[photo by Randy Gordon-Gatica]
Brooklyn, 2020. A 54-year man sitting on a bench in a small yard in Park Slope at twilight.
Along with the virus, New York has been invaded by “the real” — an elusive concept. I was telling an old school New Yorker about an encounter I had at Coney Island once. Super hot day. My children we’re little. I was taking them on all the kiddie rides — cars, motorcycles, boats, all of them going in a circle on spokes. I kept noticing a weird couple. The woman had a vavavoom figure in a tight dress. Too fancy for an August afternoon on the boardwalk. The man was twig-skinny in black slacks and a silk charcoal shirt. Slicked back hair. And his two front teeth were missing. They were taking a small boy on the rides too. At one point, we were getting on the same ride and my kids and I shuffled around them to get to our own little boat. The man walked up to me and said close to my ear in a thick, slow Russian accent: “I would be grateful if you would not step on my son.” A chill shot down my back.
This old New Yorker looked off in space and nodded as I told this story, which itself was an indication. He was blustery and a bit kooky. He’d been talking to hear himself talk. If you’ve ever seen an interview with Henry Miller, he was like that — the resting annoyed New Yorker face, eyes squinted waiting for you to say something that isn’t bullshit, then interrupting you to hear himself express his own opinions. If this guy was quiet, he was listening, and if he was listening, I was telling a good story. No doubt he knew at the mention of a guy wearing a silk shirt at Astroland that I was talking about a mob guy on his day off.
Then the old New Yorker said, “Ah, you had an encounter with the real.”
On one hand, he meant simply that all those fictional versions of mafia thugs are based on a real phenomenon — a real guy missing his front teeth at the Coney Island kiddie rides. But the mystical meaning was the sense that we spend most of our lives in a dream but every now and then encounter something that isn’t a dream … the real. My encounter was more than running into a hit man for the Russian mafia. On a scorching hot cloudless day at Coney Island, the veil parted.
And history is the real.
A strange aspect of 9/11 New York was the sense of myth becoming reality. The symbol becoming fact. We knew that we were walking around in a history book. I remember hearing that a group of Orthodox Jews were waiting with vans for people on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge immediately after the attack. They knew from the first bloom of orange flame that the real had erupted.
As it has now with COVID-19.
After the 9/11 attacks, by shear instinct, we rushed to the water and walked North. Like sleep walkers. I told my friend Dick that it was like we were refugees. I was picturing iconic black and white photos of similar sleepwalkers on dusty roads. Dick said, “Kenny, you weren’t LIKE refugees. You WERE refugees.”
This is not like a plague. This is a plague. The real.