A Short Walk in Paradise

by

09/25/2022

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

Mid-morning, I set out for a short walk—ten blocks, twice a day, prescribed for my aging heart and arthritic body.

I clear the lobby and make my entrance on to 106th Street. I’m ready to start my hike to health, ready to laugh—or at least snicker—in the face of mortality. I take my first step, then pause, thinking, why push things? At the moment I’m upright—even ambulatory—why overtax my body?

Maybe I’ll just walk the one block to the bakery, get a large black coffee, find a bench and reflect further on my exercise regimen.

At my always-busy corner—Broadway and 106th—I see one of the couples I know from my building, waiting at the corner for the light to change. They’re facing west, in the direction of Riverside Park, two blocks away.

Interesting couple (though probably much less remarkable in my neighborhood than in almost any other); he’s an opera singer, expansive, rosy, rotund—she’s a diminutive Japanese woman, roughly half his size. With his Falstaffian-sized left hand, the man is pulling an old, slightly warped, steel shopping cart. Lying at the bottom of it is a large tortoise. From what I can see, Mr./Ms. Tortoise is only a shell of his/her former self; tortoise head and four tortoise legs have completely retracted into their personal bomb shelter.

I say to the guy—it seems like the neighborly thing to do: “Taking your tortoise for a walk?”

“Yes,” he says, “He likes the fresh grass in the park.” 

“How do you know,” I ask him, “Does he tell you?”

“Oh, yes.” 

The light turns green, and this family unit crosses the intersection. I watch them make it safely across Broadway—and I’m thinking, Mister Tortoise definitely has the right idea. I wish I could retract my arms, legs (and head) into an armored vehicle when I cross that street. 

My walk! Guilt has commenced and is gnawing (noshing?) on my conscience. I figure I owe it—if not to myself, then to my remaining loved ones and health professionals—to do the right thing; walk that walk; maybe I’ll stagger over to the park, and frolic with the other old reptiles. I turn up my side of Broadway to 107th street. It’s easier to cross there.

Now, as it has been for a least a decade—and, as it has been ordained, for all eternity—the street is being torn up. Gas lines, sewage lines, water mains—perhaps a tasty blend of all three. Or maybe it’s cable this time—fiber-optics; high-speed, high def, subterranean channels of ceaseless, redundant information. Or it might simply be that the sidewalk, having been trampled for a couple of decades and adjacent to the cleaners, the optician, the bank, the high rise condominium, and, for the last couple of years, a busy bus-stop, needs to be replaced. The faithful old walkway has begun to crack and tilt—the constant target of the slings, arrows, spit, gum, and stubbed-out cigarettes; this is the fate of all of the city’s concrete.

The construction guys, who appear to be from somewhere in Central America, are enthusiastically attacking the sidewalk. They’re wearing the usual orange safety vests, yellow day-glo hats and heavy construction boots, and they are bringing down their sledgehammers and riding the usual bucking-bronco pneumatic drills. At first, they seem strange to me because they’re about half the size of construction guys I’ve seen my whole life. This short spasm of cognitive dissonance is only magnified by the fact that the road excavator this crew is using is also very small—almost a toy version of the huge metal dinosaurs I usually see ravaging the street. I shake my head—this skewing in scale is my problem and clearly requires cultural brain-retraining.

Whatever the scale of workers and machines, the pavement is being torn up—and down—to its roots; big, jagged slabs of concrete, some pieces encasing metal rods, are thrusting up from the street like icebergs riding a turbulent sea.

As a necessity—so the heavy foot-traffic going up and down the Broadway can be accommodated—a straight (and definitely narrow) path has been cleared down the middle of the construction area. It is surrounded by the same orange plastic netting that—like an insatiable, radioactive creature from a Fifties horror movie—is digesting the whole city. So, now, in an environment where personal space considerations are always precariously balanced, even more civility is required. I wait patiently (well, as patiently as I’m capable of waiting) for the foot traffic to resume. And while I’m waiting, a UN General Assembly chorus of languages rises around me like steam from a bubbling pot. English, of course, then Spanish from the construction crew, Albanian, Polish and Serbian from supers and local handymen (and more Spanish from other supers, handymen and doormen), then the usual Columbia University mix of Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Hindi—with a dash of French and German thrown in for a little extra flavoring.

To keep this increasing crowd as orderly as possible—much like a school safety officer—and to prevent us all from getting clonked by a lawsuit-inducing chunk of concrete—another man flourishes a red flag to let us know when it’s safe to move. As we all hover, the excavator (the little excavator that could) loads up, backs away, pirouettes, then waddles over to drop its load into a dumpster located about ten feet ahead along the curb.

The orange-vested and yellow-helmeted man waves his red flag and gives us the go ahead. As I proceed up Broadway, I’m feeling a slight sense of civic pride (generally unusual in Manhattan) for having done my bit as a responsible citizen. I walk about ten feet and then, with almost choreographed synchronicity, this is what transpires: the excavator, with a loud, banging clang, dumps its concrete chunks into the dumpster, sending up a cloud of pulverized and powdered concrete, not to mention launching a few small, jagged concrete missiles, aimed in random directions.

And just as this is happening, I see, up ahead on the sidewalk, a black man, maybe around 40. He’s slightly chubby, wearing neat, creased jeans, stylish loafers, and a black short-sleeve shirt decorated with bright golden flowers. This man has the tips of the fingers of his right hand on the arm of a large, irritated white woman dressed in an old, streaked white skirt, exhausted brown shoes, and a faded, rose-colored sweater. This lady is obviously a member of the traveling corps of troubled Miss Havishams that eternally patrol the Upper West Side. The man’s head is slightly inclined toward the woman, telling her something, and with his free hand—the one not touching her wrist—he’s pointing to the cascading chunks. He’s obviously trying to warn this woman not to get so close that she could be startled by the noise or hit by flying concrete. She’s turned halfway toward him, muttering angrily, trying to shake off his restraining hand. And what is her message to her knight of the golden flower? She is pointing a large, angry forefinger at him and saying: “You think this is Christian kindness, but it’s not! It’s an invasion of my personal privacy!” She brushes past me, practically bowling me over, still muttering about Christian kindness.

The man is standing completely still, appealing with his raised hands and wide, amazed face, for validation; beseeching everyone, anyone, who has seen this little drama to bear witness. He has that special look people get when they try, out of purely benevolent motives, to be kind or helpful and are rewarded with The Big Brushoff—as if their good intentions were somehow intended to cause harm. It’s a look that says, “Can you believe what just happened? I was trying to help her? Am I supposed to feel bad about what I did?”

In the swirling vehicle and foot traffic—inside the cacophonous din of a hundred various noises, this incident was (except by me) completely unobserved. This sensory trance, this obliviousness, is the standard New Yorker’s avoidance reflex if there’s any possibility of conflict in the air. In the city, maybe now more than ever, you’re always a split-second away from becoming at least collateral damage.

The man is still poised in his appellant posture. I say to him, “Don’t take that to heart. She’s always that way.” And she is always like that—at least on the street. I’ve seen her several times, walking her tiny rescue dog. Someone, usually another dog owner, showing the usual camaraderie of dog owners, asks her a question about her tottering canine pal. The dog’s response is to helplessly roll its eyes; the poor creature is too old, and too used to his owner’s reactions, to do anything else. And the woman’s inevitable response is to snap at whoever speaks to her; cursing and insulting anyone who might be intruding on her private folie-a-doggie. 

I tell the good Samaritan about what I’ve seen. He smiles, puts his hand over his heart and says, “Thank you for telling me that.” 

“Sure,” I say, “No problem.”

He walks on. And there I stand, waiting to cross Broadway, the fruits and vegetables from The Garden of Eden supermarket glowing like stacked jewels in the corner of my eye. I think about this whirling kaleidoscope of sensory and emotional eruptions. The tortoise in the shopping cart, the flying concrete, the dinosauric excavating machine, the multiracial, multilingual Broadway crowd, the bright lollipop colors of the construction hats and vests, the noise of tires, engines and vehicle exhausts, and the ear-battering wail of sirens. Surely this is not what the original Garden of Eden was like? Eden, that original, pre-Tower-of-Babel oasis of calm and harmony, where the shopping-cart tortoise could lie down with the mixed-breed rescue dog, where never was heard a discouraging word, where acrimony, guilt and shame were unknown because the apple was still hanging, unbitten, on the tree (or at least, temporarily unhandled in the supermarket stall).

But, on the other hand, who am I to make such sweeping assumptions? When you’re old, things can become foggy. For all I know, this right here could be The Garden of Eden. Maybe these people—the rosy-red opera singer and his Japanese wife, the golden-flowered avatar of Christian kindness, even the big angry woman with the little sad dog— are just modern incarnations of Adam and Eve, and Broadway, between 106th and 107th street is, in fact, paradise—where it is always, after all, a perfect morning to take a short walk.

***

Mike Feder is a (now retired) long-time radio host/personality with WBAI-FM in New York City and Sirius XM radio. He has been a New York City welfare worker, a New York City and New York State probation officer, the owner of a used and old bookstore, a paralegal, a book abridger, and a performer/writer of autobiographical stories. (Books: New York Son, The Talking Cure, A Life on Air and, A Long Swim Upstream).He is married, has two grown children and lives (almost calmly) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

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§ 8 Responses to “A Short Walk in Paradise”

  • Lynn says:

    Glad you got to take your walk Mike.
    Lots of info out there.

  • Harvey Reiver says:

    Reminds me of an ancient debate about our planet riding on the back of a galactic turtle. But, doubters asked, what does that turtle stand on? Why, the reply goes, on the back of an even larger turtle! And what does the larger turtle walk on? Simple: more and larger ones, turtles all the way down!

  • Victoria Reggio says:

    This Halloween will be my four year anniversary as a retiree and I now know why so many refuse to retire; I went from being a working woman of 40+ years, navigating subways, buses and weirdos to an older woman who walks every day (weather permitting) in Carl Schurz Park. I’m one of the older ladies; my hair is now streaked with silver and I blend in rather than stand out.

    Mike’s piece beautifully tells his story of aging without losing the gift of creative contemplation and his perspective has that rueful poignant quality that always flavored his amazing monologues. His writing carries the same weight and, unlike the spoken word, one can go back for seconds.

    Thank you, Mike.

  • SUZ says:

    laughing in nostalgia and a tinge of smugnorance after repeating that NYC is a great place to be from…….yes, a PNW ex-pat who fled the rats, roaches and junkies in the mid-70’s during the back-to-the-land movement populated by aging hippies in search of affordable real estate on which to grow tofuti-beasts and can blueberry chutney for the apocalypse…..105th and West End during that prehistoric period…..a Columbia employee/student for seeming eternity…….had poet friends who read their rejections notices on WBAI…….and here we are…..once again facing the turnstile to oblivion with Dash Riprock and the tentacles of doom……keep writing so I can live through this vicariously/lol……. kiss kiss and kiss…….

  • Pam says:

    I always read your stuff in your characteristic stream of consciousness radio voice… Really miss your thoughtful ramblings on the radio…

  • Karl Burke says:

    As is Mike’s wonderful way, so deeply reflective and artfully written–a true joy to behold! Gratitude!

  • Eve Darcy says:

    This teeny, marvelous taste from Mike’s dependable smorgasbord of creativity only serves to remind me how lacking my diet has been. Keeping with my (strained) food-related metaphor, I always feel remarkably sustained after spending time in Mike’s company. I echo an infamous importuning: “please sir .. may we have some more!?”

  • Deena Murphy says:

    I work in a 3rd grade class where the kids are learning about descriptive language, and how to use their senses to paint a picture in their writing. I felt like I was with you on that walk, Mike. Such a rich and layered narrative of those 10 blocks! Thank you and keep walking.

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