Lately I’ve been going on a lot of evenings to sit in Saint Peter’s churchyard on 20th Street. It’s a nice old stone church with a clock in its tower and a little jungle of a garden out behind the rectory. One night while I was sitting there I saw a black and white cat steal in from the street like a shadow. She glanced at me as she slid past and through the wrought-iron fence into the garden. Once behind the bars she sat and watched me sitting there on the steps.
Somebody puts two little bowls out for the churchyard cat next to the rectory, one with food and one with water, and birds help themselves from those bowls too. Since that first time of seeing the cat I always hope I’ll see her again but I rarely do. She’s not the type who comes to be petted and her quiet presence in the garden is always a very mysterious one.
Sometimes I sit on the church steps and read until it’s almost dark. In the evening when the sun sets over New Jersey, the church tower turns a deep amber color and then it turns rosy and finally dark, and then the old clock turns its light on.
I have been reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers in the churchyard. It took me about forty or fifty pages before the story really hooked me but once it did, it did. One night while I read on the steps, Alice (a minor character in the book but a familiar one) suddenly died and I was shocked. It happened without any warning and I had to go back and re-read the passage again to make sure it really happened. Alice was the wife of the man who owned the New York Café in the Southern town where a lot of the action was happening back in 1940, just as real and vivid as anything going on at present in the churchyard. There was a light on in the basement of the rectory and I could see a man sitting on a sofa talking to someone. At that moment the man in the rectory basement seemed to be part of the book.
Reading in the book about Mr. Singer, the mute who wears beautifully clean white shirts and has his dinner in the New York Café every night and spends so much of his time taking long walks all over town, I thought of a few people I know who remind me of Mr. Singer. Especially one man who lives somewhere in the neighborhood who I’ve seen around the streets for years. He always wears a clean white shirt with a tie and a suit. He stands very tall, and whenever I encounter him coming towards me, he’s always walking very fast and forward bent as if into a gale. Sometimes I see him standing completely absorbed before the big TV screen they put up at the entrance to the subway station a few years ago, and sometimes I see him doing his laundry in the Laundromat. One day about a year ago I saw him standing in front of a hamburger joint on 23rd street with a cup of coffee in his hand and I decided it would be nice to speak to him. I didn’t want to bother him, but I thought if I didn’t speak to him and then never saw him again, I would regret it. So I asked him, “Does this place have good coffee?” He glanced at me very quickly, very much the way the churchyard cat did, and said, “Yes.”
I think he lives in a kind of home for men who have something a little wrong with them but who are not alcoholics or drug addicts, because I usually see him in the vicinity of that house. I know two other men who live there, one of whom I like very much. He’s a great big man with long dreadlocks who sometimes comes to sit on the steps in front of my building and eat a bag of chips from the bodega next door. The other one is a man who used to manage a Chinese restaurant on the west side that I used to pass by, and where I got takeout once in a while. He seemed to do nothing but work, from morning until night and then one day a huge sign went up on the side of the building with the restaurant in it that said, “Retail Space Available.” Not long after that I heard the man on the street in front of the restaurant telling a lady that he would have to earn a million dollars a year selling noodles to pay the new rent. After the restaurant closed I started seeing him walking very sadly around the neighborhood looking at the pavement.
The man with the clean white shirts never looks happy or sad, but sometimes he looks a little like he’s been hypnotized. The other night on the church steps I read about Mr. Singer’s walks. I read: “Often it happened now that he would be spoken to and stopped during these walks. All kinds of people became acquainted with him. If the person who spoke to him was a stranger, Singer presented his card so that his silence would be understood.” Mr. Singer was a mute, but there wasn’t anything wrong with him.
When it got too dark to read, I walked home looking into people’s windows. A lot of them had cats in them, and when the lamps come on you can see right into the rooms. There are some beautiful golden rooms between my house and Saint Peter’s, just full of books from floor to ceiling. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I rang the bell outside one of those houses and asked the person who answered if it would be all right for me to come in.
June 18, 2012
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