Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The City Dressed in Night and Rain

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It was the year they paved West End Avenue with diamonds -- well, not really diamonds, but glass-phalt, a mixture of asphalt and crushed glass that promised a permanent cure for potholes. Day or night, however, my children insisted those brilliant sparks in the deep, black paving were real gems and labelled them all: ruby at sunset, diamond at midday and emerald and citrine by night.

After I was called to New York, our family adopted the routines required for life in one of the world's great cities. Ordinary acts such as transporting children to school, shopping and visiting the doctor required flexibility and meticulous planning. The kids didn't always go out to play; they rode the elevator to playmates living above and below us.

My wife asked, "Will we ever feel at home here, five of us crammed into an apartment one-quarter the size of our old house?" Our middle child, age six, responded, "It's an adventure!" The oldest, age eight, added, "We'll explore. We'll learn to live like natives." The baby slept in quiet assent.

That was the spirit. I mastered the colourful spaghetti strands of subway and bus routes that took me to hospitals, libraries and bookstores, endless meetings in professional offices with their magnificent city views lavished upon the wealthy. I fell in love with walking everywhere, even in inclement weather. Everything shone; every building gleamed with crowns of light and robes infused with threads of gold and neon. Coming from the mid-continent flatlands, I couldn't help but fall in love with New York, a city of spires dressed in splendour.

Everyone urged us to develop "radar" for detecting the moment when the city would show us another other face. My accountant neighbour said, "It's a matter of chance, but leave that to the actuaries. The city changes block by block. Just play it safe. Don't end up a nasty headline."

But people strolling populated the city even after midnight. I thought nothing of an hour on foot homeward-bound following a meeting that ended at the same time as Broadway crowds left their after-show coffee shop conversations. A late-night walk was pure pleasure.

I had become a New Yorker by osmosis.

When you fall in love with a city that thinks of itself as the centre of the universe, be prepared for the moment when the seduction takes an unexpected turn. I experienced that moment late one night after a wedding in a small French restaurant on Vesey Street, one block east of the Hudson River.

I hired a car service to take me to the ceremony. Nearing our destination, we passed between two large construction sites surrounded by scaffolding and enormous orange tarpaulins. A quarter-century ago, as now, the New York real estate cycle demanded old buildings be demolished and replaced by bigger ones. The buildings destined for those pits would be new additions to the World Financial Center.

The wedding celebration filled the restaurant and continued late into the night. No one seemed ready to leave except me. I thanked my hosts and left.

The celebrants indoors, including me, had not noticed a downpour that lasted for nearly two hours and clogged the Vesey Street sewers with demolition debris, denying passage to the rainwater. The cobblestone paving was flooded.

It was two in the morning, but my urban radar signalled safe passage. As I headed for Park Row and the northbound subway station, I walked in the middle of the street, where the cobblestones formed an uneven, elevated ridge slightly above the waters covering temporary plank sidewalks, curbing remnants and most of the street.

I heard faint footsteps behind me, turned, and saw a young woman walking towards me on that ridge carrying an open umbrella. Hadn't I seen this movie before?

As I turned back, she screamed and I saw why: pouring out of the southern construction site, bound for the northern one, were dozens -- no, hundreds -- of rats, many of them larger than the largest cobblestones underfoot. The rain had apparently submerged part of their dwellings and they swam and scurried for shelter on the other side.

That carpet of rats kept the two of us frozen for over 10 minutes until the stragglers scudded into darkness. I briefly wondered how I would have responded if the rats hungered for a late-night snack of transplanted prairie dog -- slap them silly with my gloves or beat them with my hat?

I began laughing, and so did the woman behind me. She said, "I was guessing how many rats I could spike with my umbrella before they overwhelmed me."

I responded, "And there I was, for the first time without a package of rodent treats."

New York is all intersections and people making connections as they collide by chance. We walked together past the pits shrouded in orange tarps. I said, "I didn't see you at the wedding. I'm headed to the subway."

"I wasn't. I was visiting someone living next door to that restaurant. I'm Aniara."

"Like the Scandinavian spaceship? Harry Martinson's poem that was made into a science fiction opera?"

Her eyes widened. "You know about that? Nobody ever knows that."

"Don't ever play Trivial Pursuit with me. I have an open mind, but people keep putting things into it."

We kept walking. At West Street, she stopped. "I'm exhausted -- flight response, too much adrenalin. I'm hailing a cab up for the Upper West Side. Want to share the ride?"

"Sure."

Taxis were cruising for passengers. We grabbed one, relieved by our good fortune.

"Have you ever heard about anything like those rats?" she asked.

"Just stories my father told about locking himself night after night into the basement of his store to kill rats nesting there and destroying his merchandise. They were eating up the profits. He killed dozens with a baseball bat."

"You're serious."

"As nice as he was, he was also one tough guy."

"But that street was really something else, wasn't it? Nobody ever thinks the city can top itself, but it always does! And so very Edgar Allan Poe! Where was Vincent Price when we needed him?"

"Yes, another marketable New York adventure -- like Disneyland without safeties on the roller-coasters."

We joined the flow of sleepless Manhattan traffic. The cab picked up speed, a gift from well-synchronized traffic lights, weaving from West Street onto Tenth Avenue.

"I have a regular client on Vesey Street. What brought you there -- the restaurant?"

"I was there for a wedding."

"I'm a double-major at Fordham -- finance and legal and ethical studies. After that, it's law school."

Her youth was striking. I realized that at some point she'd learned to take an ordinary prettiness and elevate it to Fashion District beauty.

At 42nd Street, she asked, "You going home to someone?"

Another New York moment. My accountant neighbour had warned, "Sharing a cab is permissible, but there are some risks."

"I have my wife and three kids asleep in our apartment."

She said, "Sounds boring for someone who knows that Aniara is a poem, a spaceship, and an opera. My meter's off for the night and I want a break -- and intelligence really turns me on."

And that's how she told me how she paid her tuition and what a regular client on Vesey Street meant.

At 57th Street, the cabbie turned left, then right onto West End Avenue. The wet glass-phalt glistened with emerald and citrine; at sunrise and sunset it would be ruby, and at midday diamond.

I said, "I've got a congregation expecting me to preach and teach. The wedding couple will be dropping by before their honeymoon. That's my world. It's my only one."

The cabbie stopped at 89th -- my street. The meter registered just under $18.

I asked Aniara, "How much farther will you go?"

"Cathedral Parkway," she whispered. I think we were both a little surprised.

I gave her $22 -- $18 plus a tip. "Thank you," I said. "You have a bright future. Hold fast to your dream."

She turned her head away and said, "You're welcome -- and thanks. Maybe someday our worlds will meet again."

I never saw Aniara again during my Manhattan tenure, but, years later, an unexpected email from the couple who'd married that night evoked memories of cobblestones, rats, and that strange ride.

Of course, I thought of Aniara and Googled her name. There are very few people by that name in Manhattan or anywhere else in North America. Eventually, I found her listed as a partner in a prestigious New York law firm.

Aniara replied to my email with one three words long and an attached photo.

The email said: "I held fast." In the picture, she was seated on a couch beside a handsome man, both of them grinning, four children casually posed at their feet. Prominent in the foreground is a large, white cage in which a brown rat, running in an exercise wheel, is rendered motionless by the camera shutter.


This is the last of five winning entries in the 2013 Winnipeg Free Press/ Writers' Collective Non-Fiction Contest. All stories can be found at winnipegfreepress.com.


THURSDAY: POETRY CONTEST WINNERS

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 31, 2013 0

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