Byōbu: block the wind

Sunday morning. A light breeze from the east allowed for only a zippered fleece. It was about ten degrees warmer than most late November days should be in New York City. As I reached the corner of Broadway and 86th Street on my way to CVS to get the prescription, I noticed a woman of about fifty with a silver aluminum cane, one of those standard medical supply jobs with the black foam handle. She swung her right leg forward with it in practiced rhyme. Her eyes left crows’ feet behind them—deep fissures in desert-white skin, and her mouth stretched to a trapezoid, its sides turned down revealing molasses-colored stains between her teeth.

Soon close to the other side of Broadway, as I and others walked with the light and the woman with the cane somewhere behind me, a man in his 40s on a bicycle sluiced toward us from our downtown side, having run the red light. He mulled whether he would ride in front, then behind, then finally in front, of our group. As he knifed past, he looked steadily ahead—a Mona Lisa fuck-you smile unaware of the hoi polloi behind an invisible velvet rope held by stanchions. I walked the remaining block uphill, between Broadway and Amsterdam, and went inside CVS, where all the sick people in our neighborhood go and where all the people in our neighborhood go when they are sick. They have been playing Christmas songs for more than a week now, and it’s not Thanksgiving yet. Karen tells me it’s been since before Halloween. I hadn’t noticed. Until recently, it’s usually a quick trip after a cell phone call emerging from the subway: ‘Honey-hi-I-just-got-out-at-86th-need-anything-for-the-boys…milk?-how-we-doing-on-milk-yes-I’ll-wait-while-you-check…’ I go if we need Toaster Strudel or toilet paper, and my earbuds and iTunes afford me a Mona Lisa posture toward all other shoppers. In the last two to three weeks, though, the trips have usually included a prescription. They come in white paper bags with light blue cost summaries and explanations stapled to the outside. The cashier scans each bag like it’s a half-gallon of 2%, a box of Contact Lens solution, or nail clippers. They all go in the same translucent CVS plastic bag, which I swear will rip because of the Contact Lens box yet never does.

After CVS, my walk home is downhill or on level sidewalks. On West End Avenue between 85th and 84th, in front of the building where Rachmaninoff once lived and which has a bronze plaque to that effect that many passers-by stop and read, I see a white pigeon with scattered gray spots. It’s preening itself, taking the oil released from its uropygial gland with its beak and applying it to its feathers to keep them waterproof and flexible. It does merely what works and what it must to survive; ornithologists tell us how it’s the diester wax in the oil that does it. Unlike their Columbidae cousins, though, the morning doves, the pigeons’ Jackson Pollack-like traces around the city warn pedestrians of their presence. Thin, silver spikes are affixed to ledges on office building doorways, and city residents cringe when they swoop overhead, having heard of or experienced unwanted deposits on hair, suit jacket, or dress. Yet while pigeons are always discussed by citizens or handled by building managers in the plural, this one in front of me appears to lack nearby companions but seems content. With its white feathers and off-colored spots against the manicured concrete, the pigeon completes an urban gray-scale palette.

As I round the corner and head west on 84th Street—our block—I see walking toward me a woman in her early 30s, her mid-back blonde hair finishing in curled and bouncing meringue. She is smiling and occasionally looking behind her at a girl—three, maybe four years old at the most—who, I see before I pass, is laughing and unaware of anyone but the older woman. Her tiny teeth are separated by spaces. Her cheeks are rounded and pink in the centers, and her hazel knit cap is pulled smartly down her forehead to block the wind. She squints. Her sparkly gaze doesn’t veer—she laughs while looking straight ahead at the woman, whose face turns occasionally and with mock surprise to keep taut the invisible string between them, as though the girl were a paper-thin kite in the blue November sky.