I'd been to Manhattan before. A year earlier, I'd stayed with a family friend for the summer, and I got to explore the city on my off-hours. That summer, I walked constantly, and I almost always travelled alone. When someone was with me, they tended to tell me too much about the buildings and the streets. It'd never occurred to me that all the famous New York events actually took place somewhere; when people told me about the significance of certain landmarks it would feel like something got plucked out of the mess of my mental images and plopped down on the grid.
I liked to imagine distinctive buildings and squares in ways that suited me, and I thought local history and real estate were just ways for rich New Yorkers to idolize themselves. When I came to Riverside Park one evening, I didn't care who'd developed it.
The Tour Guide
I hardly knew anyone, but I had one friend at Columbia who took me out a couple of times. She worked at the school's radio station and lived a block from campus, so I avoided the Upper West Side. If I ran into her up there, I didn't want her to think I was just wandering up and down her two-block daily routine to stop her "by chance" on the street. In fact, I kept clear of the whole district, and the first time I ever visited was when she invited me.
We'd been all over the city that day, walking East through corners we'd already passed heading South, her never telling me the local history but keeping up the sort of good conversation that would make those places memorable later. We'd been to a prop shop in Chelsea, where knives and chairs and globes and compasses from movies were arranged into life-sized dioramas that might have been sets. We'd poured whiskey quietly into teacups in a restaurant in Chinatown, and we'd drunk them calmly, knowing the liquids were the same color. We ended up at Riverside Park, maybe an hour before sundown.
We were sitting on benches in the park, probably talking about her boss or Bluegrass or Dixieland. We were separated by one of those iron rails that makes sure the only homeless who can sleep on the benches are the ones shorter than four feet. The light was starting to hit us in the face, and through a squint I could see all the pollen and the fireflies who would start blinking any minute. Before dusk they're just bugs. The conversation turned toward old-time music in general, and then toward nostalgia in general, and then toward youth. We looked at each other and turned our eyes down.
After some silence, we started talking again, but this time it was with the strange disbelief that we could spend a whole afternoon having a good time and then end up sad in the evening because of an unlucky bend in what we were talking about. It would feel like evening for the rest of the night, even once the fireflies started blinking. A minute ago, we'd been fine.
She smiled an "ain't that just so" smile and it reminded me, in reverse, of the walk I'd have to take from the park to the train, and the disappointed music I'd put on, and the next time I'd see Riverside Park. She'd been a good tour guide; without me knowing anything about it, I'd remember that place.