“Jesus Christmas. I hate this.” Bent double, rubbing his forehead, lumpy hand-rolled cigarette spraying ashes into my lap while he dances at the edge of blasphemy. “I hate this. I really do.”
I can’t tell if he wants to talk, but there are plenty of empty spots in Christopher Park that aren’t right next to me. It’s a tiny splinter in the West Village, surrounded by a nonsensical tangle of streets (West 4th intersects West 10th; Stonewall Place is also Christopher Street; segments of Waverly Place both hit the park and pass it by).
Last time I sat here to read, a man paced the park, crossing the bulk of it in fifteen steps, screaming into his cellphone. “You know when I got suspicious? When you said you were tired. You go out and spend my money, my money, then you’re too tired to see me. My money.”
At one point the connection died—“Hello? Hello, baby?”—and his timbre warmed, became almost concerned. The signal returned: “My money. You lying—“
Life out in the open.
The man with the cigarette—Mr. Christmas—is bemoaning some unknown sorrow, a deep-down sentiment, while I try to read my book. I’m a few minutes early for my shift and racing to finish Prehistoric Times, a bizarre Eric Chevillard novel that barely makes more sense to me in English than in its original French. Somehow I like it anyway.
Ashes, borne on an easterly breeze from the Hudson, fleck my pages. New York’s smoking ban is a formality as routinely ignored as jaywalking laws, but Jesus Christmas did ask my permission before lighting up. I hate the smell, hate the crumbling embers that catch on my clothing, but his asking makes all the difference.
As he said, “Decent people ask.”
I told him to go ahead.
He’s emaciated, goateed, unsteady, hands trembling while he rolls the tobacco. “Thank you,” he tells me, not looking at me, concentrating on his flimsy paper. “I appreciate that. I really appreciate that.”
On my other side, a squat, middle-aged man with a duffel bag reads his own book. I can’t see the title. After some time a young man in workout clothes approaches him.
“I think I’m buying a tape from you.”
The squat man unzips his duffel bag. It’s full of VHS tapes, all wrapped individually in plastic grocery bags. He pulls one out and the young man gives it a once-over.
“Wow, it’s in great condition.”
The squat man just smiles as he takes a thin wad of bills from his customer. I try to get a glimpse of the tape, but the young man has already wrapped it up again. They thank each other for the business and the young man walks off. The duffel bag is quickly rezipped. The entire transaction took half a minute.
Cigarette smoke wafts by, an unsubtle sting. Tourists take photographs of themselves next to pale-painted bronze statues and, across the street, youthful and enthusiastic Starbucks employees hand out samples of a new energy drink in sunset-colored flavors. (Stevia-powered, of course, for modern lifestyles.) People stream out of subway stations, each wave of commuters from the red 1 train bringing a new cloud of conversations.
I close my book. Twenty pages left—perfect for my nightly commute back to Queens. Jesus Christmas is still rubbing his brow, puffing his cigarette, muttering.
He still hates “this,” whatever that might be. There’s a lot of “this” going on in the Village.