Not everyone can afford to adopt a Central Park bench and personalize it with a plaque, but it costs nothing to sit on one. My favorite bench, near Conservatory Water, is inscribed with “Tell Me Something You Promised You Wouldn’t Tell” and dedicated to a woman named Helen, who lived for nearly a century. Helen must have been either very rich or very loved, perhaps both, because several benches bear her name or initials, along with snippets of poems, such as “Hushing my deepest grief of all / And filled with tears that cannot fall,” a bastardization of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous lines for his dead friend. I think of tears that cannot fall, how much it hurts to hold them back, to dam up all that grief. A few weeks after the towers fell, I dreamed that thousands of New Yorkers were kneeling beside the Hudson River, our fingers plugging up holes in a dike that was about to break.
Since all of Helen’s benches are taken this morning, and since I prefer to sit undisturbed, with my notebook and pen, I have no choice but to take up residence on the one empty bench left, near the concession stand. “Best Mom,” the inscription reads. My husband waves from across the pond; his miniature sailboat, a modest boat by Central Park standards, is holding its own. Donald bought it secondhand several years ago, not long after we’d moved to the city, and he added a yellow ducky decal to get kids’ attention so they’d grab their fathers’ hands and tug them away from the Sunday Times. Though we’re decades past the possibility of having children of our own, Donald remains a kind of Pied Piper for little girls and boys. They will follow him anywhere.
I wave back to him and settle onto the bench. Here in Conservatory Water (I once mistyped it as “Conversatory Water,” which is absolutely what I’m trying to avoid, conversing) all the benches face the pond. It’s a relaxing view. Unlike on the subway, where you’re forced to look either down into your lap or into the eyes of the commuter across from you, here your gaze can rest on the remote-controlled sailboats tacking into the late-June wind, or on the birders with their binoculars and tripod telescopes trained on spots high in the buildings and trees. I take my notebook from my bag. It’s been months since a poem seized me, but this morning I felt a slight stirring, a breeze ruffling the edges of sleep, a dream of Caribou Man. Not that the legendary Inuit would pay me a personal visit, cynic that I am and skeptic of all things ghostly. Still, ever since my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian last week, Caribou Man has been loitering in the shadows of my thoughts.
I hear the squeak of wheels and sense a presence in my periphery, a large-bodied someone approaching my bench. Usually it’s best not to acknowledge a stranger: you might get a talker. Plus, this stranger has a peculiar odor — not a stench exactly, but a musty, used-up smell. The bench vibrates as the person sits down. I hear some clicking, a beep or two, and then a distant, automated female voice: “What listing?”
“D’Agostino’s on 76th and Lexington,” answers the deep, gruff voice beside me.
“We’re sorry, but we show no listing —”
“I will keep interrupting until I get a real person,” the gruff voice says.
“We’re sorry, but we show no listing —”
“I will keep interrupting until I get a real person.” He does not raise his voice or seem the least bit flustered, just patiently insistent. This could go on all morning.
I sense that he is looking at me. “You can’t even get a number from directory service,” he says. So far I’ve glimpsed only bare ankles and badly scuffed leather loafers, probably Italian, the kind my husband sometimes tries on in stores then denies himself. “You pay for the service, and you can’t get a number.”
I should turn toward him, to see what I’ve gotten myself into, and also to prove that I am a real person. But instead I return to my notebook and Caribou Man. Depending on which legend you buy into, a Naskapi tribesman was visited in a dream by a caribou doe that beckoned to him, and because dreams trump waking life in Naskapi culture, the tribesman followed her. But unlike the speaker of Walt Whitman’s poem, who only imagined “I could turn and live with animals,” the tribesman actually did it. He joined the herd, covering himself in caribou hides, grazing on moss alongside his adopted brothers, and sleeping close to them at night. One legend says he left because his wife claimed he was a rotten husband; in another version his human wife and son track him across the snow, losing his trail when his footprints morph into hoofprints. Believers in the myth claim Caribou Man is still wandering.
The man on the bench won’t give up. He dials and speaks, dials and speaks. I have to admire his persistence. I look up from my notebook. “It is frustrating,” I say, “to get a machine.” That’s when I see his cut-off — or, more precisely, rip-off — khakis, frayed at the bottoms. He wears a white dress shirt buttoned all the way up, with a tie clip of Kermit the Frog attached to the collar. A once elegant dinner jacket completes the ensemble — no, not quite completes, I see now, as my eyes take in a speckled gray pigeon perched on the man’s shoulder.
“I might have the spelling wrong,” he says. He asks me how to spell D’Agostino’s. I know the grocery chain, but I’ve never shopped there. We tease it out for a while: Is the D followed by an A or an O? And where does the apostrophe go? Is that Italian mark even called an apostrophe?
The man stands and walks behind the bench. The pigeon does not budge. Is it Velcroed to his shoulder? Wheels squeak, and a shopping cart emerges, overflowing with clothes, shoes, a toaster, a vintage adding machine. I look away so he won’t catch me staring. He rummages in the cart.
“I should have saved my last receipt,” he says. “I don’t beg, you understand. But I do get hungry. I have to eat. A lot. Every day.” His hand is still in the cart, foraging. “They put the phone number on the receipt, you know.”
“You could write the number down and carry it with you,” I say. “For the next time.”
“That’s a great idea,” he says. His hands disappear into the cart again, and he pulls out a notebook almost identical to mine. He and the Velcroed pigeon return to the bench, where the man opens the notebook and flips through a few pages until he comes to a list — handwritten, with clear, beautiful penmanship, the kind you hardly ever see anymore. It occurs to me that this strange, pungent-smelling man has a history. He was a schoolboy once. Some teacher or mother or father stood beside him, perhaps guiding his hand to show him how to form the letters — his letters: that’s the way teachers used to say it. “Rebecca needs help in forming her letters,” my first-grade teacher wrote in a report-card note to my mother, as if the letters belonged only to me, as if only I could bring them to life.
I make out a few names beside phone numbers on the man’s list: “Chase Manhattan,” “Greyhound,” “Amtrak (Julie).” I know Amtrak Julie. I call her now and then to check on trains. The real Julie was on Jeopardy! once, and it felt strange to see a body attached to the familiar voice. Maybe my benchmate doesn’t know Amtrak Julie is a recording. Maybe he calls her just to hear her voice, so warm and perky, reassuring and polite. She’d probably let you talk until you wore yourself out.
“I would have done anything to save you,” reads one of four benches on the north side of the pond. Three of the four are dedicated to a young woman named Katarina (1983–2002), found dead on the eleventh-floor landing of a high-rise apartment building infamous for its wild parties. How high we fly when we are young, sure we will never fall — or, if we do, that the wind will catch us, lift us back to a safe perch. I hope those were Katarina’s last thoughts, and the last thoughts of the dozens of human birds who sailed out smoke-choked windows just months before her death.
Katarina’s bench is the standard Adopt-a-Bench style. Price: $7,500. I know because I did the research a few years ago, right before my cancer surgery. I’d been advised to update my will, to give Donald power of attorney in case something “unexpected” occurred while I was on the table. At the lawyer’s office I seriously contemplated adding a bench adoption to my will. When you consider that the cost covers maintenance for as long as the park survives (a strange thought, isn’t it, that a park could ever die?), $7,500 isn’t an exorbitant price. I got as far as the adoption form, hesitating only at the inscription line. The problem is, whatever inscription you choose lasts forever, like a tattoo, only more permanent, because a tattoo can be removed. Finally I decided against a bench. I don’t even want to decide what to carve on my headstone. Leave that to my survivors.
The wind has picked up, and Donald’s boat is struggling, its sail listing deeply. Across the pond kids are climbing on the Hans Christian Andersen statue. The bronze storyteller holds a giant copy of The Ugly Duckling as the duckling himself gazes up in admiration. Nearby the birders are aiming their telescopes toward the twelfth-floor balcony of 927 Fifth Avenue in hopes of catching a glimpse of the red-tailed hawk known as Pale Male — in the act of conjugal passion, perhaps, or a morning meal of fresh rat. I’ve always thought it strange that the hawk could find so many rats in such a fancy neighborhood, but I guess there are plenty to go around. Pigeons, too.
I’ve spotted Pale Male only once, swooping across the model-boat pond, his unusually light-colored feathers a Sunday miracle cheered by onlookers. I’ve seen screech owls, too, and once a Cooper’s hawk, but the red-tailed is the king.
“Enjoy the fake nature!” a Birkenstocked, backpacking woman once shouted at me as I was entering the park and she was exiting. Had she been expecting the Grand Tetons or something? I wanted to shout back, The rocks aren’t fake. Have you sat on one? They’re real glacial outcroppings, some of them. Sure, they were brought here, but they’re still ancient, as ancient as they’d be anywhere else. The raccoons are real too, and the opossums and cottontails and squirrels. And if that coyote strolls through again, don’t pet him, OK? What did she expect? Olmsted and Vaux did the best they could to create a wild place in the center of civilization — or a civilization in the midst of all the wildness, which is how Central Park has always felt to me.
My seatmate has been quiet for too long. Did he give up on directory assistance? Have I hurt his feelings by not engaging him? The pigeon is still there, head bobbing, wings tucked in. It doesn’t coo, but now and then a burbling sound erupts from its throat, like a soft engine starting up in the distance. The man nods, as if he understands what the pigeon is saying.
“How long have you had the pigeon?” I ask.
“Seven nights,” he says, and he’s off and running, words tumbling ahead of him while he chases after. He was playing guitar outside the Met — he’s a musician — and the rain started, and she swooped down and landed on his shoulder and just stayed. “Just like Baby,” he says, pointing behind the bench.
I turn to see a strange-looking dog — a Welsh corgi? No, my brother has a corgi, but this dog looks more like a . . .
“Half German shepherd, half dachshund,” the man says, as if to answer my furrowed brow. “I got him in California. People laugh me out of the park when I say that, the thought that those two breeds could ever get together. . . .”
I try to picture the gymnastics of such a coupling, but can get only so far. But I suppose there are even stranger couplings. Avid birders in the park swear they once saw a tufted titmouse sitting on the rump of a raccoon, plucking fur to use in its nest. The raccoon just sat there and let the bird do it.
Studying the dog closer, I don’t doubt the man’s story: the large face, the big ears, the squat legs, the long torso. I ask him how old Baby is.
“Seven months yesterday,” he tells me. “Born on Thanksgiving Day.” He celebrates every month, does something special for her, like dog treats from D’Agostino’s. “D’Agostino’s is the best. They deliver. Costs ten more dollars, but it’s worth it. They’re good about bringing it right to my cart.”
“That’s great,” I say, thinking, How in the world can he afford it? He must sleep in the park, maybe in the isolated woods near the old fort.
“I celebrate her birthday every month, because who knows how long she will last. Maybe it’s for me, the celebration. Just something small. To mark the occasion.”
A bench. He needs to adopt a bench for Baby so that her name can live on, like the names of the dogs on so many park benches: Biscuit, Truffle, Daisy, Earl the Pearl. I close my notebook, having given up on Caribou Man for today. Lots of people are out, real live people, and the kids are lining up at the telescope to catch a glimpse of Pale Male. A little girl has escaped from her mother’s lap and is climbing onto the Ugly Duckling, hugging his neck so tightly she’d strangle him if he were real.
Of course the little girl knows he isn’t real. But she might not know that the Ugly Duckling wasn’t a duckling at all. He was a swanling whose egg had accidentally found its way into a mother duck’s nest. I used to wonder why the sculptor commemorated the opening of the book rather than the end. Wouldn’t most viewers prefer a beautiful swan to a homely swanling? Then it came to me: The point of Andersen’s story isn’t some Disneyesque miracle — voilà, you’re a swan, and now you can soar with the others above your troubled life! — but rather the history of the bird’s longing, his journey of loneliness, the long, dark winter when he wandered, lost between worlds, letting out a cry so high that it terrified him with its strangeness, until his pulsing heart could take no more, and he called, “Kill me!” to the beautiful swans swooping toward him, fully expecting, wanting to die. And as he bent his head to accept what would come, he saw his reflection in the water, white and shining. The rest of the story is merely a happy ending, like all happy endings.
“Lady,” the man says, so quietly it is almost a whisper. I turn to him. He is silent for a while, looking around as if he suspects someone might be spying on him — on us — as if we have a secret to keep. “Look. I want to show you something.” He opens his jacket, and I see its fine lining. Someone paid a lot for this jacket once upon a time. Maybe the man himself did, in one of his earlier lives.
“Beautiful,” I say. “They don’t make linings like that anymore. Is it silk?”
“No, not that,” he says. “Look closer. See?”
I lean toward him but can see nothing except a few scruffy feathers peeking from the inside pocket of the jacket. He lowers his voice even more, and I have to move closer to hear him. Yesterday, he tells me, as he was playing his guitar in front of the Met, some kids pointed to something on the sidewalk beneath a canopy of trees. A baby bird, they told him, had fallen from a tree. At first he didn’t believe them. “Kids will say anything to a person like me,” he says. But as he got closer to the sidewalk, he saw that they were telling the truth.
I ask if he was afraid to touch it, because some people say that if you touch a baby bird, the mother will reject it once she catches your scent. He answers that no, he wasn’t afraid — and, by the way, that’s a myth about the mother — but he waited around awhile anyway, just to be sure the mother wouldn’t return.
It must not be a fledgling, ready to leave the nest; it must still be a nestling. A baby bird fallen from so high will certainly not last long. The man leans back on the bench and, as if sensing my thoughts, says, “So I thought, why not just put her here?”
A winged shadow — a Canada goose, or maybe Pale Male himself — passes over us, but I don’t look up. The pigeon is still positioned firmly on the man’s shoulder, pivoting its head nervously, as if sensing danger. Baby, the birthday dog, drowses beneath the shopping cart, his chest rising and falling with each breath. “I’m letting her go quietly,” the man whispers, “in a soft place.” He slips his hand inside his jacket, over the silk-lined pocket. I imagine the warmth filling his hand, the urgent hammering of the bird’s heart against his chest.