—or at least wild-looking—ivy in front of me, there was the lawn with families picnicking, children skipping, an intermediate yogi repeatedly practicing his headstand and tumbling; and bordering that, the park’s perimeter trees, behind which stands a wall of city buildings. The trees planted in Bryant Park are London plane trees, the same species in one of my favorite places in Paris, the Jardin des Tuileries. They can grow to be 120 feet tall. I sat under one so high I couldn’t see the top of it, I thought it must’ve been at least that. Tiny sparrows played in the shrubs, pigeons pecked at crumbs near my feet, and high above, a covey of others sang songs to one another from tree to tree, and zoomed in flight from lamppost to lamppost, making me jealous, wishing I too could fly. The sun peaked through the canopy of leafy branches, warming the shady ground where a father and son played chess, and two wrinkly, white-haired ladies gossiped with iced teas, and an odd couple walked hand-in-hand. I wrote, alone in my green corner, and in between words, would pick my head up to just watch, in awe of the beauty surrounding me, even despite the city bustling fifty feet away. It was perfect…
About an hour in, at one of my pauses, I noticed a man approaching my table. He was in his early 60s I would guess, dressed nicely, appearing clean. There was nothing about him that alarmed me. I figured he had a question; needed directions, or the time. After all, I am the one people pick out amongst a crowd at the post office to ask if I think their package has enough postage on it. I’m used to strangers. “I noticed you’re writing,” he said. “And I just couldn’t help but admire the magical quality you have, here on this beautiful day, working so peacefully. I used to write poetry and I know, sometimes you can be searching for the perfect word for hours, and it helps to just look into the distance.” Ok. Not what I expected, but he kind of nailed it! It was, in fact, a beautiful day, and the scene to me, did feel magical. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s really perfect.” And then I remembered his mint green pants and his fedora. I’d seen him earlier, walking around with a younger man at his side. Thieves? I reached, nonchalantly, down to my bag that I’d nestled in between my ankles, making sure it was still there; that his chit-chat wasn’t really a way of distracting me while his pick-pocket sidekick got to work. After years in New York, as sad a truth it is, you learn to watch out for this. But my bag was there. All good. “So are you writing poetry?” he asked. “A novel,” I replied. “Wow,” he said back with a bow of his head. “Great that you have a novel in you at your age. You’re not writing the sequel to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ are you?” Seriously? Never mind the fact that I’m pretty sure there’s already a sequel, and maybe even a third volume—Eewww!! Where was he hoping this would go? “No. I’m working on something of my own,” I replied with a disapproving shake of my head. After another two minutes of trying to engage me, he got the hint, offered his best wishes and finally parted.
A while later, a homeless lady came up to me asking for change, and then a toothless man asking to borrow my pen. Ok, fine. Minor distractions. Back to work. Then some time later, a pasty kid with a choppy Mohawk and an array of haphazardly placed tattoos and a pierced septum came up and introduced himself as an image consultant and tried to convince me to take his card. Yeah, thanks but no thanks. I think I’ll stick to the path I’m on…image wise. Soon enough, he noticed my disinterest and walked away and again, I got back to work. Then the man two tables down from me, who had been quiet and keeping to himself the whole afternoon, started rummaging through belongings he had stuffed into a collection of tattered, plastic grocery bags. And then he broke out in a fit of maniacal laughter. And that sent me packing.
I closed my notebook, happy with what I’d accomplished for the day, feeling ok to call it quits. It was six o’clock and I was hungry. I took a look around once more before leaving, and felt thankful—for the beauty surrounding me…and even for some of the crazy. I mean, after all, that’s New York.