On a late spring morning almost two years ago, while walking on Broadway, I suddenly noticed that something terrible had happened to Straus Park. The small park, located just where Broadway intersects West End Avenue on West 106th Street, was being fenced off. A group of workers, wearing orange reflector shins, were manning all kinds of equipment, and next to what must have been some sort of portable comfort station was a large electrical generator. Straus Park was being dismantled, demolished.
Not that Straus Park was such a wonderful place to begin with. Its wooden benches were dirty, rotting, and perennially littered with pigeon droppings. You’d think twice before sitting, and if you did sit you’d want to leave immediately. It too had become a favorite hangout for the homeless, the drunk, and the addict. Over the years the old cobblestone pavement had turned into an undulating terrain of dents and bulges, mostly cracked, with missing pieces sporadically replaced by tar or cement, the whole thing blanketed by a deep, drab, dirty gray. Finally, the emptied basin of what used to be a fountain had turned into something resembling a septic sandbox. Unlike the fountains of Rome, this one, like the park itself, was a down-and-out affair. Never a drop. The fountain had been turned off decades ago.
Straus Park was, like so many tiny, grubby parks one hardly ever notices on the Lower East Side, relegated to a past that wasn’t ancient enough to have its blemishes forgiven or to feel nostalgic about. One could say the same of the Art Nouveau-style statue of what I mistook for a reclining Greek nymph lost in silent contemplation, looking inward, as it were, to avoid looking at what was around her. She looked very innocent, very Old World, and very out of place, almost pleading to be rescued from this ugly shrub that dubbed itself a park. In fact, the statue wasn’t even there that day. She had disappeared, no doubt sold.
The thing I liked most about the square was gone. The way so many other things are gone today from around Straus Park: the Olympia Deli, the Blue Rose, Ideal Restaurant, Mr. Kay’s Barbershop, the Pomander Bookshop, the Siam Spice Rack, Chelsea Two, and the old Olympia Theater, drawn and quartered, as all the theaters are these days, plus the liquor store that moved across the street but really disappeared when it changed owners, the flower store that went high tech, and La Rosita, which went from being down-and-under to up-and-coming.
Why should anybody care? And why should I, a foreigner, of all people care? This wasn’t even my city. Yet, I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past. I wanted to rescue things everywhere, as though by restoring them here I might restore them elsewhere as well. In seeing one Greek restaurant disappear or an old Italian cobbler’s turn into a bodega, I was once again reminded that something was being taken away from the city and, therefore, from me—that even if I don’t disappear from a place, places disappear from me.
I wanted everything to remain the same. Because this too is typical of people who have lost everything, including their roots or their ability to grow new ones. They may be mobile, scattered, nomadic, dislodged, but in their jittery state of transience they are thoroughly stationary. It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change, that you’ll build on anything, rather than look for land. An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can’t find another, who can’t think of another. Some no longer even know what home means. They reinvent the concept with what they’ve got, the way we reinvent love with what’s left of it each time. Some people bring exile with them the way they bring it upon themselves wherever they go.
I hate it when stores change names, the way I hate any change of season, not because I like winter more than spring, or because I like old store X better than new store Y, but because, like all foreigners who settle here and who always have the sense that their time warp is not perfectly aligned to the city’s, and that they’ve docked, as it were, a few minutes ahead or a few minutes behind Earth time, any change reminds me of how imperfectly I’ve connected to it. It reminds me of the thing I fear most: that my feet are never quite solidly on the ground, but also that the soil under me is equally weak, that the graft didn’t take. In the disappearance of small things, I read the tokens of my own dislocation, of my own transiency. An exile reads change the way he reads time, memory, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss.
I remembered that on summer days many years earlier when I was doing research on my dissertation, I would sometimes leave the gloomy stacks of Butler Library at Columbia and walk out into the sun down to 106th Street, where I’d find a secluded shaded bench away from the drunks and sit there a while, eat a sandwich, a pizza, occasionally smiling at some of the elderly ladies who sat, not in the park, but along the benches outside, the way they did on Saturday afternoons around Verdi Square on 72nd Street and had probably learned to do on sunny, windy summer days in Central Europe, and as they still do in those mock-England spots in Paris that the French call petits squares, where people chat while their children play. Some of these ladies spoke with thick accents. I pictured their homes to myself, lots of lace, many doilies, Old World silverware, mannered Austro-Hungarian everything, down to the old gramophone, the black-and-white pictures on the wall, and de rigueur schnapps and slivovitz.
They made me think of old 1950s pictures of New York where it seems to grow darker much sooner in the evening than it does nowadays, where everyone wears long grey overcoats because winters were always colder then, and when the Upper West Side teemed with people who had come from before the war and then stayed on, building small, cluttered lives, turning this neighborhood into a reliquary of Frankfurt-am-Main—their Frankfurt-away-from-home, Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson, as the old joke goes, but not an inappropriate name for a city which, in Germany today, dubs itself Mainhattan, and which is, ironically enough, a far stranger city to them, now that it imitates Manhattan, than their adopted Manhattan imitating old Frankfurt. There I met old Mrs. Danziger with the tattoo on her arm. Eighty-three-year-old Kurt Appelbaum, a concert pianist in his day, was sitting at such a bench; we spoke; we became friendly; one night, without my asking, he offered to play the Waldstein and the Rhapsody in Blue for me, “But do not tape,” he said, perhaps because he wished I would, and now that I think of it, I wish I had, as I sat and listened on a broken chair he said had been given to him by Hannah Arendt, who had inherited it from an old German colleague at the New School who had since died as well.
This was the year I rediscovered the Busch Quartet’s 1930s recordings of Beethoven, and I imagined its members playing everywhere in those Old World, pre-war living rooms around Straus Park. And by force of visualizing them here I had projected them onto the park as well, so that its benches and the statue and the surrounding buildings and stores were, like holy men, stigmatized by Beethoven’s music as it was played by a group of exiles from Hitler’s Reich.
I would come every noon, for the statue mostly, because she was, like me, willing to stand by in this halfway station called Straus Park. She reminded me of those statues one finds everywhere in Rome, springing on you from their niches in the evening when you least expect them.
It is difficult to explain what seclusion means when you find it on an island in the middle of Broadway, amid the roar of midday traffic. What I was looking for, and had indeed found quite by accident, was something that reminded me of an oasis—in the metaphorical sense, since this was a “dry” fountain—but an oasis of the soul, a place where, for no apparent reason, people stop on their various journeys elsewhere. Straus Park, it seemed, was created precisely for this, for contemplation, for restoration—in both its meanings—for retrospection, for finding oneself, for finding the center of things.
And indeed there was something physically central about Straus Park. This, after all, was where Broadway and West End Avenue intersected, and the park seemed almost like a raised hub on West 106th Street, leading to Riverside Park on one side and to Central Park on the other. Straus Park was not on one street but at the intersection of four. Suddenly, before I knew why, I felt quite at home. I was in one place that had at least four addresses.
Here you could come, sit, and let your mind drift in four different directions: Broadway, which at this height had an unspecified Northern European cast; West End, decidedly Londonish; 107th, very quiet, very narrow, tucked away around the corner, reminded me of those deceptively humble alleys where one finds stately homes along the canals of Amsterdam. And 106th, as it descended toward Central Park, looked like the main alley of small towns on the Italian Riviera, where, after much trundling in the blinding light at noon and the stagnant odor of fuel from the train station where you just got off, you finally approach a sort of cove, which you can’t make out yet, but which you know is there, hidden behind a thick row of Mediterranean pines, over which, if you really strain your eyes, you’ll catch the tops of striped beach umbrellas jutting beyond the trees, and beyond these, if you could just take a few steps closer, the sudden, spectacular blue of the sea.
To the west of Straus Park, however, the slice of Riverside and 106th had acquired a character that was strikingly Parisian, and with the fresh breeze which seemed to swell and subside all afternoon long, you sensed that behind the trees of Riverside Park, serene and silent flowed an elusive Seine, and beyond it, past the bridges that were to take you across, though you couldn’t see any of it yet, was not the Hudson, not New Jersey, but the Left Bank—not the end of Manhattan, but the beginning of a whole bustling city awaiting beyond the trees—as it awaited so many decades ago, when as a boy, dreaming of Paris, I would go to the window and looking out to the sea at night would think that this was not North Africa at all, but the Ile de la Cité. Perhaps what lay beyond the trees was not the end of Manhattan, or even Paris, but the beginnings of another, unknown city, the real city, the one that always beckons, the one we invent each time and may never see and fear we’ve begun to forget.
There were moments when, despite the buses and the trucks and the noise of people with boom boxes, the traffic light would change and everything came to a standstill and people weren’t speaking, and the unrelenting sun beat strong on the pavement, and then you could almost swear this was an early summer afternoon in Italy, and that if I really thought about it, what lay behind Riverside Park was not just my imaginary Seine, but that it could be the Tiber as well. What made me think of Rome was that everything here reminded me of the kind of place all tourists know so well when, thirsty and tired with too much walking all day, you arrive at a tiny empty piazza with a little fountain, douse your face, then unbuckle your sandals, sit on the scalding marble edge of a Baroque fountain, and simply let your feet rest a while in what is always exquisitely clear non-drinkable water.
Depending on where I sat, or on which corner I moved to within the park, I could be in any of four to five countries and never for a second be in the one I couldn’t avoid hearing, seeing, and smelling. This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York. I would return to Straus Park every day, because returning was itself now part of the ritual of remembering the shadow cities hidden here—so that I, who had put myself there, the way squatters put themselves somewhere and start to build on nothing, with nothing, would return for no reason other than perhaps to run into my own footprints. This became my habit, and ultimately my habitat. Sometimes finding you are lost where you were lost last year can be oddly reassuring, almost familiar. You may never find yourself; but you do remember looking for yourself. That too can be reassuring, comforting.
On a hot summer day I came looking for water in a place where no water exists, the way dowsers do when they search for trapped, underground places, seeking out the ghost of water, its remanence. But the kind of water I was really looking for was not fountain water at all, Roman or otherwise. I remembered my disappointment in Rome years ago when, dunking my feet in the turtle fountain early one afternoon, it occurred to me that these surreptitious footbaths in the middle of an emptied Rome in August and all this yearning for sunlight, heat, and water amounted to nothing more than a poor man’s simulated swim at the beaches of my childhood, where water was indeed plentiful, and where all of your body could bathe, not just your toes.
At Straus Park, I had discovered the memory of water. Here I would come to remember not so much the beauty of the past as the beauty of remembering, realizing that just because we love to look back doesn’t mean we love the things we look back on.
There is a large fountain in Rome at Piazza Navona, where the four rivers of the world are represented: the Ganges, the Nile, the Plate, and the Danube. I knew it well, because it stood not far from a small bookstore where, years ago, as a teenager, I would go to purchase one Penguin book a week—a small, muggy, and sultry shop, from which I recall the sense of bliss on first coming out into the sun with a new book in my hand. As I surveyed these four rivers, which, was the question, do I splash my face in?
There is no frigate like a book, says Emily Dickinson. There was nothing I have loved more than to take a good book and sit somewhere in a quiet open spot in Rome with so many old things around me, open up to any page, and begin traveling back sometimes, as when I read Lawrence Durrell and Cavafy, thinking of time—of all that retrospection, to quote Whitman—or eagerly looked forward to the New World, as when I learned to love Eliot and Pound. Does a place become one’s home because this is where one read the greatest number of books about other places? Can I long for Rome when I am finally standing where I yearned to stand when I was once a young man in Rome?
All this, if it hasn’t already, begins to acquire absurd proportions when I realize that, during that dissertation summer of many years ago, I had applied for and gotten a job to teach in an American high school in Rome. So that as I sat here in Straus Park, going through my usual pickup-sticks and cat’s cradle of memories, I had discovered something rather unique: I didn’t want to go to Rome, not for a year, not for half a year, not even for a month, because it finally dawned on me that I didn’t very much like Rome, nor did I really want to be in France, or Egypt for that matter—and though I certainly did not like New York any better, I rather enjoyed my Straus-Park-Italy and my Straus-Park-Paris much more, the way sometimes I like postcards and travel books better than the places they remind me of, art books better than paintings, recordings better than live performances, and fantasies more than the people I fantasize about—some of whom are not only destined to disappoint, but can’t even be forgiven for standing in the way of the pictures we originally had of them. Once in Rome, I would most certainly long to be in Straus Park remembering the Rome where I’d once remembered the beaches of my childhood. Italy was just my way of grafting myself to New York.
I could never understand or appreciate New York unless I could make it the mirror—call it the mnemonic correlate—of other cities I’ve known or imagined. No Mediterranean can look at a sunset in Manhattan and not think of another sunset thousand of miles away. No Mediterranean can stand looking at the tiny lights speckling the New Jersey cliffs at night and not remember a galaxy of little fishing boats that go out to sea at night, dotting the water with their tiny lights till dawn, when they come back to shore. But it is not New Jersey I see when I watch the sun set from Riverside Drive.
The real New York I never see either. I see only the New York that either sits in for other places or helps me summon them up. New York is the stand-in, the ersatz of all the things I can remember and cannot have, and may not even want, much less love, but continue to look for, because finding parallels can be more compelling than finding a home, because without parallels, there can’t be a home, even if in the end it is comparing we like, not the objects we compare. Outside of comparing, we cannot feel. One may falsify New York to make it more habitable; but by making it more habitable in that way one also makes it certain it remains a falsehood, a figment.
New York is my home precisely because it is a place from where I can begin to be elsewhere—an analogue city, a surrogate city, a shadow city that allows me to naturalize and neutralize this terrifying, devastating, unlivable megalopolis by letting me think it is something else, somewhere else, that it is indeed far smaller, quainter than I feared, the way certain cities on the Mediterranean are forever small and quaint, with just about the right number of places where people can go, sit, and, like Narcissus leaning over a pool of water, find themselves at every bend, every store window, every sculptured forefront. Straus Park allowed me to place more than one film over the entire city of New York, the way certain guidebooks of Rome do. For each photograph of an ancient ruin comes a series of colored transparencies. When you place the transparency over the picture of a ruin the missing or fallen parts suddenly reappear, showing you how the Forum and the Coliseum must have looked in their heyday, or how Rome looked in the Middle Ages, and then in the late Renaissance, and so on. But when you lift all the plastic sheets, all you see are today’s ruins.
I didn’t want to see the real New York. I’d go backward in time and uncover an older New York, as though New York, like so many other cities on the Mediterranean, had an ancient side that was less menacing, that was not so difficult to restore, that had more past than present, and that corresponded to the old-fashioned world I think I come from. Hence, my obsession with things that are old and defunct and that seep through like ancient cobblestones and buried rails from under renewed coats of asphalt and tar. Sealed-off ancient firehouses, ancient stables turned into garages, ghost buildings awaiting demolition, old movie theaters converted into Baptist churches, old marketplaces that are now lost, subway stops that are ghost stations today—these are the ruins I dream of restoring, if only to date the whole world back a bit to my time, the way Herr Appelbaum and Frau Danziger belonged to my time. Going to Straus Park was like traveling elsewhere in time. How frugal is the chariot that bears the human soul.
How uncannily appropriate, therefore, to find out fifteen years later that the statue that helped me step back in time was not that of a nymph, but of Memory herself. In Greek, her name is Mnemosyne, Zeus’ mistress, mother of the Muses. I had, without knowing it, been coming to the right place after all. This is why I was so disturbed by the imminent demolition of the park: my house of memories would become a ghost park. If part of the city goes, part of us dies as well.
Of course, I had panicked too soon. Straus Park was marvelously restored. After spending more than a year in a foundry, a resurrected statue of Memory remembered her appointed place in the park and resumed her old position. Her fountain is the joy of children and of all people who lean over to splash their faces on a warm summer day. I go there very often, sometimes to have coffee in the morning after dropping my children off at school. I have now forgotten what the old Straus Park looked like. I do not miss it but somehow part of me is locked there too, so that I come here sometimes to remember my summer of fifteen years ago as well, though I am glad those days are gone.
My repeated returns to Straus Park make of New York not only the shadow city of so many other cities I’ve known, but a shadow city of itself, reminding me of an earlier New York in my own life, and before that of a New York which existed before I was born and which has nothing to do with me but which I need to see—in old photographs, for example—because, as an exile without a past, I like to peek at others’ foundations to imagine what mine might look like had I been born here, where mine might be if I were to build here. I like to know that Straus Park was once called Schuyler Square, and before that it was known as Bloomingdale Square, and that these are places where everything about me and the city claims a long, continuous, call it a common, ancestral, imaginary past, where nothing ever bolts into sudden being, but where nothing ever disappears, not those I love today, nor those I’ve loved in the past, that Old World people like Herr Appelbaum, who played Gershwin for me on 105th Street one night when he could have played Schubert instead, and Mrs. Danziger, who never escaped the Nazis and brought them with her in her dreams at night, might still sit side by side with Ida Straus, who refused to board the lifeboats when the Titanic sank and stayed on with her husband—that all these people and all these layers upon layers of histories, warmed-over memories, and overdrawn fantasies should forever go into letting my Straus Park, with its Parisian Frankfurts and Roman Londons, remain forever a tiny, artificial speck on the map of the world that is my center of gravity, from which radiates every road I’ve traveled, and to which I always long to return when I am away.
But perhaps I should spell the mystery out and say what lies at the bottom of all this. Straus Park, this crossroad of the world, this capital of memory, this place where the four fountains of the world and the four quarters within me meet one another is not Paris, is not Rome, could not be London or Amsterdam, Frankfurt or New York. It is, of course, Alexandria.
I come to Straus Park to remember Alexandria, be it an unreal Alexandria, an Alexandria that does not exist, that I’ve invented, or learned to cultivate in Rome as in Paris, so that in the end the Paris and the Rome I retrieve here are really the shadow of the shadow of Alexandria, versions of Alexandria, the remanence of Alexandria, infusing Straus Park itself now, reminding me of something that is not just elsewhere but that is perhaps more in me than it was ever out there, that it is, after all, perhaps just me, a me that is no less a figment of time than this city is a figment of space.
December 18, 1997