“You can neither lie to a neighborhood park, nor reason with it.
Most people may use the city parks to wander through for an hour or more, to read a book or walk the dog, play soccer if there’s a field large enough, even picnic if the grass is green and the sunshine sufficient. But then there are the Park People. Every city has them. Park people hang out in the park like it’s their home with favorite benches like living room couches, shady spots under a spreading oak like their porch where they spend the days talking with friends, maybe eating a hotdog from the cart on the corner or drinking a beer out of a moisture-stained paper bag; posturing to impress the ladies or the boys, watching the yokels walk by on the sidewalk who work for a living while they the self-anointed loafers take it all in with a cheap bottle of wine in one hand and a smoke in the other surrounded by ersatz companions to share their small victories and perhaps tell some tall tales or else share a pipe dream about their plans to get off the bench and find a glorious exit from the park in a triumphal procession to make their confreres green with envy.
I discovered park people quite by accident. As a graduate student I entered the park below City College on Saint Nicolas Terrace in Harlem for a class assignment on anthropology to observe its denizens as if they were aboriginals on an island in Melanesia and report back with a thirty-page essay. My professor suggested we act as ‘participant observers’ to infiltrate the society of loafers. Participant observation is a research method in which you secretly observe the participants by engaging in their activities without letting them know you’re just an academic voyeur. Some famous urban anthropologists got themselves thrown into prison or lived in gang-run communities or checked into psychiatric facilities to get the lowdown on their cultures. As my Prof explained, participant observation helps you see what people are doing versus what they’re saying, and not alert them to the fact that you’re there to observe, which might make them change their behavior to suit your expectations or make then wary and clam up or simply kick your ass as an unwanted intruder.
I handed my essay in after a semester of hanging out in the Saint Nicholas Park including clinical profiles of the primary denizens that I chatted up and got an A+. But for some reason, call it curiosity, social addiction, or admiration, I realized that I liked the park people better than most of my university friends, and continued to hang out in the park after class. Parks I discovered are like gyroscopes. You know, that dime store kid’s toys with a spinning wheel mounted inside two gimbals or metal circles for support. You set it in motion by winding a string around a central spindle then pull for all your worth, but then as the wheel spins you tilt the device this way and that in the palm of your hand and it freezes in that angle of repose as if the centripetal and centrifugal forces of the universe were aligned with it. I found that park people spin in different directions but are balanced by a gravitational center that can be dispassionately appraised. The spindle is the demographic of the neighborhood, be it black or white, poor or rich, on the waterfront, which is usually a working-class neighborhood, or up in the heights where the professionals live, the doctors, lawyers, and tax accountants. This predicts the type of person that might sit down on the bench next to you. The spinning wheel of the gyroscope; the force that keep the gyroscope upright is the platform on which the park people play, an illusionary sphere of seeming camaraderie amongst a tribal culture based on bonhomie and mayhem.
In my hubris, I thought that I could hold the park in the center of my hand like that spinning toy and not get hurt. But sometimes the centrifugal force outstrips your ability to hold at the equipoise, the center dissolving beneath your feet like quicksand; something happens that’s random and disjointed, resulting in people running around like ants in a frenzy after their nest is disturbed. This happened the day that Ruby entered the park. He looked like a ship adrift, a Flying Dutchman, his open shirt torn and tattered like a loose topsail, his long prematurely grey hair blowing out behind him like a schooner’s wake, his skinny chest exposed in the twilight luminescing like a glow worm’s torso as he drifted aimlessly down the walk in his own haunted world, responding to things we couldn’t see, his shabby slept-in jeans and red flannel shirt giving him a deranged and hunted look, as he rolled about touching benches and trees, looking at them quizzically, as if trying to read their thoughts, then moving on to another inanimate object, caressing it, whispering to himself like an escaped Bedlamite.
Ruby was a classmate of mine from the university and a space cadet who liked to trip on LSD but was prone to petite mal epileptic seizures at the most inopportune of moments. Like the time we went on a cruise around Manhattan on the Circle Line and he dropped some psilocybin and thought the passing New York skyline was the Emerald City of Oz and tried to jump off the boat when a helicopter flew overhead thinking it was the Wicked Witch of the West and her flying monkeys come to carry him away.
He was a fun companion to be around when he was healthy but a bit of a bummer when his neurons misfired. Slowly, inexorably, Ruby spiraled towards me in the shade of the bandstand where I sat nursing a bottle of blood-red Chianti. I passed it on to Rocky beside me, a deranged teenage murderer recently released from Rikers Island prison for killing a man over some money he’d picked up by accident from the bar – his lawyer got him off on a technicality – seems the cop that busted Rocky was a bagman for the mob’s numbers racket and all his cases got dismissed when he gave state’s evidence and disappeared into the witness protection program.
“Who’s this whack-job?” Rocky asked.
“Don’t know but I bet he got some change we can liberate” Topper said sitting beside me on the bench.
Topper is a black dude from Orient Avenue who likes to wear oversize hats – the kind of lid that Don Cornelius wears on Soul Train. He pulls the bottle from Rocky’s hand and takes a swig of wine. Topper is constantly in search of loose change. One day I made the mistake of mentioning to someone in Topper’s presence that I was going to California and that I’d saved a thousand dollars for the trip. A short while later Topper asked me to walk him down to Jackson Avenue to buy some beers for the guys in the park. Unsuspecting, I said “Sure!” as he affably kept up some small talk as we left and moved down towards the liquor store. In the middle of a sentence, I found myself grabbed from behind, a knife thrust against my throat and a raspy voice in my ear saying, “Don’t move, where’s your wallet?” Meanwhile Topper just stands there a few paces away watching this rip-off unfold with arms crossed and head cocked to the side like he’s observing an appendectomy, maybe studying the rip-off artist’s technique for future moves. I say, “In my back pocket!” as the guy behind me takes my wallet and then the two of them, the Ripper-Offer and Topper, walk off together like buddies not even bothering to run. Then Topper looks in the wallet and then up at me in surprise. “Hey, man! There’s no money. You said you had a thousand dollars.”
“In the bank, you moron,” I replied rubbing my neck. “You think I’d walk around here with that much dough in my pocket?”
“Shit,” Topper said as they turned and started down the street.
“Hey!” I hollered. “How about my wallet?” And the other Mook just drops it on the ground like it’s a discarded candy wrapper. It then occurs to me that I could wind up dead hanging out in a park in Harlem. I vowed to keep my mouth shut from then on, and never, ever, flash or mention any kind of money in public.
It’s then that Ruby walks up to me, his hair prematurely grey as an October sky, although he’s only nineteen and these black bushy eyebrows with one eye lower than the other giving his face a lopsided look, his blue eyes shadowed, darting and unsettled, as if some terrifying thought is roaming around inside his head just waiting to spring out gleaming and untoward in one of his lopsided observations. And of course, it does:
“Hey, Mario,” he says to me, “Did you ever wonder why these Cicadas climb out of the ground every year and make that ungodly mind-shattering racket,” he asked placing his hands over his ears and looking up into the foliage where the persistent humming of the insects rises and falls like a buzzsaws on the wind.
But to be honest, I’d grown so used to the insects insistent bzzing sound that it had become a part of the background noise in the park, like the huffing of the passing busses up the hill or the sudden roar of a descending jet dropping for its final run into LaGuardia Airport across the bay. I knew from college that Rudy was studying to be an entomologist, a scientist interested in insects, and it occurs to me that he kind of looks like a praying mantis as I reply, “No, please enlighten me,” as I passed him the bottle of vino.
“The cicadas are in the order Hemiptera and true bugs.”
“I coulda told you they were bugs,” Topper said, “cause a da way they squish when I step on em,” he said laughing and rolling back and forth on the bench slapping his knees like a deranged marionette. Topper likes to think he’s funny but in truth he’s the type you laugh at privately, not with, because you don’t want him to sniff that out, or he’d shiv you for his own sense of fun.
Ruby looks at Topper disdainfully for a moment like one of his bug specimens but then turns back to me and says, “Cicadas have prominent eyes set wide apart so they have no depth perception, short antennae, and membranous front wings. They have an exceptionally loud song, produced in most species by the rapid buckling and unbuckling of a drum like tymbal on their back. They adults live in trees and feed on the watery sap from their xylem tissue and lay their eggs in a slit in the bark. Most cicadas are cryptic. The vast majority of species are active during the day as adults, with some calling at dawn or dusk. Only a few rare species are nocturnal.”
“So that’s why they shut up when the sun goes down?” Rocky asked.
“Yes, but the ones you’re hearing now are more magical,” Ruby added, with a sideways amused glance, taking in Rocky’s huge shoulders and twitching hands as he sat precariously on the top edge of the bench swinging his feet back and forth like a disturbed alley cat.
“How magical? You mean like Tinker Bell and the fairies?” I asked.
“Nah, more amazing than simple fairies,” he said with a snort. “The North American genus of cicadas, Magicicada, spends thirteen or seventeen years underground as a nymph feeding on roots and only then emerges as a flying adult to mate and the female to lay eggs in the bark of that same tree and then die. The eggs mature and drop to the ground as nymphs and burrow down into the dirt where they latch onto the tree roots and feed for another thirteen or seventeen years.”
“Wait a minute! Wait a minute! I heard about that,” someone cried at the edge of the crowd who’d gathered to take in Ruby’s spiel. I looked over and saw Bosco, who got his name because he looked like a jar of Bosco chocolate syrup that small and rotund jar filled with black chocolate goo used to convert wimpy white milk into deep dark chocolate milk. I liked Bosco. His parents were Afro-Cubans who’d escaped Havana when Castro took over. He had that innate intelligence of the autodidact fueled by a voracious reading habit, which made him see the world far beyond the horizon of his neighborhood. Bosco lived down the hill from the park in the basement of a three-story clapboard house with his mom and Grandma and a pair of roosters that he fought at Saturday night cockfights. The two families that lived upstairs weren’t too thrilled with roosters going off every morning like a barnyard reveille but since Bosco’s Moms owed the building based on an insurance payout she got on Bosco’s Pop’s untimely and suspicious demise from ersatz food poisoning from a dish Grans had made him after he smacked Bosco around once too often. Bonus: There was enough money left over for Bosco to buy his Fighting Cocks from a Puerto Rican stable master who had to return to San Juan to deal with some family business involving a lost suitcase full of money and a missing brother-in-law.
Bosco said, “The long time between them coming out I heard protects them against getting eaten by predators like birds and bats.”
I figured this bit of Bosco’s wisdom came from him chatting up his fellow rooster handlers, mostly immigrant farmers out of Cuba and Puerto Rico who’d come to Harlem to hit it big, only to make a hand-to-mouth living doing what they did back in the old country, siccing animals on each other for a profit.
“Bzzzt! Naahh!” Ruby cried, pushing an imaginary button in the air over his head and making that annoying sound like he’s playing Jeopardy on TV. “A lot of folks thought that but it’s a bit more complicated.”
“Yeah, how complicated,” Bosco asked. “Sounds to me like you making shit up!”
Ruby gave Bosco a curious look as if he wasn’t sure if he was real, then nodded at him, perhaps agreeing in his own head that Bosco was indeed real or else just validating his complaint. He said, “Cicadas were described in literature ages ago; Homer’s Iliad mentions them and they’re in some history books from the Chinese Shang dynasty. The leading hypothesis for the evolution of periodicity in cicadas is to survive the last Ice Age.
“What’s this Ice Age?” Rocky asked.
“About 115, 000 years ago the earth cooled off and ice crept down from the North Pole until glaciers three-miles high covered all the land around here. The animals at the edge of the glaciers had to adapt to a changing climate and the cicadas hibernated for dozens of years underground until the ice retreated and they came back up to mate and hide again until the glaciers finally melted. That was about 12,000 years ago. The present behavior of these periodic cicadas is the ghost of that extreme weather event carried over to this day.
“Sheeet! You say this park was covered by an iceberg as high as the Empire State Building? Das bullshit!” Topper said.
Just then, as Ruby was about to respond in a way I knew would piss Topper off and probably draw down some violent response, Boney Moran skied into the park on long strides keyed to the Latin music playing out of a huge silver boom box he held on his right shoulder. Boney was a long lean drink of water with wiry limbs and the expressive hands of a ballerina. He wore a beaded vest over a flowy white shirt with puff sleeves that made him look like a flamenco dancer. In fact, Boney was a dancer but more in the Irish tradition than the Spanish. His mother ran a Step Dance studio for young Irish Americans in Hell’s Kitchen and used Boney as a dance partner or exhibitionist to show her girls how it was done. Boney wanted to dance on Broadway and often got called in for the chorus but was still hoping for a lead.
His girlfriend, Eileen Tunney, followed him into the park with her best friend Jean Miller alongside her. The Tunney’s owned as saloon in Hells Kitchens next to Boney’s dance studio. A typical turn of the century gin mill it consisted of a short bar ending at a huge potbelly stove and a shuffleboard table that ran the length of the building. No juke Box, no pinball, no tables! This was a place to belly up to the bar with your cronies and bend the elbow till you needed to tie a string over your collar and pull your arm up to your mouth like a lever to get the last shot in before closing time. The Tunney’s tavern went back three generations by the time Eileen came along. They had cut, smashed and otherwise scratched their way to the top of their Irish enclave at the cost of hundreds of broken legs busted kidneys and crusted tear-stained faces. There were three brothers; Mike, Shawn and Imus. Individually they were dangerous, together they were lethal. No one crossed one when the other was about because then you got it when you least expected it, usually from a pair of brass knuckles into the kidneys from behind which would put you in the hospital for a month.
The Tunney’s little sister Eileen was a raven-haired Irish beauty who at fourteen could have passed for a runway model. Now at seventeen she still had the porcelain skin so soft that to touch it was to drift insane before the onslaught of desire. Unfortunately for Boney, she let him touch her face and more besides and based on the round protrusion under her blouse she was about six months pregnant. And since this conception came to light Boney had been hiding out in fear for his life from the Tunney Brothers on a busted ferry long ago abandoned in a muddy inlet on the Harlem River. He told me recently that he spent his days contemplating the mortal error of his ways in constant fear of the Tunney brothers since not only did he have the temerity to get Eileen with child but then to slap her around when she bestowed the joyous news on him. Another reason for his clandestine movements amongst the docks was the Jump-Bail warrant out for his arrest since he’d failed to show for a pleading on ecstasy sales to minors. The last time we talked, he told me he was contemplating the value of a faked suicide and a fast trip to the West Coast. A surfing accident, he thought, down the shore, yeah lost at sea, yeah, he liked that idea, could kill two birds with a stone; beat the Tunneys and get the county off his back all at the same time. This was one of the constant pipe dreams I found most alluring to the park people, the getaway, the myriad ways they got into trouble and the multitudinous fantasies of flight; to become someone else, as if it was as simple as flipping a switch on the elevator and getting off on a different floor.
Eileen’s friend Jean danced behind Boney as he walked up to our bench and placed his boom box down and took a swig of wine. Jean did a slow salsa that got the attention of Bosco who shimmied up behind her like a drunken jellyfish. When I met Jean, she was a teenage high school student, lovely of face, soft eyes rounded like an ancient Roman fresco, her body preternaturally mature, high breasts, tight waist, short blonde hair, almond eyes and a jejune demeanor that fell somewhere between shy and unknowingly concupiscent. She dated a number of the boys from the park and had a strange relationship with them based on barbiturates and sex.
Rocky told me that she’d just got back from Puerto Rico where she’d hooked and did some motel room John-robberies with her new boyfriend, Mad Head Collacurchio. She lured them to the motel room with the promise of sex and then Bam! Mad Head jumped out of the closet with a sap and knocked them unconscious take their wallets and jewelry then party all night. Mad Head was already in the park but at another bench. I looked his way as he saw Jean arrive, giving her that intense proprietary look of a pimp. I knew his backstory from some others as he alone among the park people refused to open up under my questioning and accept me as one of them. I figured he had some weird sixth-sense going that I wasn’t legit. Mad-Head got kicked out of high school for locking a classmate in a locker overnight. He subsequently went in the Marines and then to Vietnam where he got shot up, sent back to the states for surgery where he broke out of hospital and stole a jeep then wound up in the famous San Diego brig where his famous uncontrollable mouth got him hung upside down on his cell bars by the duty sergeant. Dishonorably discharged he came home and latched onto Jean as a source of income for his heroin habit.
I noticed Boney wiggle up to Jean with the boom box getting louder and him getting into sync with Jean’s hip gyrations, which made Bosco zoom even faster as Mad-Head glared from his spot on the bench. This wasn’t good, I surmised, and saw it only getting worse as Ruby decided to join in the bacchanal and shimmy up to Jean in an absurd parody of the disco Hustle. She turned and did her own shimmy-shake, her tits bouncing off of Ruby’s chest like giant water balloons, which sent Ruby’s limbs rocketing, his body whirling, his head raised to the sky as his pupils rolled back and his eyes looked like two white eggs about to crack open. The next few moments unfolded like a bad vaudeville act where a strobe light flickers onstage and the actors move in apparent slow motion, limbs disjointed and comical with crab-like legs skittering across the sidewalk, errant hand gestures registering like frozen tableaux from a Noir film.
There was the gun in Mad Head’s hand and the straight razor in Rocky’s. Both snapshots frozen and incongruous and fraught with menace yet comical in a Looney Tunes kind of way. Ruby falls in slow motion as the seizure grabs his brain, he hits the sidewalk at Jean’s feet and starts convulsing. Jean bends over to see what’s wrong just as Mad Head shoots at Ruby’s falling body but the bullet whines across the pair and along the pathway to pass a woman pushing a stroller and on through the hat of a skateboarder doing a handstand spin by the gazebo and then buries itself into an oak tree covered with the carved names of lovers from the 1950s.
Rocky jumps off the bench and pulls a straight razor from his back pocket and slashes Mad Head across the chest in some kind of impromptu jailhouse reflex, Topper pops up like a Jack-in-the-Box and takes off across the playground like he’s being chased by a wolf, Bosco reaches down and pulls Jean off of Ruby and inadvertently throws him into Boney who is shoeless and stumbles backwards onto a broken bottle of beer and starts screaming and hopping around like one of Bosco’s fighting roosters.
I’m still on the bench!
I’ve seen Ruby do this before and know it ain’t good but he’ll survive. But I’m frozen by the mayhem as Mad Head tries to turn the gun on Rocky who grabs his hands and they do a tarantella dance around me, each holding the other one’s hands to keep the razor and the gun at bay. Eileen is hugging Jean on the ground as they’re both sitting next to the spasming body crying, Bosco’s got his wallet in Ruby’s mouth to keep him from biting his tongue off while sitting on his chest to stop the spasms. Boney is screaming and sitting in the grass pulling shards of glass from his bare feet and I’m still sitting frozen on the bench, thinking.
A year ago, my Philosophy professor, Bill Toden, and I met in a bar by accident in Greenwich Village. He’s walking out as I’m walking in, so he abruptly changes directions grabs my elbow and steers me inside to a quiet corner table where we have a beer and debate Platonic versus Aristotelian philosophy. Being an obnoxious undergraduate, I opt for the Existentialists just to be argumentative but he informs me that Sartre was a closet fascist and Camus a crypto-faggot and both were afraid of dying just like everyone else. Bill is also the New York City Judo champion for six years running and not one to take a chance in a debate or a barfight. That night he describes for me his own philosophy that meets at the conjunction of his intellectual and pugilistic sensibilities.
He says, “I’m a Pragmatist, Mario! I think William James got it right! Pragmatism claims that any idea or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily. The meaning of an idea or a choice is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.”
“That’s common sense,” I say.
“Exactly!” he says poking me in the chest. “Always believe in Philosophy because there’s no right answer. You don’t need an elaborate treatise to define if something is true or not. And in Judo it’s the same thing. We learn to wait and let your opponent attack and show you his true intensions. You then react to his aggression and simply bend in the wind and use his momentum to let him know where he’s going; hopefully on his ass behind you after a flip. Same with philosophy. You gotta ask yourself, does this work in a particular situation and at that particular moment in time? If not, do nothing and let things run their course.”
Coming out of my reverie, I look around to see Eileen helping Boney pull slivers of glass from his feet, Bosco is between Rocky and Mad-Head and the three of them are all dancing around holding on to each other and laughing about something that I can’t hear, Ruby is sitting with a dazed look on his face that’s snuggly buried between Jeans two breasts who’s slowly stoking his long hair. I see that Ruby has Bosco’s wallet in his lap and he’s looking at it quizzically. Things seemed to have calmed down without me. The gyroscope had regained its poise.
I walk over and sit down next to Ruby and grab his hand, say, “Are you alright, Bro?”
He looks at me with those glassy eyes of the recently resurrected and that faraway look on his mug like he’d been to Mars and back, says, “I guess. Did it again, now didn’t I?”
“Yep! I guess. You got your meds handy?”
“In my shirt pocket.”
I pull the green vial out and spill two anticonvulsant tablets into his hands. And after a moment with Jean’s help, I get him up, “Lean on me, Dude, my car is over there. I’ll take you home.”
And as we walk out of the park, the cicadas start to sing again as Ruby looks up into the canopy and I see a tremor start in his lower lip like an after-shock to his petite mal seizure. “Ain’t their music grand? Makes me think of the creaking of the planet on its hinges,” he says. “It’s their love song, Mario. They’re singing to find a mate, fuck, have babies and die. Then the larvae all go hide in the ground for seventeen years. Wouldn’t it be nice to hide in the ground for seventeen years, go away, come back, and see what’s changed?”
“Yeah, I guess but I don’t think much will have changed, Ruby,” I say, nodding at Topper as we walk past him hiding behind a tree and he tips his porkpie hat at me.
I think about our remote ancestors, those fuzzy square-headed Neanderthals and their skinny human cousins living side-by-side in the dwarf forests under the shadows of the groaning glaciers back in the Ice Age, scavenging for food to stay alive, while the cicadas molded by evolutionary pressure hibernate and bury themselves for decades at the foot of a mountain of blue ice, waiting for it to warm up. And what do they find when they reappear?
Humans fighting over who gets to eat them!
Thomas Belton is an author with extensive publications in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, magazine feature writing, science writing, and journalism. His professional memoir, “Protecting New Jersey’s Environment: From Cancer Alley to the New Garden State” (Rutgers University Press) won “Best Book in Science Writing for the General Public” by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. https://www.rutgersuniversitypress.org/protecting-new-jerseys-environment/9780813548876 In addition, he has published many short stories including for the journals Fterota Logia, Mystery Tribune, Constellations, South Shore Review, The Satirist, Adelaide, Meet Me at 19th Street, Cicada and Art News. His short story “Seneca Village Arises,” (Meet Me @ 19th Street Journal) was awarded “Best First Chapter” in the journal’s 2021 contest for a Young Adult novel opening dealing with racial inequality. https://www.archstreetpress.org/2020/12/28/the-bargemans-daughter-seneca-village-arises/