On Saturday night I walked from my apartment on the Lower East Side over to Housing Works in SoHo. It was a little after 8:00 at night and my intention was to spend a few pleasant hours drinking coffee and reading Grapes of Wrath. It was also a way to give my wife some time to herself in the apartment, which I hardly ever leave. The evening was warm, people were out, and the stroll was pleasant. When I arrived at Housing Works I saw to my great disappointment that it was closing in fifteen minutes. For some reason I had assumed that it would be open until at least 11:00. Isn’t everything in New York open until 11:00? No, Housing Works is open until 9:00. So on I went, crestfallen, downcast, making my way east to Whole Foods, which has coffee and couches and I knew for a fact was open until 11:00.
As I walked along East Houston I passed a roped off construction area where just behind it was a man bent at the waist writing something in freshly laid concrete. He was about sixty years old, and he had thin hair, and was dressed in a sports coat. There was nothing outwardly shabby or deranged about him, and in fact he wrote so leisurely that at first I thought he was doing something in an official capacity. In his right hand he held a stick which he was using to intently carve his message.
How unfortunate, I thought as I walked by, that just moments after the city has laid concrete it is being vandalized. And how unfortunate that now for the next thirty, forty, fifty years—how many years before concrete is repaved?—everyone else will have to look at what meaningless message this man has engraved.
A wave of indignity washed over me. I must do something! I thought suddenly. I must stop this criminal act!
But what do I do? How do I stop it? Perhaps the man is deranged, after all, and if I attempt to intercede he will become enraged and murder me.
If you see something say something, came into my head. What was that number that you were supposed to call? I could not remember that number. Then the phrase quality of life appeared before me like a vision, and this phrase was followed by the simple three-digit number that Mayor Bloomberg had so tirelessly promoted.
I took out my cellphone and dialed.
A recording came on. “Verizon Wireless 411 Search,” said the robotic woman’s chipper voice.
Search? The number was wrong. I had misremembered. I hung up quickly and tried to recall Mayor Bloomberg standing at his press conference saying something about reporting quality of life issues, but all that came into my head was 411. As I deliberated I could see the man continuing to write. He might as well been a professor at a chalkboard. Was he writing complete sentences? For the next fifty years we will have to read this insane man’s musings.
So I did the only thing I could do: I dialed 911.
My display screen immediately went red and an image of an ambulance appeared. A moment late a tired, apathetic woman’s voice could be heard asking me with disinterest, “What’s the emergency?”
“Well, it’s not really an emergency,” I began pleasantly and by way of introduction. And just before I could explain what was happening the exhausted, indifferent voice came alive in impatience and alarm.
“Sir!” the voice said. “This is an emergency line, sir! Do you need a police car, ambulance, or fire truck?”
Trying to report a crime I now felt like the criminal. I cringed, I cowered. Perhaps I should hang up. No, the man is continuing to write. “I need a police car!” I said.
“What’s the emergency, sir?” But now the voice had returned to apathy.
“There’s a man,” I said, “there’s a man writing in the sidewalk!” As I said it I felt suddenly like I was back in nursery school tattling on the naughty boy. I also realized the confusing absurdity of the phrase, “writing in the sidewalk.” How will the dispatcher understand what it means to write in the sidewalk? “There’s concrete that has just been laid,” I went on, “and there’s a man who’s writing in it.” What a cumbersome crime! “He’s defacing the sidewalk,” I said resolutely. The word defacing felt right, official sounding. The dispatcher would understand defacing.
“Where are you located?” she asked.
I felt relief. I had made it passed the hurdle. Soon the police would come. Above me the lamppost was clearly marked. “The corner of Bowery and Houston.” That, at least, I could convey with authority.
There was a pause as the coordinates were punched in.
Then the depressed voice asked, “How do you spell Bowery?”
Was this a joke? Shouldn’t every 911 operator know every single street in New York City? Shouldn’t that be basic training? What if I was bleeding to death but needed to spell Bowery before she could summon the ambulance?
“B-o-w-e-r-y,” I said.
“And what’s the cross street?”
“Houston.” Should I spell Houston? Pause.
“Are you on the east side or the west side?” she asked.
At least she knows Houston, I thought.
“I’m on the east side.”
“Manhattan,” I said with great sorrow.
“And what’s the emergency?” she asked again.
But there was no emergency any longer. The man with the stick was righting himself and moving on. He was done. He had said what he needed to say. Off he went into the night in the direction of Housing Works. I watched him go.
“There’s no emergency any longer,” I said. “It’s too late.”
“You don’t need a police car, sir?”
“No,” I said dejectedly, “I don’t need a police car.”
I hoped she would feel some failing on her part. Perhaps she might even apologize for not knowing how to spell Bowery. But she only confirmed once more that I didn’t need a police car and then the call ended.
The next afternoon I went to Housing Works and sat and drank coffee and read Grapes of Wrath. After that I went to Whole Foods to buy some groceries for dinner and on my way there I passed the spot where the man had been writing the night before.
I looked to see what he had written and this is what I found:
“Roger Yvonne Herbert.”
And to the right of it, spaced just a little further away so that it would stand alone, “Lois.”
And further away from that, “Alden Dennis.”
I bent down and touched the concrete but it was dry now. Hard and solid. Hard and solid for fifty years.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s essays and stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Open City and elsewhere. His memoir about growing up communist in the U.S. will be published by Dial Press in 2009. For more information please visit www.sayrafiezadeh.com.