On my way from J Street to Bushton Avenue, I passed a man in vanilla pants. A bouquet of chest hair bloomed out from the V of his flannel shirt and curled neatly up below his spackled chin and rhubarb lips. He stopped me with a gesture and a gentle hand. I expected him to ask for money or try foisting upon me some baffling new religion, but he said nothing at all. I stopped and lingered in the timelessness of his arresting smile, rooted to the sidewalk, transfixed in the moment.
I’d been in the city four days. Escaping an upstate melancholy on a quest for the quaint urban mystery, I suppose. All the brochures agreed that Bushton was the place to be, where it all went down—whatever it happened to be. According to one guide I had picked up at the airport, Bushton Avenue epitomized “the cultural heart of the people” and “the crossroads of history and innovation.” I was in a hurry to get there, and I’m not exactly sure why I stopped for the man in vanilla pants. It’s possible that I felt an interaction with a local might inspire my path to cultural experience, to connect me forever with the city.
So I waited. He would make the first move, not I. A light drizzle permeated the sheetrock sky. His eyes rolled up as if to recall the pattern on an antique vase. At last he leaned to the side of me as if it were I who barred his path and not the other way around. He pointed down the street from where I’d just come, and in a voice that vacillated often between loud and soft, edgy and fluid, piqued and drab, he spoke:
“It’s fastest if you backtrack to the subway. Then take a left and follow forty-first some six or seven blocks. You’ll pass a group of street performers on the corner and come to a small stone chapel on the left. If the red doors are open, take another left; if they’re closed, take a right. Cross the bridge and mind the lilies. Here the clouds may part or you may feel warmth on your face or you may see a bride and groom in wedding clothes buying hot dogs from a street cart. A quarter mile more and you’ll reach a lamppost growin’ right through a public letterbox. Follow the lantern’s arm for two blocks, turn around and come back on the opposite side of the street until you reach a lowered fire escape. Climb up three flights to a roof covered in pitch and wires and skylights and chimneys and broken antennas. Look for an orange bucket. It’ll be full of little toy animals. Pick any one you want and put it in your pocket. Head back down to the street and wait for the first bus. Four men and a young girl will get off and go off in all directions. Follow the man who most resembles the animal you chose. Are you remembering all this? Do you need me to start again? Soon you’ll see an old Chinese sailor dragging his goat down middle of the road. A child will let go of a purple balloon. Cross when the light turns red: don’t worry, no car has ever driven that street. Take a left at the next sidewalk musician, walk until you hear glass breaking and see a cloud pass over the face of the sun. Another left, a right, one more left, and you’ll go by a bakery that reminds you of your first love and why you lost her. Now look for an open window with an oil lamp burning on the sill. Listen for soft music. If the music doesn’t please you just pass on by. There’s always more windows and more lamps. Go right on up the concrete steps, turn a silver handle, and find yourself in a darkened hall. A woman in a raincoat will lead you to a window facing the bay where you will see a red shadow fall upon a nest of sleeping gulls. Here the ferries come and go about the port, and across the water you’ll think you see a strange light.”
The man in vanilla pants cleared his throat. Behind us a street vendor clouded his fruit in spray bottle mist. I felt like one perched atop a hundred stone steps, trying to find the last ancient well among a sea of Mediterranean rooftops. Had I asked the man for directions without realizing it? Or perhaps he mistook me for someone else. I was already forgetting the words he’d said, but somehow I felt that were I to begin with his first instruction, all of the others would occur to me in turn.
And yet, I was bound for Bushton. I stood mere blocks away from the cultural heart of the people, only moments from the crossroads of history and innovation. I pulled out my wallet intending to offer the man some money and make a gracious getaway, but by the time I looked up he was already engaged with the fruit stand, testing the firmness of plums. I stepped around him and went straight on.
Once to Bushton I slipped into the thick crowd of the markets, the smells of roasting meat and baking bread, the murmurs and melody of pinball alleyways, the clatter of aluminum and tin, the stutter of the fickle storm. I brushed against a hundred shoulders but no one said a word to me. I followed the street down under the bridge and I stared over the bay toward a distant waterfront lane of old apartments, whose rooftops tangled in antennas and razor wire. I bought a few trinkets from the vendors along the shoal where the ferries came and went. No balloons slipped through the mortar of ubiquitous jasmine clouds, and no soft music played under the glow of an iron lamppost, and the sun did not set for some time.
originally published in The Medulla Review