There were flowers here once, and meadows. There were food forests and there was abundance. You could see across the land to the rivers and it was good. Simple peoples lived here, fishing and hunting and farming and having babies. The tribes were generally peaceful when left alone, fierce when provoked. They had been here since forever, and they loved the land.
Now I am standing outside the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in Manhattan, surrounded by huge buildings that would terrify and astound the Lenape people. Traffic is everywhere, it pounds on the sensorium and demands attention. It is a different battering than that in Times Square, where the assault includes bright-light advertising. "Coca-Cola!" and "Disney!", the hoardings scream and the hustlers still try to sell postcard maps and booklets to the tourists.
But I have left that behind for now, and had my morning coffee. I am a creature of habit, it has to be said. When you've lived as long as I have, sometimes the routine is all you have. It's a kind of discipline, a way of structuring each day. So, I had my coffee on Broadway. It's good stuff there, all "artisan" and "single-origin" and expensive as black pearls, but the loud and shiny decor is not my cup of tea. I prefer the older coffee shops in Brooklyn, full of character and the right sort of bustle. The kind of place where Mama has made the cakes or biscotti. The places where the old men come to play chess out of the snow or heat and traffic noise.
In any case, I've done my business in Times Square and walked to the Library. I like it here. There's busyness and there's calm despite the traffic. Sometimes I like to sit outside when it's warm enough, and just watch people. All of human life is here, I feel. Students and the more intellectual locals, come to read or research or just be amazed. Even I am astounded at the sheer amount of knowledge here as I am surrounded by books and screens of information, some old, some very old indeed. It's always my hope that the people who come here also come to be amazed. Knowledge and learning are not to be sniffed at.
It's only now that I see the couple again. Previously I'd taken them for mere tourists in Times Square, but now I see them in a new light. Tourists do not come often to the New York Public Library, unless I very much misunderstand tourists. Perhaps they are like me, tourists eager to see all sides of the City, or tourists of the mind. Perhaps like me they will later visit the Yeshiva University just a few minutes' walk away.
I look at them more closely; he is tall and bright-eyed and I notice that he looks up and around at all the grandeur that Fifth Avenue has to offer. He is seeking out details in the buildings and the few poor trees. His gaze is everywhere, his mind drinking this in, painting pictures of memory. She is shorter and her countenance quieter. At first she stands awkwardly away from him, watching not what he is interested in, but rather him. Her eyes are deep and dark, and through them she seems to drink in only his image. Occasionally he points something out to her, and then she looks through the viewfinder of an old camera as she takes her photographs. Now she stands close to him, touching him subtly and smiling when he speaks. Then he pauses from his scanning to hold her hand and he looks at her as though it's his first time. It's a very human love, unequal in nature but equal in intensity.
They sit at the next bench, under the tree. They take out notebooks and a Thermos flask, open a bag of what smells like samosa and eat and drink, in between scribbling and talking. I choose not to listen, but I continue to watch. They seem to be an anachronism, just slightly out of time. I notice their clothes; he has a woollen jacket and she has a shawl, both dyed muted colours, natural. They are physically closer now, equally intent on food and conversation, yet occasionally one of them will notice something, point at it and they will talk about it for a while. He points to the cardinals in the tree, and she takes another photograph. All the while they share the food, and when it seems the bag is empty, he shakes the last crumbs into her hand. She smiles again after she finishes, then he kisses her mouth. They laugh, finish their coffee and walk into the building, side close to side.
Why am I so struck by them? Why this feeling of nostalgia? Is it their innocent curiosity? Is it that they were truly experiencing this space, and one another? Perhaps it was that they were really living it, together, sharing in a way that TikTok or Twitter cannot. Their memories will be real. I hope they grow old together. I dare a peek into their future, see grandchildren, and relax.
Now they have gone the day seems less bright, as though the overcast were returning. I am missing them in a strange sort of way. I feel the itch between my shoulders and begin to stand up. Perhaps I'll skip the university today, the Law can wait. Maybe I will go to Queens for a change. The tree casts a shadow at my feet as a house sparrow hops around their bench, pecking for tiny crumbs, and after a moment, she appears before me. She flips her wings and looks up with a meaningful beady eye. Yes, perhaps I will visit the Zoo. It's been a while.
Thanks to riverrun for pointing out that I meant 5th Avenue, not 5th Street.