For three years my girlfriend, Erin, lived in Dakar, Senegal, and though I never even made the trip there, I developed an attachment to Africa. There was something in knowing, truly knowing of her life there that became a part of my own life–acquiring not a working knowledge of Wolof (the language native to Dakar) but an understanding simply of what it sounded like; creating a mental picture of the Dogon Country, or the dazzling sunset over both desert and sea that she often spoke of. I actually had no experience to match these mental images, until, oddly enough, I began working on 55th Street. I would often stroll up towards Central Park, passing though the market along Columbus Circle.
The market welcomed passengers as they exited the 59th Street/Columbus Circle station. Hundreds of merchants sold every non-practical souvenir you could think of, and foreign smells wafted up from the bodegas. Often, musicians would play outside on the steps, luring aimless tourists away from the park. During one of Erin’s visits we passed through it together. As we walked, I scoffed at the mock-West African clothes for sale, the poorly framed photographs of celebrities, the pirated CD’s and videos that were, in my mind, most likely blank. I scoffed uncontrollably and condescendingly at the tourists who bought up their “African” items. But then we, together, heard the language these merchants spoke–French found it’s occasional way in, but Wolof, it was Wolof!–and Erin sparked up a conversation. You can only imagine the surprise of these recent Senegalese immigrants as the small, fair Irish woman by my side stammered on in their native language. I, for my part, now poured over the half-rate products they offered, daily buying votive candles with native “African” scents, huge mud cloths decorated in greens,yellows and reds.
The following year took me away from the city, only to bring me back to the same job on 55th Street. The year had also seen the demise of my relationship with Erin. The extended time and distance between us had overwhelmed our commitment to each other, as strong as it had been. I longed for the relics that would bring me a scent and a memory of her, and on my first day back the A train carried me up 8th Avenue to Columbus Circle. But what I found when I ascended from the subway was a Columbus Circle where the market was now swathed in black nylon coverings, cheap aluminum scaffolding. Black blankets that hid where the entire block had been demolished, torn down in favor of high-class housing with a view of the park, offices with the same. In the progress that circumscribed mid-town, something of my Manhattan had been swallowed by the city’s growth, by the constant drive forward. Where a part of New York had once closed the gap between Erin and I, even given the distance of thousands of miles, now a part of my life had receded in the wake of these advances. The market was gone.