One day he saw something moving among the trash bags on a Washington Square side walk.
A rat, he thought.
Then he noticed a black arm.
He was moving.
Actually, it looked like two men. They were moving slowly, one on top of the other.
No, one was a woman. They were two bums making love among the black and white plastic bags, without screams nor hurry.
Shambled in banana peels and milk cans, these two people below the threshold of that word, “human”, were enacting the most essentially human act of all.
It unsettled him.
As did their freedom.
How easy it might be, one fine spring day, to no longer have to yell out buy and sell stocks. No more smiling, no more backstabbing. No more silent mental armies raised and deployed against those who threaten to steal your promotion or your raise. Living on left-overs, sleeping on air con grids outside the granite scrapers, playing in the park, begging on Fifth Avenue like a bad footnote to the luxury shops, face dark with filth, hand permanently extended.
When these thoughts surfaced in his mind, he felt the same sensation he’d once had on the Guggenheim Museum spiral walk. Leaning over the low white balustrade, he felt the void pulling him, asking him to jump.
This is why he would never give, not even a cent, to charity.
He didn’t want to fall.
“Spare change?” asked one bum.
It was fear of abandonment to this void that kept him away from the soiled paper cups of the homeless, that kept the coins solidly nested in the pockets of his bespoke suits.
To get lost in these thoughts was to grow even more frightened of falling, and to stiffen his resolve against giving even a dime to the many bums of his future It was to feel his his eyebrows arch with even more hauteur, his top lip curl downwards until it nearly reached the tip of his nose, and an old, stern look settle over his face.
Or so it seemed to him, beholding himself in a passing store mirror.
He almost didn’t recognize himself, the first time he saw that face. It was his New Yorker face, with the hardening of the eyes and the contracted lower half. It was the face of subway survival, of passage through the little badly lit streets, of push-back against the constant beseeching stare of other people who constantly wanted something from him.
It was a useful face. Actually indispensable, he thought. The problem was the way it crept up on you, this face. It grew on you like mold. It hardened on your bones and then you couldn’t scrape it off no matter how hard you tried..
Sitting in Washington Square Park. The arc of his life had been a steady upwards climb to distinction. Wasn’t success exactly the result of one’s capacity to control those silly humanitarian impulses that ruined others? That facile compassion that fatally distracted men from the hard choices made en route to the top?
Not him. His rise had been vertical and most of all fast. He’d not le himself be distracted, not even by a wife or family.
The bench was cold, he suddenly realized. But where was he? Oh yes, he was asking himself if destiny comes about regardless of one’s fears or if it isn’t rather fears themselves who shape destiny?
He stretched out his empty hand.
The cold deepened on his legs.
He touched his New Yorker face.
His stare lifted from his torn shoes, the dirty and shredded trousers, and beseechingly up into the faces of passersby as he asked:
(© Carlo Pizzati 2012)
translated from “Il passo che cerchi” short stories and photographs (Edelweiss 2012)