MAY 24, 2017
Originally published in the LARB Quarterly Journal: No. 13, Fiction Issue
Last week I went into Manhattan to try to get out of a parking ticket. This involved going to a window to get a number, and then to another window to have the number validated, and then another window to give them my number. After that I sat in a variety of chairs, unsure what I was waiting for, and then the woman who came for me expressed frustration that I didn’t see her coming. I followed her into a small room and showed her my photograph. She smiled and told me to wait outside. I sat in the same chair as before, but then was told to wait in another area. Finally, my name was called and I was told I would have to pay the ticket.
There turned out to be a way to protest the results, so I went up an escalator, still clutching the photo of my car parked next to a fire hydrant. The photo showed the hydrant obscured by trash bags, though the top of the hydrant did peak out slightly. I regretted not getting a better shot. Had she spoken, the woman could have argued that she could see the hydrant. She could also have said that it had been staged — that, to get out of my ticket, I had filled trash bags and surrounded a hydrant with them. And I could see how my reasonable reply wouldn’t have worked. I had thought her smile, her amusement at my nervousness, had seemed real and human. I had thought that she worked all day in that room hearing arguments, and so had decided not to further tire her, but to say instead, simply, gently, what had happened.
After protesting my protest, I was disappointed to learn there wasn’t another set of escalators and protestations. Instead, they told me a letter would be sent with a court date. I was concerned because of a planned trip. There was no way to know if I would be available for the date they were perhaps even then mailing me, though I wanted very much to attend. It’s a relief sometimes to see that everything is decided, that they have seen all the photographs of fire hydrants already. There were systems to dispatch me easily. Well then, I would be dispatched easily. I would not, no matter what, break down in tears over having no money to pay. I imagine for that, of all things, they are prepared.
Afterward, I looked for a pizza place I had gone to weeks before. To cheer myself up I had already decided to get ginger ale. The place had been across from the temp agency. The week before, I had gone to the agency and filled out forms, making up dates, talking to people who came in the room, and then otherwise, for a good deal of time, I looked at the furniture. I almost asked if they would recommend a pizza place, and then had been glad I hadn’t because there was one across the street, and I had sat there, at the window, knowing if they had seen me then — tired, drinking soda from a can with a straw rising and falling — they would realize, if they hadn’t realized it already, that I wasn’t fit to work for their agency.
But the pizza place wasn’t there, and I couldn’t remember where the temp agency had been, if it was the gilded building on the corner, though I didn’t remember it being that nice. The furniture hadn’t been that nice. The agency never called with a position, and soon I will have to tell them I won’t be able to work because of my travels.
Where I live at the edge of the city, there’s a small park. Surrounding it is a grocery store, a cafe, some storefronts, and a bar with an unused back room. The park has the elegance of a garden in a decaying estate. A once-fine building now houses garden equipment. There are two dog runs, one for gentle dogs and one for dogs on leashes, and during the summer there’s a farmer’s market. The park marks my walk. When I walked by last week there was an old man painting a storefront. He wore faded clothes in putty colors and had soft fading hair, and his expression itself seemed to be dissolving. Later when I walked by it was as if the whole front of the building — which had no sign and was windowless — was whitewashed, but even that was too determinate of a color. The man was no longer there, and it was as if he had disappeared and the storefront was also on the verge of disappearing
If someone were to ask what is home, I would say it’s the park, and the different paths I take when I walk. I like, when passing the bus stop, to look at the people waiting. I like forgetting it’s a bus stop and seeing people standing there in a way so rarely done: standing sad and expectant in the middle of the sidewalk. They look like they don’t want to be there and yet they’re there all the same. I see them, then the pigeons make a tremendous flap. Further down, there’s a street lined with black trees that arc together at the top, so it seems as if you are entering a forest. When I see it, I wish that I lived there, and then I wouldn’t have to walk away. Or I’m glad I live on a different street so I only see the trees occasionally, always forgetting, until the discovery again, that they’re there.
A man has begun talking to me at the library. He wears a black beret and has a gentle manner. Last week, he pointed to an article in the Times and said, No one cares that they’re raping people. Here in the article, no one cares, 800 rapes in the military, and they tell me to go someplace else, to be quiet. Or another day he said he was a history teacher. The layers of fat around his features is perhaps what gives him the appearance of gentleness.
All this is not very much. It’s small lives we live. When we say we are away from home, what do we mean? Even here, certainly, I am not home. But when I’m traveling, and away from home, I suppose this is the place I mean. I can’t think of another.
Last night at the soup kitchen there was an argument. The Polish woman who runs the kitchen told a man that he was a drug addict. She had been firm with me, too. By the time I was done volunteering, there was only one seat left and she wouldn’t let me sit there. In her halting English she said, You get your food and you eat in the church. I did as I was told and ate alone, sitting in a pew. The man and Polish woman brought their argument into the church. The Polish woman said he was a drug addict, and that he should eat and get out. He said, It’s hard everywhere, I don’t need it hard here. We can thank churches for allowing arguments like this. It wouldn’t have worked in the window-lined office where I took the oath about my parking violation. I could have put my picture away, said: It’s hard enough in the city where there are so many signs, so many fire hydrants. I must now, at night, look under trash bags in fear of what may be there.
The first woman had ruled that she didn’t find my argument persuasive enough. Which must have been true. I had the photograph, was trembling slightly. I noticed a sign saying not to move the chair, noticed her chunky, geometric necklace, and how exhausted her face was. Trying to spare her more exhaustion, I said very little. The rigors of this life are abominable, I might have said. Now I must search trash for fire hydrants. There’s a list of things I must do, and in that small window-lined room, I added to the list. We should always learn things in lit rooms held aloft in a city sky.
With the man I’m dating, I cry all the time and I don’t know why. I walk to his apartment saying this time I won’t cry, and in the first hours I don’t cry and can’t imagine what has made me cry before, but then I want to cry. Sometimes it happens at night and I think if I cry again, he will tire of it, so I do it in the bathroom. One can add this to the list of what I’ve learned: this city is heartless unless someone realizes you are pressed, really pressed, and then they might help you in ways you don’t expect. It’s not an unkind city, really. Only very busy and so full of people.
It turns out I’ll be able to argue the ticket after all. The summons arrived in the mail, was there when I got back this afternoon. The date is for a time before my travels. A part of me had hoped to miss it. I know I’ll be found guilty again. Still, I’m right about the fire hydrant. Within the range of what is reasonable, I am right, so I will go quietly and behave admirably when they find me guilty again. They say on the notice that I must arrive on time. Well, certainly I will be early. Perhaps I should tell them about my travels, the good fortune that I was able to come at all. I will tell them I plan on going to many cities. That I am about to set out with this city as my home, and so they, they, too, are where I’m from. I might say: This moment is my leave taking, my farewell, standing before you, the picture of a fire hydrant and trash bags in hand.
The last time I was in court was for my divorce. After, we left together and didn’t know where to go. We ended up at an organic fish place that people brought their parents to. It was on the second floor and had large windows that overlooked the town. Waitresses dressed in black moved slowly through the tables. The food was comfortable — fish cooked in butter with brown rice. The sun came in so brightly that we could barely sit there; it was like the moment before a reel of film ends: both of us together, tired from the trial, eating soft foods, waiting for the sun to wipe us out.
I went to the library and they had hung botanical prints by a local artist, a woman named Magdalena Zawadzka. I thought: I would like to make botanical paintings, to look at something that closely would be good for me.
Sometimes when I pass the bus stop, I feel the people there are waiting for the afterlife. Perhaps one day I’ll see where it goes. Of course it will only go to the next neighborhood, and these men and teenagers and old women aren’t going anywhere special. It’s only the spot that imbues them with meaning. Though for a time it may feel special, if the sun is bright, and we are all — all of us who have boarded as solemn as going down the aisle of a church — bobbing with the motion. And then, when some of us begin to disembark, and if it’s still warm, and the sun is still coming through the windows, I think it would have a sense of arrival, but it would never go further than that. For soon the sun would go behind the clouds, and others would get on, and it would grow noisy, and we’d be traveling further than I might have thought, and would end up in a neighborhood many neighborhoods over. And we weren’t going to a special place after all, or where we’re going I’ve already been.
I went into the city to have lunch with my ex-husband’s father. I had wanted to see him for a long time, had asked my ex several times, but there had been obstacles I hadn’t understood — whether it was emotional for my ex, or his father didn’t want to see me. And then I had the sense that his father was out of the country for some time, though I never learned where.
We went for dim sum. He came from work and wore a suit. I see no harm in a glass of wine then, he said upon learning I wasn’t in a rush. Have you seen him recently? he said. It’s been a long time, I started to say, but then he waved away his question — Never mind that, he said — and passed me a menu. We ordered a series of small buns that came on chipped china. They are good, these large restaurants where the windows don’t look out on anything, not the sun, not people, but parts of courtyards that no one goes to.
He spoke quietly of his business, of successes that had occurred over the years, and of his daily routine. Work pays bills, he said, but I’ve found a lot of what it does, really, is manage time. I would think it would be hard, what you do, to simply have time run together.
Maybe there was something in the restaurant, the sense of pause, that made us confidantes in each other, or that we both lived in the city, and so understood what it took to survive. For he said, then, They’re renovating a Victorian in that town where he moved to. They seem happy, or it seems easier in some way. Easier than this.
I thought then of the black dust that came through my windows and coated my floor and counter. It reminded me of a Calvino story I had read about a city covered in smog. In the story, the narrator eventually wanted the smog, wanted to live out of the sun. I told Len about it. He wrote it down on the back of a business card. He said he had tickets to the opera and that we could go later in the season. I said I would be traveling and would be gone for much of the opera season. I told him of the trip and about the parking office. I explained how I was going to the office the next day to appeal the appeal. He had me take out the photograph. He took it in his fingers and his face softened in a way I could only understand as sorrow.
I was reminded of the times we had been out the three of us, and I had been glad that he was there, that my husband didn’t have the same sadness as his father, that same resignation to the fact that we all have to carry forward. Now Len grew silent, a silence I thought meant he was a busy man with a lot on his mind, but he asked instead, if, when I was in Texas, if I could try to find a place where he had once lived. It was a long time ago, he said, and it won’t be there, but if it is there … I would like to know if it’s still there, he said. I remember it better than almost anything else.
He picked up the bill when it arrived. I’ll write this off anyway, he said. I liked the idea of businessmen moving through the city, making things disappear. I walked with him to the subway. What stop had we gone to that was like a pyramid of glass, where the escalator, rather than descend underground, instead carried him upward?
I can’t say how it went at the appeals office. For one thing I knew what to expect and approached the building with more confidence. I went straight for the elevator and the proper floor. But most of all, I was surprised by the kindness of the people who worked for the parking appeals office. This time there were three of them. Always the parking office delivers things I don’t expect, and so I had tremored anticipating what would happen, but I never considered three judges behind a high counter looking at me benevolently. It’s amazing that you can do this for free. Anyone with a ticket can have a series of meetings with an increasing amount of judges. A man spoke, and then a woman in a suit, and then another hovering face, a woman in a halo of blonde hair. Each took a turn with my picture, examining it closely. They seemed satisfied, though one braces against meaning in that building. A sign read: “Property division, title research, real estate, utility corp.”
The man asked if it was the picture I had presented at my first hearing. That was all they asked. He said they would mail the decision. It would arrive sometime in the next two weeks. In the meantime, I should pay the fine to avoid fees. Thank you, I said. They smiled again, all three of them. In my memory they are higher than me, higher than they would have actually been.
At the elevator I waited for some time before realizing I hadn’t pressed the button.
I’m waiting for the reply from the appeals office, and then all matters will be settled for the trip. I almost paid the ticket as the man suggested, but then thought of how long it would take for them to return my money, and I remembered the cool inscrutability of the office. To pass time, I went into the city with my ex-husband’s father to see music and afterward we walked to a place where the menu had small plates of olives, razor clams, and chorizo, but he ordered alcohol and didn’t suggest food.
At this point, I’m simply waiting for the decision to arrive by mail. Seeing the mailman passing below, I put on my slippers and ran down to find a letter jammed in our mail slot. It looked like an official city letter, but it was addressed to the downstairs neighbor!
I found the sock I had been missing. I had gone to the Laundromat twice to look for it. The man who owns the Laundromat keeps a lost-and-found pile on a ledge. It would be easy for something to fall behind the machines — this system for dealing with lost items is problematic. The owner must have thought it was odd that I had lost a sock because I always squat and look deep into the machines, and this — losing a sock — could have been proof that my care was valid, or proof that greater care was needed, but then I moved a bag in my living room and the sock was underneath.
I believe I may have won the parking battle. I went online to pay the ticket, only this time I owed no money. Those three disembodied heads now seem imbued with kindness. Go on your trip! they say. This world follows a plan if you can only see it through. Of course, I still have to receive the letter, which may never arrive, and I will be left here apprehensive, but hopeful, poised on the edge of leaving.
And nice to sit in the park again after the long winter, in which it seemed I lived several lives, none of them successful. How nice that this bench still has its back when all the others have been torn away. Here a person in an automated wheelchair. Here a group of travelers. Here an old woman pushing a cart. What is striking is that she’s in all black with only a poof of white hair, and the cart is all black with only a poof of plastic bag. As if it’s plastic bags and not birds that are signs of another world here.
There are times when people look at you as if they know more about you than you do. Leaving the park, a man told me to have a good day. He kept the smile on me, as if he could convey a warmth that would last me quite a long time, could last me through everything that was yet to come.