Roving thoughts and provocations

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Negative Space

Dominique Nabokov
Central Park, New York, c. 1970s

There is so much action in New York one is sometimes perversely excited by those moments, or those places, when one is not part of it. Where nothing is happening. These places, in turn, become little air-pockets of possibility—what I call negative space. They are unidentified, off the grid, the staging areas for trysts, seductions, encounters. They are the places where crimes are committed, of one kind or another. The most conspicuous, hiding-in-plain-sight negative space in New York is Central Park.

* * *

There were four of us, the West Side freaks. Worth and I lived on Riverside Drive. John and Adrian lived on Central Park West. We attended a private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Most of the kids in our school were ferried to school from Manhattan on a private bus line that picked everyone up at various points and then rumbled through Harlem, across the 133rd street bridge, up the Major Deegan, past the Stella D’oro cookie factory with its useful clock on top and its fleeting whiff of sweetness, and at last into the verdant, cloistered world of Riverdale. There were something like seven or eight buses that ran up the various East Side avenues. The West Side had two, one for Central Park West and one for West End.

I now look at my whole generation from that school, the rich, the sort of rich, and not so rich kids of private school Manhattan circa the 1970s and early 1980s, as a group that had OD’d on affluence, safety, and prosperity. Also, despite a serious crime wave and depletion of city services, we were undoubtedly the last generation of kids who were allowed to roam around the city with relative autonomy. Being on a long leash in the city at the age of ten or eleven was unremarkable.

When you’re a kid, anarchy is something you root for. It means school is out. All bets are off. That the city was in a state of extreme dishevelment complicated and added to this manic behavior. I’d like to say it made my peers and I, on some level, feel guilty about our good fortune, but that was not the case. Rather it made everyone into a barbarian, sacking an already crumbling world for fun. We were destroyers.

The group’s tightness lasted into the first year or so of high school. All of us lived on a park.

If you were in an apartment that overlooked Central Park, as Adrian’s did, you stared at the park. You stared at the thing itself and also the weird neatness of its parameters. The way it set itself off so completely from the city into which it had been dropped. Later on I came to understand the grand accomplishment of the park’s design, the hugely artificial nature of its terrain. But as a kid staring into it from above, I couldn’t help but feel that the park itself was the original terra firma of the city which had somehow been given exterior walls, like a fort, around which the city grew. What was inside the walls was a kind of original sin of nature. To have a view of it was to have access to a strange kingdom. You became entranced by the intricate patterns of its winding paths. By the weather systems that seemed to exist over the park alone.

Adrian’s place was on 89th Street, so there was also opportunity for close examination of the Reservoir: Its faintly kidney-like shape. The shushing patterns of light. The ripples pulling across the surface in one direction and then another, revealing the invisible, unheard wind. The little scampering bodies jogging around its perimeter. Central Park was mystical. Across its expanse rose the Upper East Side, a formidable foe. We gazed at the park, we entered into it. We felt its pull. It was a kind of no-man’s-land, a place of possibility.

Dominique Nabokov
Central Park, New York, c. 1970s

* * *

As a group, we would spend weekend afternoons skateboarding the hill next to John’s apartment. It was a long, curving hill which began around 68th Street, near the Great Lawn, and swung down past 72nd Street, leaving you at the bottom of another hill at the top of which was the Bethesda Fountain and the Band Shell, the physical and spiritual center of all youthful parkie dereliction.

The spot’s biggest draw, however, was the horse drawn carriages. We would start at the top and slalom down amid the crowds of people and the piles of horseshit. The carriages’ route was counterclockwise through the park, which is to say, back up the hill we had just come down.

At the bottom we would loiter until a carriage went by. There were massive bongo circles nearby, a torrent of drums and cowbells, guys standing with a jug of Bacardi at the end of an outstretched arm, bandana around their neck or head, whooping. It was like skateboarding down into a mad party. We’d let it pour over us until a carriage passed. On nice weekend days the wait was never more than a few minutes. Then we would skate up behind it, crouch down and grab hold of the rear axle, or whatever was down there to grab. Staying crouched low was important. You had to be able to see the piles of horseshit, both old and fresh, that dotted the road, and avoid them. Also, the driver often knew we were there, and would flip his whip back over the carriage. By some fateful miracle these whips always snapped just above our heads. But they snapped with malice. They weren’t warnings.

Because of the wrath of the driver, and his whip, a carriage with one skate boarder was ideal. Two was okay, and three was pushing it. Either way, we lived in giddy fear of the whip as we rode back up the hill.

In winter, our forays were less frequent but more dramatic. Snow days were surreal dreams, the snow day itself being pure negative space. The cancellation of school. The plunge into the whiteness with sleds. The eventual retreat to Adrian or John’s place for hot chocolate.

The Blizzard of ’77 was an epic of staggering through a white landscape. None of us ever said it, but I think the fantasy was that we were the last people alive on Earth. Why was Central Park mostly empty in the middle of a blizzard? Because it was a blizzard. But was it really empty? Did we go hours without seeing anyone except an occasional cross country skier? All those arrival tracks zigzagging this way and that would suggest otherwise. But such is the glory of Central Park and its many nooks and crannies: that at any given moment, it holds thousands of people who feel like they are alone.

* * *

Halfway through Central Park and the bus is careening. It is the rush hour crush, the after school press. He is a teenager standing amidst bodies. One hand holds the bar above his head. The other hangs there by his side, oblivious. The bus has a momentum of its own, as though it’s a pinball, hitting the curves at speed. The passengers are packed together, swaying together, knees loose, surfing the transverse.

A sharp curve delivers an ass cheek into his palm. His body understands this long before his mind can form words to match the fact. A woman’s ass has fallen into his open, blameless hand. Its shape matches the curve of his palm. The fabric of the dress is light, a tiny filament separating his hand from the thing itself. Then the bus swerves back. What gravity gave it now takes away.

He is twelve. He stands there. She stands there. A lot of other people stand there, but the world has narrowed to his hand, her body. The bus rolls as it takes a curve through the tunnel.

Those mysterious tunnels. Some had ceilings lined with elegant brick. Others looked as if a giant had bitten a mouthful of rock, chewed, and built a tunnel out of the boulders he spat out.

It takes another curve and the ass cheek is back.

The passengers tilt like a field of wheat blown by a gust of wind. The coming and going of the anonymous passenger’s ass is as blameless a gesture as the soft slap of wake on pier after a boat has long since passed. He stares straight ahead. What is she staring at?

A tiny sidewalk lines the road. Any time he sees someone walking on it, he feels pity for them, as though they are souls who have taken a wrong turn. A mistake, he thinks, anyone on that sidewalk has made a terrible mistake.

He stands there frantically trying to imagine what the woman behind him is thinking. He slowly turns his head and glimpses a young lady with curly hair down around her shoulders peering into a magazine. All he can see is a slender neck tilted down in concentration, unperturbed. Had she not even noticed his touch? Or is she standing there in a state of burning indignation, prevented from turning and accusing him only by the fact that the bus is now careening a little recklessly through the transverse’s curves? Is she contemplating the difficulty and embarrassment of making a scene?

Then there is the delectable possibility that she felt the initial pat, the subsequent flip of the fingers, lifting the cheek up to shudder down, and then the final, gravity-aided pat, almost a light slap, in ways that defied the like/dislike axis spectrum and existed on another spectrum entirely—one of arousal, guilt, anger, fear. Which is to say, maybe she felt exactly as he did! Wasn’t this the necessary atmosphere for the actual combustion of sex? He didn’t know.

On the other hand, he thinks, maybe she is pissed as hell and he should bolt as soon as the doors open, before she has a chance to call the police.

He stands there in a state of terrified arousal.

The bus arrives at Broadway with a cranky, gasping grunt. He emerges onto the street, the enormous green Converse All-star Book bag on his back. Broadway smells of William’s roast chicken. He never saw her face.

* * *

I had my first encounters with the park at night when I was a kid, usually with Adrian or some combination of the West Side gang. There is one stretch of time that now emerges from the mist: for a week I was left alone at age fifteen. Alone in the apartment, but not to be trusted with a lump sum of money.

An arrangement was made. I commuted by bike every other evening to my grandfather’s place on the East Side. I did this at night. I never actually saw him or my grandmother. The envelope was left with the night doorman. He was old, with watery blue eyes, and I suppose he had seen me grow up. He wore white gloves and had a rim of white hair around his shiny bald head. I still remember the way he peeled off those gloves a couple of years later to shake my hand the night my grandfather died. For that week on my own, he was one of the most friendly faces I saw. After he handed me the envelope he saw me off with a big wave.

I would take the envelope to the steps of the brightly lit Metropolitan Museum to examine its contents. Then I would head home. On the way east, in eagerness, I took the transverse. But going home, I went through the park itself, tempting fate with my envelope.

There was one spot on the North end of the Great Lawn where I would pause to look at the skyline. Regarding the city from that vantage point, I felt small, like a stowaway, and kind of huge and powerful, too. The spangled lights, the huge towers, the movements of planes in the sky— it all created a vivid perimeter of brightness to the darkness of the park.

It was like staring at a partly cloudy sky at night, when after a while the patches of clouds and sky become confused, and you don’t know which area is the hole in the clouds, and which area is the cloud itself. Which parts are far away but relatively near, and which parts are as far away as far can be—the bottomless black universe? This is a variation on the dream/reality problem. You know when you are awake and yet, especially when you are young, there is something about dreams, their vividness, that creates a doubt. Which is the real and which is the imagined? Where is the division between positive and negative space?

I felt this way about Central Park at night. When I was outside its borders it was a strange, mysterious territory. But once inside I nestled within it, felt cosseted, protected. Everything beyond its boundaries was what seemed dangerous. I was inside a reality that protected me from reality. I loved the view from that spot at night.

This essay was adapted from a piece in Central Park, an anthology edited by Andrew Blauner that will be published in May by Bloomsbury.

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