After returning a few books to one of my favorite libraries in the city (Jefferson Market on Sixth Avenue; it has these beautiful stained glass windows, and a turret!), I decided to go for a walk downtown towards the Village and Tribeca. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and as of that moment, I had no real plans to do anything or go anywhere. It had just stopped raining, and the sun was beginning to peak through the clouds. I started heading south on Sixth Avenue not sure of my destination, but rather in want of a nice journey in getting there.
I came to where Sixth intersects Carmine Street and stopped. In front of me was the most charming little square of a park with a fountain and trees. In the background, the tall steeple of a church was visible over the treeline, and for half a second, I was able to convince myself I was in Italy rather than New York. I had been to this park once before, but had nearly forgotten it as I’m never in this part of the city very frequently.
Father Demo Square: a piazza in the midst of the West Village.
The last time I had been here, it had been a chilly, grey day in the winter. All the trees were barren, the fountain empty. Snow dotted the tops of the benches and the iron railings surrounding the park. The only constant between that winter’s day and this decidedly summer-like one was the endless bicycles locked to the railings on all the sides of the park.
With the fountain bubbling and gurgling on this warmer day towards the end of May, I decided to sit for a while and enjoy its relaxing sounds. I chose a bench on the Carmine Street side of the square, under the canopy of leafy, green trees. I closed my eyes for a second, still trying to convince myself I was in Europe instead, and that’s when I heard him. A voice nimbly accompanying the strums of an acoustic guitar.
I quickly opened my eyes and glanced over to my right. There, with just a long, empty wooden bench in between us, was the most beautiful (and I choose that word instead of handsome, because his features were more delicate than jarring) twentysomething boy with a beanie on his head and a guitar in his long-fingered hands. He radiated Greenwich Village stereotypes, and yet he was unique somehow. We made eye contact for a second, and then both looked away as if we realized we were invading each other’s privacy in a very public space.
Now, he really started to play and sing, his voice confident but not imposing. It took me a second to realize what song he had chosen, because he was playing it as if he were Django Reinhardt, all French-style jazz guitar. Was I in Italy or France now? (No, I was still in New York, but this City can change its skin faster than Mystique in X-Men.) Cole Porter. “Blue Skies.” It totally surprised and delighted me that this beautiful boy would choose the Great American Songbook rather than Bob Dylan or Simon & Garfunkel, which would have been more obvious were we basing our decision on appearance.
And there was something about the way he was making this old song his own that delighted me too; it felt new. The casualness of it all, the way his voice scatted around the notes was downright sexy; it was like he wasn’t even trying. I looked over at him and realized there was no tip jar out, no expectation of getting money for his troubadour-ing. This was purely for pleasure, whose I’m not sure, but I certainly shared in the sensation. I realized too I was harmonizing along with him, not loud enough for him to really hear, but I’d like to think he did, because we locked eyes again for a second. I felt like he was playing just for himself and me in a way. In my head, we were entangled in a duet, and only we knew it.
I turned back toward the fountain, and a small smile crept over my lips. I was having one of those classic “I love New York” moments, but it was more than that. How could I have forgotten that art is chiefly about passion and pleasure? I’ve been spending so much time in my almost three years in New York trying to figure out how to make money from my art that most of the pleasure has been sucked right out of the whole process. This beautiful hipster boy with his guitar felt so good to my ears and my heart and my soul. I know it sounds like one cliché after another, but sharing in his apparent pleasure stemming from his art made me happier than I’ve been in quite a long time. He was having a journey that day too, albeit an artistic one, without the need for knowing the destination or even having one. Art for art’s sake. Pleasure for pleasure’s sake. I needed to find those things again for myself.
He switched gears into something mellower, more soulful. He would stop every so often, fiddling with a different chord until he found one he liked, and would continue on. I pulled out my journal and began writing, hoping to remember some of this moment for later, and I felt him glance over at me ever so briefly as my head was engrossed in my scribbling. I wanted to say “hello” but I felt like it would break the magical spell, and I wanted that spell to last for as long as possible. Music is one of the few real magical things in this world, and I wasn’t about to ruin such a delicate thing as this. I was trying to savor it, not knowing if I would ever see this soulful troubadour again (but secretly hoping I would).
A minute or two later, a man came and sat on the empty bench in between us, and the illusion was shattered. Beautiful Guitar Boy noodled around a minute or two more before packing up his instrument and silencing his voice. I felt desperate all of a sudden. Don’t go, don’t go, please don’t go, I thought to myself as he stood up from his bench, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag, surveying the park. I had had a taste of his music, his pleasure, and I wanted more. I kept my eyes down on my journal, but I longed for his voice in my ears so much I glanced back over at him just in time to see him flick his cigarette to the ground and carefully sling his guitar case over his back.
He started walking in my direction, and I got excited for a half second thinking he was coming over to say hello and ask me to run away with him to Paris where we’d sing on cobblestone street corners and live on baguettes and red wine and cigarettes just like something out of a Truffaut or Goddard film. But he passed me by, his cool, lanky figure leaving the park and walking up Sixth Avenue to some unknown destination and possibly chic, artsy girlfriend (or boyfriend…who knows anymore?), and I felt sad to be losing him and his music. For a brief interlude, they both had brought me such happiness, such sheer delight in art and music and life, and now I would probably never see him again. But I had felt something stir in me that I thought I had been dulled by too many hard things in life, and it gave me hope.
Alas, parting is such sweet sorrow.
And so I too decided I needed to move on, and casting an affectionate glance at the bench my beautiful, mystery troubadour had just occupied, I thoughtfully strolled out of the park and in the direction of the sun, hoping its illumination might also enlighten my mind and heart.