Island Walk

I emerge at the 215 St stop off the 1 train. I’ve never been here before. It’s familiar but strange, and I wonder whether I’m still in the city. A bridge looms in the distance. Yonder, the Bronx.

I’m armed with a notebook, some pens, and a book, Waterfront by Phillip Lopate, along with a head full of jumbled thoughts and unreliable memories. The daunting expanse of summer awaits me, but first, the daunting expanse of this island. Mannahatta. “Place where timber is procured for bows and arrows.” “Place of general inebriation.” “Island.”

It’s a balmy Monday in June. Before long, in two days in fact, the fury of the New York summer, hot and sticky, is expected. It’s forecast to be in the 90s by Wednesday, but this day is just fine for a walk, a half-marathon stroll along this island, tip to tip, park to park, Inwood to Battery.

I have a decent sense of direction but a vague sense of geography, and I head what I think is Northwest-ish. I walk a few hilly streets and enter into Inwood Hill Park. Across the murky waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, apartment buildings loom. A giant block C is painted in baby blue on the rocks on the opposite bank. The Henry Hudson bridge hovers in the distance.

I make my way down quiet residential streets. It’s the early afternoon, and I pass kids in school uniforms awaiting freedom and construction workers smoking cigarettes. I find myself in Fort Tryon Park and walk the winding trail up to the Cloisters. It’s been years since I’ve last been here. Across the broad Hudson River is the green of the Palisades Interstate Park, not the first image that comes to mind when one thinks of the Jersey Shore.

Fort Tryon Park is lightly peopled with middle-aged mountain bikers and bands of young picnickers. Footballs are thrown, frisbees tossed, pedals trod. I walk out of the park into the neighborhood of Fort George. Here some of the streets bend to accommodate the hilly topography. At a particularly tomblike entrance to the 181 St stop off the A train, an old boxy building sits perched high above the station on metal stilts. I can make no sense of it.

I cut over to Broadway as I enter Washington Heights. Buses and cars line up to cross the George Washington Bridge. There’s the familiar busyness one associates with this wide avenue, with the hum of pedestrians and traffic and commerce. One could easily take a survey of Manhattan’s changing neighborhoods and inhabitants by only staying along Broadway as it traverses the island, tip to toe. Perhaps another day, another island walk.

In Washington Heights I switch between Broadway and Fort Washington Ave. The apartment structures here are unlike any I’ve seen in the city, with entrances that open into small courtyards concealed in the bowels of the buildings. The brickwork here is detailed and ornate. Needing a respite from the concrete and activity and longing for some greenery, I walk along Riverside Drive for a spell.

Where in the first part of the journey I found myself more focused on my surroundings, more deliberate in my decisions, now I commit myself to the act of walking, the meditation of placing one foot in front of the other. Where in the first leg of the walk, I would stop to write as my thoughts settled into something that could be manifested in words, now I find my mind blank. It’s a gentle clarity, not unlike the ones I have on my walks home following a yoga class. I return to Broadway as I pass Hamilton Heights into Manhattanville. I glance at my watch every so often as I walk past hospitals and schoolyards. The journey may be more important, but the destination always returns to the unpracticed mind.

Around W 130th St, the insole of my left shoe starts pinching. It’s riding up from the heel and bunching up right between the toes and the ball of my feet. I wonder if I wore the right shoes. I know I have miles to go still. I stop near a construction site, remove my shoe, and adjust the insole. It’s a temporary relief, and I find myself stopping repeatedly in the ensuing blocks. I was here recently, walking with a good friend following an afternoon New York City poetry tour that took us up to Harlem. There’s hardly any foot traffic here, these thirteen blocks where the subway plows its way aboveground to become a misnomer.

In Morningside Heights, I limp past college students at outdoor cafes and find a shoe repair shop, but the guy behind the counter offers no solutions. At a chain pharmacy, I buy heel inserts to replace my crumpled left insole. The relief is immediate, but now I feel oddly unbalanced, one shoe slightly higher than the other.

The Upper West Side is a blur. Somewhere during this walk, a line from a movie lodges in my head. A female character, in a voice tinged with irony and vengeance, says something like, Right now, how much do you love me? I think it’s from a revenge film, but I can’t place the quote, nor do I know what it’s doing in my head. I make a mental note to stop in at the Apple store near Lincoln Center to google away my curiosity.

Alas, my mental topography of this neighborhood is flawed, and when Broadway spills into Amsterdam, I think I’ve missed Lincoln Center. I walk down Amsterdam, and when the area’s familiarity reveals to me my mistake and I find myself by Alice Tully Hall, I decide against walking the two or three blocks back up Broadway to find the Apple store. I have one direction to go, and that is down the length of the island. The unresolved quote pricks my mind as I turn down Columbus Avenue. Oh, to have a smartphone.

I stay on Columbus as it turns into 9th Ave, and I stay on it for the duration of Clinton and Hell’s Kitchen, avoiding the bustle of Times Square and the Port Authority. The streets are busy here, but I don’t notice anything. I pass the Post Office, a giant building that takes up an entire city block, and start looking to my right for signs of the High Line, not knowing how far north its construction has taken it. I find the elevated walkways at W 29th St and cut over.

It’s a beautiful day, and though not busy, the High Line has its smattering of fashionable Chelsea types and tanned European tourists. I sit on a bench for it seems the first time on my entire walk. I rest my feet and read a few pages from my book. I read about the city’s waterfront, her harbor and old port and her rich former life as a shipping hub, the tribulations of the stevedores and the graft of their unions. The city, like her inhabitants, is always changing; nothing lasts forever. A line from Frank O’Hara comes to mind: Do you think everything can stay the same, like a photograph? What for? I think about the people each of us were, the people we used to be, the different people, the different lives that exist in each one of us.

I get off the High Line at 14th St. Conveniently, there’s an Apple store a block away, and my curiosity is abated: the quote is from Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. I now remember the scene vividly and am surprised that all afternoon the line in my mind has felt as if it were from something else, spoken by someone else altogether. I have a vague sense of misgiving, as I always do when my subconscious dices and splices incongruent memories and fragments of thought. What other things do I misremember? Like everyone else, I’m the unreliable narrator of my own life. Sometimes it’s a wonder to me that this world ticks along at all.

I cut Eastward across the island and pass by Cafe Loup, which strikes a chord of familiarity I can’t explain. I must have read about it in something, but where, I can’t say. I step in for a drink and almost immediately regret it. It’s a charming cafe, with a guy taking reservations and cloth napkins, and I feel out of place with my sweat and unkempt hair and t-shirt and a general lack of upper middle class whiteness the other patrons share. Nevertheless, I saunter to the bar and order a beer and a glass of water. I retreat to my book. When the friendly bartender asks me whether I want another, I smile and decline.

I walk down 6th Ave through the heart of Greenwich Village, and I forge on into Soho and Tribeca. I’m weary, and my feet are aching, and I just want to make it to Battery Park. I stay on 6th Ave as it merges into Church St. Up ahead, at times shielded by neighboring buildings, I see the One World Trade Center craning upward. The crowd thickens, predictably, as I near it. Perhaps at another time, I could form more coherent thoughts on this mass of steel and glass as it pierces the sky, on the very concept of memorials, but right now it’s just a checkpoint, a reminder that I’m nearing the end of my walk. I pass the unoccupied Zuccotti Park, then cut back over to Broadway.

As always, there’s a throng of tourists surrounding the famed bull. I stumble past them and make my way to Battery Park. South Ferry’s the true Southern point of the island, but I content myself with the lawn at Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Park. It’s evening now, and like clockwork ear-budded joggers pass by. I lie back onto the bench I’m on and see only sky, light blue with a dusting of clouds. For the first time today, the city is nowhere.


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