It used to be that Second Ave. was open all the way to Harlem, or at least to the Bridge at 59th. A guy could time the lights so that he could go up the road at fifty, maybe sixty miles an hour. The city never seemed to sleep; there was always some place open, some last-chance hole in the wall, some “been here since the first war” kind of joint that would serve you beer and a shot and leave you alone. These days it doesn’t seem to be like that. Of course I haven’t seen Second Ave. at 3:15AM on a rainy morning run for several administrations. Passing through tonight leaves a wisp of regret trailing in my brain as if it was a sad song carried on the night wind from caves of long ago.
Mostly the street lights are out, the shadows in the alleys are the walking dead, shades doing the junkie shuffle. Up the way, the bakery is opening but the owner has a bar across the door. Used to be a pot of black coffee waiting just inside the door for the local heroes on their way who knew where. The rain makes it look like a noir movie set, a bunch of guys in bad pants struggling with weighty issues, and Bogie always gets the girl. It used to be home.
On the other side of the Bridge, where the gentry sleep their ravaged, “can’t ever really get far enough away from all the shit” sleep, the lights are out in most of the houses. Behind closed curtains and rain shades the drama goes on. Maybe boredom, maybe the long first date, maybe, maybe, maybe. The rain makes the trees shimmer in the cold winter air, as if the recent installations at MOMA had slipped away for a night on the town, sculpture for the masses, sycamore haiku, goblins for the too-long awake. The romance of the city that never sleeps still breathes in the pooling oil sliding out from under the parked cars, in the distant rumbling of the delivery trucks.
My kids are are asleep downstairs, the windows across the way are boarded up, the street below is empty of all activity for the moment. The morning paper is delivered by a form of indeterminate age, wrapped in layers, hooded and shuffling, slicking across the neighborhood in an army green SUV, a recon squad of one, casing this iteration of the promised land for some future invasion.
We haven’t had a great time this time. The memorial was sweet, less sad than I had imagined, save for the tears before the crowd showed up. The conversation easy between the kids and their cousin, aunt and uncle. We, all of us, don’t see each other but once a year, so the catching up for me sometimes takes the form of overhearing life-changing events as stories told about people you used to know. This going home again is not for the faint of heart.
Out where the big trees grow, where the weather comes hard, where the the romance of wet city streets and the dreams of making it big are the product of teen fantasy, the trails are wet with winter rain. Every sunny day is the last one; the grey is steady, relentless. The long, wet, bone-chilling winter will be there soon enough, but then again, some days the wind blows in from the southwest, the skies clear in the afternoon before sunset, the leaves are wet in the morning mist. For me, renewal, or maybe just a trace of hope, is around the next turn, down the road, up ahead, just out of sight.
Before I rejoin the crowd downstairs, I imagine for a minute that my running shoes are asleep on my closet floor at home, waiting, maybe dreaming of the miles to come on a misty morning run in the Valley, back there, where I have come to belong.
Photos by Michael Lebowitz. All rights reserved.