Seeing Socrates



Neighborhood: Astoria, Queens

Wanting to see the new exhibits at Socrates Sculpture Park, I walked down Broadway from my Astoria apartment. I passed beneath the elevated subway station as an N or W train thundered through. Down past grungy supermarkets and massive discount stores, with their outdoor displays of toilet paper, sandals, fake Persian rugs, and baskets of brooms.

The last time I had been to Socrates was at night in late August. I sat on an old bed sheet with my fiancée Anna, her brother Abe, and his scrappy Jack Russell Julius. We were surrounded by other families from the neighborhood, also on blankets, as we watched Kid ’N Play’s “House Party,” part of a free outdoor screening series. That was the week before Abe moved out to L.A. with his wife, Lynn. Now, it was October and windy and cold. I walked by Crescent Street, their block and their building and a yellow sign advertised that their two-bedroom was for sale. They were the reason Anna and I had moved from the Upper East Side to Astoria a year ago, and now they had moved to the West Coast so Lynn could give acting all she had.

I pressed on along Broadway, down past a shopping center parking lot and the post office with its long lines of frustrated customers. Pavement sprinkled with glass shards encircled the trees that lined the avenue. Crossing 21st Street, I saw the banner for the Bel Aire Diner, which read: #1 DINER IN ASTORIA. That was where Abe and Lynn had gone with us for our first dinner in Queens after our move. Considering how many diners there were out here, the banner made a strong claim, but as far as we were concerned, it was true.

Further down Broadway, I passed Long Island City High School, with its kempt soccer field and its view of the Manhattan skyline. Latino guys stood in front of the school in black down jackets while Latina girls played soccer on the field. One girl with a ponytail tripped and fell, and I realized that it wasn’t grass at all but AstroTurf.

Down past auto shops and taxi stands and a junkyard, beneath whose tall green gate an attack dog snarled and burrowed its jagged teeth.

Past debris strewn about the cracked pavement: broken umbrellas, leaves, used condoms, and plastic bags.

Finally, I crossed Vernon Boulevard and arrived at Socrates.

Half a dozen men and women pushed rakes and wheelbarrows across the grassy field, cleaning up any visible garbage. The ground was soaked from Hurricane Wilma, which had pushed through New York only the day before. Scattered all over the park were clusters of perforated green poles with street signs attached. Were they transplanted by the storm or just the new sculpture exhibit? Some signs had names like Ludlow, Essex, or Grand Streets. Others had addresses from variously numbered streets. I couldn’t tell if each cluster symbolized a different part of Manhattan, but the flags made a striking installation. Bolted to the base of each pole were incomplete bikes. Some with just seats, some with only handlebars or chains, all the bikes had rusty frames. A few even had wheels bent at 90-degree angles.

Aside from the bike display, there was a circle of six wooden poles that were supposed to be bare tree bird feeders, but I didn’t see how. At the other end of the field, near the rocks that led down to the East River, stood two large cutouts of what I assumed were Disney figures since they were painted yellow. I thought I saw the sillhouette of the Magic Kingdom as I walked between the two sculptures, towering over me and saluting one another.

From that corner, Socrates held a stunning view of the drifting water and the northern half of Roosevelt Island, which a little abandoned lighthouse punctuated at its tip. Anna once said that the dull brick buildings made Roosevelt Island look straight out of Fahrenheit 451. Straight across the river, I could see the tops of the hi-rise buildings that lined the East River promenade. I stood at the same latitude as 83rd Street and could see The Brearley School across the river, where I have taught elementary school girls for the past two years. A running joke with Abe and Lynn had been that when my kids had a question during a lesson at Brearley, I could tell them to look out the window. There they’d be able to see Abe and Lynn standing where I now stood on Socrates’ field, holding up the answer on a huge sign.

The gorgeous view which once made me feel at peace now left me chilled and lonely. I called Abe and Lynn out in L.A. I’d forgotten about the time difference until their home phone was ringing. It was only a quarter past 9, but Lynn was awake.

“I’m taking a walk through Socrates,” I said. “There’s a great new exhibit with bikes locked to street poles.”

“Cool,” she said, then laughed, “Thanks for faxing Aben’s glasses prescription out here yesterday.” Anna and I had been picking up the last scraps of Abe and Lynn’s mail at their old place. For some reason, the prescription I’d faxed from my office had his named as “Aben.”

“How have you guys been?” Lynn asked.

“Busy,” I said, “between the wedding plans, work, and grad school. But things are going well. We miss you guys a lot.” I walked over to my favorite exhibit at Socrates—which just happened to be the only permanent display—a huge wind chime that sat on six silver poles between the river’s edge and the wooded part of the park.

Lynn said, “We miss you guys, too.” In the background, Julius let out a little bark, which he rarely did when they had lived in Astoria. “We don’t have anyone that close to us out here.”

The wind chime looked like a series of spinning barbells. There were two twirling silver bowls on either end of each metal bar, hard at work from the wind that ripped up the river. The chime gave off dull notes that sounded like they should have been coming from the lighthouse.

“Hey, did Abe tell you I got the part?”

“No, but Anna told me. Congratulations!” I had heard the news yesterday from Anna, who heard it from Abe. Lynn landed three lines in a TV show called “Numb3rs.” It wasn’t a particularly good show or a good role, but it had been her first audition out there. To them, it was confirmation that their move was worthwhile.

“Thanks, I think we’re going to have to celebrate. It’s gorgeous here today.”

“Well, have a great time,” I said, zipping up my jacket. We said goodbye and I walked through the patch of woods, past another cluster of bike flags. A large mutt that looked to be part German shepherd ran past with a tennis ball in its mouth. It was Biscuit, a dog I knew from when Julius used to run around Socrates. Biscuit’s owner followed her along the path. She was a short woman with curly brown hair and a permanent smile, whom I’d talked to a few times, mostly about her dog and Julius. Now that Julius wasn’t there, she passed me by and didn’t say hello.

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