It was a day when the heat strikes you like a blow. The sun glared through thick air that seemed to slow and swirl around my body in a matrix of sweat and fume. I was walking up Broadway toward Central Park when I saw a man bathing in the fountain at Columbus Circle. I crossed over to get a better look.
He was an older gentleman, dressed in long, loose gym shorts and a t-shirt. His grey hair was clipped short around a balding head. He held a bar of soap and as he stepped with bare feet from one pool to the next, to better catch the spray, he rubbed the soap on his soaked shirt with glorious intent, then turned slowly, arms akimbo, to let the water wash him clean.
Nobody watched him but me. They were all too polite, much more so than I. People sat on the stone benches by the fountains and on the steps under the statue, lunching, reading, resting, chatting or walking round the circle. The tourists with their backpacks; the office workers in shirtsleeves; the old with their walkers. A woman in a long pink tutu and her partner strolled back and forth, taking a break from dancing.
The traffic was muted by falling water; shiny new buildings towered to the West and North. I was put in mind of the great slum that was
demolished here in the 1950s, San Juan Hill, a West Side Story brawler of a hood, incubating jazz and gangs and impoverished ambition. African-American residents rose up in protest and were put down by Moses; Lincoln Center was born; urban flight was arrested.
From where a woman was throwing bread, a flock of pigeons broke upward. They spiraled high around Christopher Columbus and landed at his feet. Nobody notices poor old Chris anymore; he’s so far above us.
Still, he is beautifully made: His rippling coat, his high-browed hat, his distant, stony gaze. Closer by, we are mesmerized by the ninety-nine jets. They throw their sparkling ropes of water in cool arcs, circa 2005, exactly 100 years after the Circle was done.
The old man finished with his bath. He sat down at the edge of the shallow pool, feet still soaking, his back to the people, his bones under the clinging, transparent shirt like so many frets on an instrument.
Respite, they say, is nothing complicated. Just a bit of temporary relief as one moment fades into another. The discovery of a free world inside the restless displacements of time and industry. Unauthorized strangers who mingle in a pause; a dance in sneakers and a tutu; drops of water dimpling the shallows; ten clean toes beneath the wavering light.