Wandering Tompkins Square is the start of another day – the smell of urine clean and sharp in the morning, a brisk accompaniment to the slowly-waking pace of life around me: a wearied trash-collector stoops to his undignified task and will not meet my eyes as I pass. Everywhere the excesses of last night are being wrung from the daytime self. A police car passes through the park, though there is no reason for it. Just as there is no reason for me to be here — like the men in the car I am hunting, scanning the landscape for something which I have yet to find.
It is my writing day, and I seek the Muse. I have learned that she will not appear when I ask her to, and especially not when I need her. I know that she must be invited in, courted and made to feel safe. If I have selected the right music for her, and created a pleasant place where she might like to sit and converse with me awhile, she may arrive (though it will not be in the flame of passion, as when she visits me unexpectedly at work or on the subway, flooding me with her desire beautiful and terrifying).
But even then she may not arrive – she may leave me siting alone in my apartment with a pleasant cup of coffee and her favorite music and the images which she loves to speak to me about, staring blankly at my computer screen and finding myself wordless.
So I’ve come to seek her here, to wander the park and listen to the sounds of it – the late summer leaves shuffling in the breeze and the child braying protestations to his mother across the street. I’ve come to search for stories in the eyes of my fellow park people: bench-sitters, dog-walkers, stroller-pushers – all a part of some leisure class with freedom on a Wednesday morning. Either rich, or retired, or perhaps – my mind turning to the state of the economy – unemployed. There are few vacationers, either for that reason or because they are still sleeping off the evening or, perhaps, because this park is not for them.
This isn’t Central Park, after all, that grand old lady of the city whose well-coiffed grounds and spotless boulevards offer a kind of Disneyland version of Nature in the heart of Manhattan. No, this is Tompkins Square – as much a symbol of Nature’s defiance as Central Park is a symbol of our ability to bend her to our will. (And presently, as if to underscore my point, I spy a large rat ambling through the grass across the way.) This is where the tectonic plate of civilization crushes against the natural world, offering a true grotesque of their pairing. You have got to have your wits about here, as you do in the city itself.
But will this be another missive on the hard-scrabble life of a New Yorker? Another humorist protest song against the Capitalist forces of “nature, red in tooth and claw?” (Such mental infusions drive my Muse away, I know, and so I push them aside and ask her to sit by me again.)
“What I’d really like to know,” I say to her, “is what I’m doing here. I’ve come on Writing Day to find you, because I have an idea that I’m a writer of some kind. But lately I’ve been doubting that self-applied appellation. Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m not just another stroller-pusher, bench-sitter, dog-walker. Am I any different than the old Japanese man passing slowly by with a plastic bag slung under his arm, shaking his head at the woman walking a few paces ahead of him who is nattering at him ceaselessly and therefore obviously his wife?”
“No,” she answers.
The smell of fresh-turned earth draws me to a bench and I sit to write all this down. I don’t believe my Muse, any more than the old Japanese man believes that this is the fifth time his wife has told him this and that all would be peace between them if he would simply listen to her. But I will continue to play her favorite music, and to make her a pleasant cup of coffee on Writing Day, and to sit and wait patiently for her arrival.
Just as the old Japanese man will continue to carrying the bag and walking a few paces behind.