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Off the Rails: A Walk Along the First Two Thirds of the New York High Line

Walk Taken: February 28, 2012

Directions: Take the A, C, E, or L to 8th Avenue and 14th Street. There are many access points to the High Line, but to begin at the south most point, walk east on 14th Street until you reach 10th Avenue, then walk south to Ganesvoort Street. The entrance is on the northeast corner of 10th Avenue and Ganesvsoort.

The New York High Line is a public park built on an abandoned railway line. The line was originally built in the 1930s to bring freight to the factories of the meat-packing district without endangering anyone at street level. As trucks began to replace trains for industrial transport, the High Line fell into disuse; the last train, carrying frozen turkeys, ran in 1980. In the late 90s, a group of concerned citizens formed Friends of the High Line to save the structure from demolition. The first section of the High Line opened as a public park in 2009. Currently, pedestrians can follow the raised track from Ganesvoort to 30th Street. The final stretch, from 30th to 34th, is still under construction.

First Stop—Above the Ganesvoort Entrance

Climb the stairs at the North West corner of 10th Avenue and Gansevoort St. Once you reach the top, head towards the river and turn left until you reach an L-shaped bench.

The setting sun warmed Tomás’ back as he supported his foot on the bench and bent forward to retie his sneakers. It whitened the gray, bare branches of the trees and made him hope for spring. He glanced over his shoulders to watch it burn above the Hudson, and just as quickly had to glance away.

“Are you ready yet?” his girlfriend, Jhumpa, asked behind him. She had finished stretching and now jogged in place. “I want get to the end of the High Line before the sun sets.”

It was sad, really, that it had taken the two of them until an hour from sunset to get themselves outside, and on the first truly beautiful day since October. But it was so rare that the two of them shared a day off—he busy with freelance photography gigs when he wasn’t on call to tutor Mrs. Gleason’s kids through their exclusive gradeschool, her with dance classes or auditions or her ever-shifting shift at the café—that it was no surprise they’d had a hard time getting out of bed.  But now three cups of coffee and the setting sun was making Jhumpa anxious to spend her energy before she could relax into the night. Tomás had to honor that.

“Ready,” Tomás said, and set off.

Second Stop—First Flowers

Walk about three yards until you come to the plot of earth on your right. Stop when you see a pink flowering bush.

Tomás only got about three yards before he discovered the flowers. They were little fuchsia kernels on thin brown twigs, popping open into pale pink blossoms. They were the first flowers he had seen growing wild since winter began, and he couldn’t help stopping to stoop towards them.

“Look, Jhumpa!” he said. “Spring is coming.”

Jhumpa did not stop jogging in place beside him. “They’re pretty, Tom. Now, let’s go. We’re running out of time.”

“We’re always running out of time,” he mumbled, as he fell in pace beside her.

Jhumpa either didn’t hear him or pretended not to, and Tomás felt guilty for airing yet again his constant grievance. He’d had different dreams when he and Jhumpa decided to move to the city together after graduation. It seemed so romantic—two Minnesota sweethearts off to make it big. The books and movies had lied when they’d shown young, struggling artists in love, with time to hold hands in parks or make out on bridges or play footsie in cafes. In real life, such luxuries were only for the rich. He and Jhumpa were only reliably in the same room between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m., and more often than not they were too tired or too drunk to make love.

Now Jhumpa’s steady footbeats on the pavement sounded like the ticking of a clock: thud, thud, thud, thud. His legs burned to keep time. But it grew harder and harder to strain forward as they passed a row of wooden seats, built reclining like beach chairs. Almost all of them were filled with couples basking in the last warmth of the sun: two middle aged men in Norwegian sweaters cuddled side by side; a white haired man and woman bent over the same New York Times; a young girl in denim and leather straddled her first love and dove in for a kiss. Tomás saw one chair still empty, and beside it grew another of those early flowering bushes. He wanted nothing more than to scoop Jhumpa up and carry her over to relax in the setting sun. But she was already speeding ahead of him under the shadow of an overpass.

Third Stop—Chelsea Market Public Art

Continue straight; the Chelsea Market Public Art windows are in the second tunnel on your left.

Once inside, Tomás was forced to let her gain more ground. He was staring through a wall of colored squares. Through wasn’t quite the preposition for it, but the word he needed was slightly more transparent than at. The squares were of thick glass, and they ran the spectrum from brownish red to grayish blue. The dark tones evoked a build up of pollution, reminding him that the High Line had once been a railway, built above the city to safely deliver goods to factories. And now the once commercial line had been reclaimed, first by nature then by art, as a place of rest. It seemed such a waste to rush his way along.

The windows didn’t let through much more than light, but through one square the setting sun burned a bright pink spot. Tomás couldn’t help himself; he pulled his iPhone from his sweatpant pocket and snuck a quick photo. Click!

“Tomás!” Jhumpa must have doubled back at the sound, because there she was, still jogging in place behind him. Thud, thud, thud, thud. “We promised no work today!”

“This isn’t work,” he said, holding up his phone. “I can’t use any photos I take on this.”

“That doesn’t matter! As soon as your brain’s in photo mode, I can’t reach you!

“But that’s not fair! We’re doing something physical, aren’t we? That’s your thing.”

Jhumpa had a habit of laughing once through her nose when she was angry. “That’s not what you said this morning.”

“That’s,” Tomás’ cheeks burned. “That’s different. I mean, you’re a dancer, that’s your thing. And now we’re exercising, so isn’t that work for you?”

“I can’t believe this! We’ve been saying we wanted to jog the High Line since we moved here!”

“Will you stand still, damnit? I can barely hear!”

“What’s there to hear?” If anything, she jogged harder, so that her words came out in gasps. “We get one day to spend together, and we’re wasting it arguing! If that’s what we’re going to do, then—”

“Then what?” Tomás heard his question echo in the shadow of the overpass. Jhumpa’s thudding stopped. They stared at each other, still and silent but for their breathing. Then they bolted forward, together, away from the answer.

Fourth Stop—Grass-Covered Roof

Continue straight until you come to a white building with a grass roof; it will be on your right.

Then what? Then what? The question repeated in his mind to the rhythm of their jogging feet. He tried to remember why he had fallen in love with Jhumpa. He knew it was more than her gold-brown skin and dancer’s body. But all he could think of now, with bitterness, was how obedient she was to her business. Jhumpa couldn’t relax until she’d completed every task, and once every task was completed, a new one usually emerged. If he were being fair, he knew that he was just as frustrating. His response to stress was to deny it until it was almost too late, and then finish everything in a burst of energy. For every morning she’d refuse to skip class and join him for an impromptu brunch, there was a night she’d have to spend alone because Tomás had wasted his day off and had to enter a photo contest by 10 a.m. the next day. Tomás hated to admit it, but perhaps the business of self-establishment would be easier alone?

“¡Ayúdame, por favor! Please, help!” A throaty cry shattered his thoughts. He turned towards the voice and saw a short, wide woman whitening her knuckles on the metal rail that protected the High Line walkers from the street below. Her back was to him; he could see her black and gray streaked bun tilt downwards as her eyes looked up. Tomás followed her gaze, and immediately understood the source of her distress.

About a foot from the railing rose a tall white building. It must have been used for some sort of art installation. On the level with the High Line was a balcony that had been filled with upright pieces of driftwood, and the roof of the house had been planted with grass. It was on top of that roof that a little tow-haired boy stood, looking down at the driftwood spikes below him, his mouth trembling. It wasn’t hard to understand what had happened—the driftwood forest and grassy roof must have seemed an irresistible playground, and the height the boy had scaled with ease in his excitement rose in terror now that the moment had come to climb down.

But even as Tomás saw the boy, he saw with a pulse of pride that Jhumpa was jumping the gap between the High Line and the balcony. He walked slowly up to the distraught woman and touched her gently on the arm.

“Don’t worry,” he said gently, in Spanish. He could tell from the way her cries rolled off her tongue which language she had felt most comfortable shouting in, and he had spent enough summers at his grandmother’s farm near Quito to be nearly bilingual. “Look, my girlfriend is going to get him down. She’s very athletic. It will be all right.”

“Oh, oh,” she turned towards him. Her eyes stared wide and smooth with tears, contrasting with her wrinkled face. “Oh, thank you!” With every word her voice lost volume, until the words began to tumble out in an almost whisper. “Oh, thank you. I don’t know what I’ll do if he gets hurt. Are you sure he’ll be all right? His mother will kill me. I told her I could still look after him, even after I hurt my knee, but I have no other way to work, and my own grandchildren to take care of. Oh, do you think he’ll be all right? He’s a good boy, mostly, you know. But when he gets an idea, he doesn’t understand the word ‘No.’”

Tomás could only stand with her and listen, and keep his warm hand on her shoulder. “It will be all right,” he soothed. “It will be all right.”

And it was all right, because Jhumpa had climbed over to the balcony, and was standing with her arms outstretched for the boy to jump into. She held him steady as he climbed over the balcony railing. Then they all took a breath when he jumped the gap, and landed safely. Tomás helped him back over the rail, and he ran, chastened, into his nanny’s waiting embrace.

“I’m sorry, Nanna,” he sniffled into her tummy. The woman rocked him back and forth, tears falling freely from her eyes, repeating, “Don’t you dare do that again,” and, “Gracias a Dios,” over and over in the same trembling voice.

Last Stop—25th Street Theater

Continue straight until you are above 25th Street. On your right, you will see a large wooden bench in front of a framed pane of glass that overlooks the street. Sit down in front of the screen for a while. You can then either exit at 25th St. or continue along the High Line.

Tomás and Jhumpa ran on, but now Tomás found it was easier to keep up with her. Every jog brought them closer together, until his hand brushed hers. Then she grabbed it and squeezed it tight, and didn’t let it go. Their pace slowed in unison until their run became a walk. A large rectangle of glass, like a transparent movie screen, emerged on their right and, without saying anything, they climbed onto the wooden bench that faced it.

“You were amazing,” he said, once they had settled with their arms around each other. “The way you just leapt up there and got that kid down.”

“And you,” she said, “the way you comforted that woman. You have the most amazing, calming presence.”

‘You’re so brave, decisive—“ and then their mouths found better things to do than speak.

Finally, Jhumpa pulled away, gently. “You could have told me before we left, you know, that you just wanted to stroll,” she said. “You know how I get when I psych myself up for a jog. Nothing better stand between me and my endorphins.”

“And you know me,” he smiled. “I want to want to jog, until I actually have to do it.”

She rested his head on his shoulder and they looked through the glass at the passing cars. For a moment, the bustle of the city was a film reeled for their leisure. They sat there, watching, until the night-time cold urged them to move on.

This is Not a Love Story: An Unromantic Stroll Around Prospect Park Lake

Walk Taken: July 19, 2011

Directions: Take the Q or the B train to the Parkside Avenue stop.

My first story is based on a walk I took around the Prospect Park Lake at the beginning of this unbearable heatwave. As I walked and wrote, the humidity was a major source of inspiration (and perspiration!) for me.

Since this is my first post, I’m going to explain how this works. Each story consists of five parts, or stops, on a particular walk. The directions posted in italics at the beginning of each post explain where to begin each walk and how to move from one stop to the next.

Happy Walking!

First Stop—The Gazebo

Enter Prospect Park at the corner of Ocean and Parkside Avenues. Once in the park, cross the street at the stoplight and follow the subsequent path left to a wooden gazebo by the side of the lake.

She caught him in the act of putting on his shirt. He was standing with his naked back towards her—the morning’s humidity lining the bulge of his muscles in silver against the dark of his skin. He dressed as if he were alone, as if there were no homeless man curled up on the gazebo bench beside his backpack, and Gloria walked closer, secure in the power of his back curving up into the t-shirt bunched around his head. For a moment she saw not her friend of ten-odd years, but the M.I.T. bound soccer star her younger cousin Norma had made eyes at during her graduation party.

Then Carl shrugged into his shirt, turned around so she could see its Star Wars logo, pinched his glasses onto his thin nose, and Gloria saw once again the scrawny boy with glasses too big for his face who had stuck his tongue out at her when he won the third-grade spelling bee. Gloria had never let him win again.

“I can’t believe you actually went running in this heat,” she said.

“I can’t believe you could stay asleep in it,” he replied. It was their way of saying hello when they met for their weekly morning walks around the lake, and on some days they would keep the ribbing up until they said goodbye. But today his face grew strangely serious. Usually, the corners of his lips twitched upwards, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled towards a wink. But now the line of his lips was straight, and the skin around his eyes was smooth. It was his running face, his programming face. “May I escort you around the lake this fine morning?” he asked. And he held out his arm.

Gloria waited for his face to break, but he was stubborn in his stillness. Gloria shifted her feet; finally, she forced sniffed a laugh out her nose. Then, he allowed his lips to curve, and the tightness in Gloria’s shoulders left.

“Yeah, sure,” she said, taking his arm. “Escort away.”

Second Stop—On the Edge

The Ledge Follow a dirt path clockwise around the lake until you come to a lamppost next to a concrete-lined gravel overhang that rises above the water’s edge.

They stopped to watch a family of ducks lined up along a concrete edge that jutted out into the water. She was surprised by how gracefully their bodies curved on dry land, where you could see the thin curve of their feet complete the S their beaks began. These weren’t the springtime babies Gloria and Carl had seen following the mother on past walks, but almost adults with only an inch or two left to grow, and when the pair crunched forward onto the gravel, and the birds flap-splashed like feathered sea planes into the water, the smaller ducks were the ones to lead their mother out of the bright green algae scumming up the shallows into the white-blue, sky-reflecting distance.

“It’s too obvious of a metaphor,” Gloria said. “Birds ready to leave the nest.”

“I actually got a graduation card with a little owl flying out of a nest in a cap and gown,” Carl’s voice rose and his head began bobbing up and down in excited agreement. It was one of the things she would miss about him: how honest he was in his enthusiasm.

“So why does seeing the ducks take off like that still make me a little sad?” she asked.

Gloria had removed her arm from Carl’s after the first few paces; she didn’t want him to think she read anything into his joke about escorting her around the lake, and besides, the same moisture that fogged the air above the trees liked to seep into the cracks where skin touched skin. But now his slippery fingers found hers and squeezed.

The excitement drained from his voice as he said, “I’ll miss you.”

Gloria slid her hand from his and went to sit down on the ledge the ducks had evacuated. “Boston’s not that far away. You’ll be back for vacations, and I’ll come up on the Chinatown bus and visit you some weekend.”

“Maybe you could transfer to a Boston school after your first year at Hunter,” he said, sitting down besides her.

But she shook her head. “Even then it wouldn’t be the same.”

For so long they had been equals, rivals, enemies in a childish way as they raced each other for first place in elementary-school competitions, highest GPA when that began to matter, top scores on the Specialized High School Admissions Test. When they both won admission to Stuyvesant High School and found themselves alone together in a new world, they discovered they were less enemies than friends.

But then he had chosen numbers and she had chosen images. So while he had no trouble finding scholarships that would help reduce the burden of the loans he would likely pay back anyways, she was stuck admitting that it didn’t make sense to put herself $25,000 in debt to attend Yale or Rhode Island School of Design only to then try to make it as a starving artist. Internally, she was at peace with their diverging paths. After a lifetime of following the rubric that would supposedly set them up to fulfill their parents’ American Dream, each was finally branching off to follow dreams of his or her own. And anyway, Hunter’s art program was nothing to sneeze at. But it bothered her more than it should have the way that friends and family now looked at the two of them—as if Carl were swimming off into the clear, deep, sky-reflecting future while she stayed to float upon oily swirls of empty promise at the water’s edge. She’d even heard her Aunt Shirley whisper loudly to her mother at the graduation party, after one cup too many of uncle Darren’s rum punch, “It’s such a shame about Gloria. You should encourage her to move things to the next level with that Carl, if you know what I mean. At least he’s going places.”

Gloria stood. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s finish this before it gets any hotter.”

Third Stop—Sitting in a Tree

Continue left around the lake until you pass a “No Barbecue” sign. On your left you’ll see a dirt beach where a thick tree is silhouetted against the lake. Pause beside the tree looking out towards the water.

They spoke of everything but the future after that, as they walked past a wall of rushes and around the wide bottom curve of the lake. Gloria told him about the old man with the sagging belly who cornered her at the book store while she was shelving art history and kept yammering at her about his busted air conditioner. Carl told her of a classmate of theirs who had called his under-the-table tech-support business in a panic because the screen of the new laptop had gone blank. Had he tried pressing the increase-brightness key? Silence. Problem solved.

Then there were times when the path stretched through sun, and the thick air sat heavily on the ledge of their upper lips, preventing speech at all. In those moments they heard no other human voices, only the buzz of insects, the whisper of birds, and the beeps and thuds of a distance construction site, and they felt themselves alone together again.

The tree, for Gloria, interrupted the constant pressure of the heat. It was thick-trunked and deep brown against the bright lake, with three branches that reached up and joined leaves with an endless canopy of green and gold. It was one of those moments for her when she saw a painting ready for a canvas, as if God had drawn it out and given to only her the ability to see where it’s frame ended and the rest of the creation began. As she walked towards it she could imagine herself entering a two-dimensional image and discovering its depth. Then there was a new wonder to sitting down on one of the tree’s thick, flat roots to watch the tiny waves kiss the shore.

“You like this tree? Or did you just want to rest,” he asked, sitting besides her.

“It’s like a tree out of a painting,” she said.

“And would anything happen under this tree,” he asked, “in your painting?” He reached his arm around her, but it was heavy and wet with sweat.

“Please don’t,” she said. “It’s way too hot.”

Suddenly he was squatting in front of her, and his hands pressed down on her knees, and he was looking at her with his serious face, so that she felt like a goal net or a page of code.

“I love you,” his serious face said to her.

The wind died down, and, despite the shade, the clay-like air molded itself around their bodies, holding them in place.

“Me? But how? It’s too fast…”

“Fast? I’ve known you since elementary school—that’s most of our lives. How much more time do I need?”

“But why?” She felt as if her mouth had to fight the thick air just to open enough to let the question out, but Carl didn’t seem to have the same problem.

“Why? Because you’re smart, and you’ll never let me win a competition, but outside of that you’re always there to listen when I need you, and I think you’re so brave for following your passions instead of doing whatever would get you the best job. And I guess I knew all of that all along, but I only just realized it this year when you were all dressed up for the graduation party, and I realized that you’re so beautiful! So I was thinking, if you could at all like me back, maybe we could be together this summer and then maybe you could find a community college in Boston and…”

Up until that moment, Gloria had wanted few things more than to have a man tell her, in earnest, that she was beautiful. Not her father being kind, not the men outside the jerk-chicken joint being sleazy. But now, she felt the word like an extra burst of heat hardening the clay around her. She broke out the only way she could think—she stood and ran.

Fourth Stop—Water Lilies in Bloom

Follow the dWater Lilies irt path left through the trees. Turn right after the “Nature at Work” sign and right again to follow the dirt path along the water’s edge until it rejoins the concrete path. Follow the concrete path leftwards until you reach another dirt path with a wood border. Walk straight on this path and follow it when it veers right to the water’s edge. Stop facing the lily pads.

Running was to Carl’s advantage, not hers, and she knew it as her legs ached, her lungs hurt, her flip flops stumbled over rocks and roots, and the air fought every forward bend of her legs and punch of her arms. Behind her, she could hear Carl’s quiet breaths and the steady plod of his sneakers. He wasn’t running as fast as he could or he would have caught up by now. He didn’t want to lose her, but he would give her time to think, and for that she was grateful.

He was a good guy. That wasn’t the problem. Physical attraction wasn’t the problem either; she could get used to seeing the muscles stretch in his naked back the way they had in the gazebo that morning. And she wouldn’t feel inadequate physically. He said she was beautiful, and when she got over the fact that part of her would always see herself as four-eyed and flat-chested, she could see his point of view. Her skin had always shown gold in sunlight, and her dark hair had always framed her face in tight curls. But in the past year, the baby fat had left her belly and her cheeks so that her smaller breasts now echoed her rounded hips, and her glasses sat elegantly on high cheekbones.  She wouldn’t be bored with him, wouldn’t have to talk down to him or be afraid that he would talk down to her. So why did his words weigh on her so heavily that she was fighting the heavy air to flee them?

Could it be that to be called beautiful was to be defined all over again? And this time not for anything she had done, like make the honor roll. To accept being beautiful just as she was losing her status as “high achiever with bright future” felt like accepting Aunt Shirley’s vision of her worth in the world. For years her love of finding and making pictures had taken a back seat to her desire to fulfill that second definition. Now was not the time to be anyone else’s Gloria; now was the time to make herself into the Gloria she wanted to be.

She saw a flash of yellow through the trees. Even the algae’s rotting in this heat, she thought. But, following the path down towards a clearing at the water’s edge, she was halted by the truth. Tiny yellow flowers stood tiptoe on the lily pads that lined the shore. If this were a Romantic-era painting, she thought as Carl came up besides her, it would have been the perfect spot for two figures to meet in a kiss.

Carl looked from her to the lilies and seemed to see it too. His eyes were so wide they rose above his square glasses, and sweat streamed from their corners like tears. For a moment, Gloria felt a surge of power. Here he was, on his way to sure success, placing his happiness in the hands of his disappointing formal rival. And why shouldn’t I enjoy it? She thought. Why should he get to make me feel guilty just because he’s suddenly decided I’m beautiful? But then she remembered the little boy with the too-big glasses, and she was only sad.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m just not ready to be loved.”

Last Stop—Over Scummy Water

Keep walking left around the lake on the concrete path. Follow the path right into the trees and continue left on a dirt road. When you see a bridge to your right, turn towards it and stop at its center. To exit the park, continue across the bridge. When you see a picnic hut, turn left towards it and continue past it until you come to a set of stairs. Descend the stairs onto the street. Cross and exit onto Ocean Avenue

They walked the last leg through the trees in silence. The lake now was only a thin green ribbon of algae. Gloria tried to find an explanation she could offer out of everything she’d thought while running. It reminded her, uncannily, of searching a page of brainstorming for a thesis statement. When she found it, the feeling of triumph was the same too. They were out of the trees now, halfway over the bridge that led out of the shaded path and towards the park exit.

She paused and said, “I have to figure out how to really be myself before I can be somebody else’s.

“And there’s no chance we can figure it out together?” he asked.

“We’ve known each other too long. We’ll always see each other as who we were.  I can’t be held to that person now.”

“So,” he asked, “Can we still do this? Same time next week?”

“I’d like that, if you’re not mad…”

Finally, the line of his serious face curved upward into an eighth of a forced smile. “What could I expect?” he asked. “Since third grade you’ve never let me win.”

They leaned against the rail of the bridge and looked out. The lake here was covered in algae, but it was a lovely color for scum—the sea green of her favorite crayon in the Crayola box. It would have been another perfect place for a kiss, only it was so hot and their faces so wet with the work of forward motion, it would have been hard to tell saliva from sweat and lips from chin.