War and Peace in Bryant Park

by The Man with the Funny Camera

06/03/2003

42nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenue; Bryant Park

Neighborhood: Manhattan

In the reading room at the Public Library they were working in the pleasantly vague, ethereal light, the faint smell of body odor hanging in the air, the many laptops and furtive glances.

In Bryant Park, behind the library, a girl sat amidst a sea of chairs and stared out at the empty lawn. The sky was grey, a white diffuse light, and the lawn was empty even though it was lunch time. The scene had a feeling of festiveness postponed.

The girl had a book in her hand. It was a large paperback. I asked what it was.

“War and Peace,’ she said.

It was a library book, but not from this library. She got it in Queens.

“What page are you up to?” I asked.

She said she was up to page forty.

“Do you think you’ll finish it?”

“Yes,” she said.

“But when is the book due?”

She consulted the library card in the back. “Two weeks,” she said.

“You think you’ll get through the whole book in two weeks?”

“No, but you can…” she hesitated. “Renew! You can renew as many times as you like. It will take me a few months, but I’ll finish it.”

She agreed to let the book have a photo shoot. According to the library card she was the first person to take it out, but it was not new.

I said good-bye and walked all the way across the lawn to the statue of Goethe, which is positioned so as to stare directly at the merry go round which was spinning, empty save for one little kid riding a frog.

Then I walked all the way back and asked the girl, who was still sitting there, a question.

“Just out of curiosity, where are you from?”

“India,” she said.

“And how old are you, I mean, when did you get here?”

“I’m seventeen, and I got here when I was eleven.”

“And did you speak English when you got here?” I asked.

“No,” she said, and smiled very nicely. She also told me her name was Ripunder.

I left feeling quite sure that she would finish the book. Actually, I thought maybe she would be president someday. Only later did it occur to me to ask if she was waiting for someone.

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