Through the mist, Washington, DC’s stately lamp-lit brownstones and tree-lined streets could have been Paris — I was far from the wild woods, tilled acres, and sturdy farmhouses of my rural childhood. With a fluttering in my ribcage, I felt giddy going outside into the night, alone with my umbrella. When the mist changed to pouring rain, I hurried inside Café Vesuvius, its lights aglow through the gloom. It wasn’t a café at all, but a cheap deli with wide slices of greasy pizza for a dollar. Other people with real lives conversed in booths while I settled onto a lonely stool by the long windows and looked out. Rain streaked golden past the streetlamps and formed deep black puddles along the curb. A man in a suit leapt from the sidewalk into a waiting taxi at the corner of Q Street. A couple strolled – arm in arm – through my view. My life felt awash in impermanence: from my twin mattress on the floor of a shared basement apartment to my first full-time job, everything felt makeshift and temporary. But beneath my loneliness a live wire of anticipation buzzed.
The day I found the chess players I’d been wandering, not exactly lost but aimless. With spring’s first warm breeze the cherry blossoms just popped. I walked down Connecticut Avenue past El Tomate, Café Vesuvius, and Kramerbooks and into the park at Dupont Circle. Beech trees arched over the sidewalk and the chess tables lining its inside edge. It was 1995 and I’d lived in Washington, D.C. for eight months before I noticed the chess players stooped over their pieces, tapping time clocks to a stop, small crowds watching their every move.
I paused at one of the tables. Mid-game, a Latino man smiled and offered to teach me, but I demurred. I knew how the pieces moved, and I wasn’t there to play chess. I sat down on a nearby park bench and looked around. The trees unfurled tiny new leaves the color of granny smith apples, and chickadees hopped around pecking at seeds and crumbs. A steady flow of cars whirred through the traffic circle surrounding the park. I heard pawns moved and traded, and the banter of the gamblers. The men seated around one table laughed as a player teased his opponent. “Hey, Smokey, what you doin’ there? There? You want to move there? Why? What’s there? … Move! Move! Move, muthafucka! I’m going to beat yer ass outta there — boom! … There? Boom! … Bada Bada Boom!” Amused, I pulled out a notebook and scribbled this down. A stout man with graying hair plopped down next to me on the bench and announced, “I am Dmitrios from Bolivia.” With a wide jack-o-lantern grin, he asked who I was, what I was doing there, and what I was writing in my book. “Maybe you work for the CIA,” he said with a laugh.
If only, I thought. My days passed inside a gray cubicle among other gray cubicles, bordered by the sunlit offices of program directors and managers at one of the capital’s abundant non-profit organizations. I hated it. I believed that I needed to live in a city to become a real writer, but I wound up with rent to pay and no idea what to do next. I was doing what I thought adults were supposed to do: leave home, find a job, and make your own way in the world. Plunged into a sea of polished young professionals, I was asked, “Who do you know and what do you do?” but I had no connections, knew only my roommate, and hadn’t wanted help.
In my hometown, girls with brains and ambition strived to become teachers, nurses, secretaries… wanting to be a writer was as absurd as saying you wanted to visit the moon. But whether I became a writer or not, I was determined to get out. So much so, religious folks (and they were all religious folks) would say the Devil rode my heels. Of my small cluster of friends who dreamed with me of an apartment in a city, a job, and money of our own, one got pregnant and left school in the tenth grade. Others dropped out. My best friend from middle school married within six months of our high school graduation and bore her first child two months later. I returned home after college to find her and her husband with three kids and jobs at a paint factory. I couldn’t imagine it. I still felt like a child myself, but with a square piece of parchment declaring I was educated.
Nearly a half-century earlier, in the mid-1940s, my uncle left my grandparents’ farm at sixteen to study engineering at Michigan State. The first-born son, and exceptionally intelligent, Ward’s destiny signaled greater things than farming. When my mother graduated high school, the college catalogs sat untouched on the kitchen table; my grandparents simply ignored them, said nothing. She earned high marks, but she was a girl; they couldn’t afford her tuition—ninety dollars per term—and she knew it. Her parents expected her to find work, marry, raise a family of her own, and take care of them in their old age. Nothing more. Nothing less.
At the end of my junior year in high school Uncle Ward asked if I would want to work as his secretary for the summer, staying with him and his wife in Connecticut. I’d type and organize the files in his home office, and he would pay me $10 an hour. I’d gotten a job as a grocery bagger at Meijer’s in Grand Rapids, an hour’s drive from our farm, for the minimum wage of $3.35 an hour but hadn’t started yet. Although nervous and uncertain, I seized the opportunity to work for my uncle. To get away from my hometown and my parents for three months, I would’ve gone anywhere.
One evening after dinner, Ward placed a chessboard in front of me at the table. He pushed up his thick black glasses, selected a chess piece, and said, “This is a knight and it moves like so,” sliding it around the board. As I remember it, he explained nothing about strategies, openings, or the endgame. He showed me the movements of each piece and proceeded to trounce me every single time we played. Rather than a game, it felt like a test I couldn’t pass. When he and my aunt took me to New York City for the first time, she gamely wandered every record shop and bookstore in Greenwich Village with me; Uncle Ward whiled away the afternoon playing game after game of chess in Washington Square Park.
Now in Dupont Circle, I noticed jackets, shoes, and plastic bags stuffed with belongings hanging discreetly from the trees. Rolled-up sleeping bags rested among the branches, stowed for nightfall. The highest ranked chess master in the park, Tom, was homeless. So were Dmitrios, and several of the other players he introduced to me. They spent nearly every day at the chess tables and looked out for one another.
Not homeless, but alone, I started hanging out in the park by the chess tables on weekends, then every day, over lunch or after work until the sun dropped behind the flag-draped embassies on Massachusetts Avenue. It was a place to be, to watch the city hum like a crazy hive around me, to feel I belonged. I read books, talked to the chess players, and wrote about what was going on around me, asking questions: where were they from, how did they end up playing chess in this park? Maybe Dmitrios was right; I was a spy.
On a typical Saturday morning, Dmitrios sits in the sun saving a table. His friend Sergio stops and chats for a moment before claiming the neighboring table, unrolling his green and tan checkered mat and lining up the chess pieces. Tom stakes out another spot and plays against himself, one strategy versus another, until the first customers arrive. Before noon, all of the tables are filled and the park is alive with the sounds of chess clocks clicking to a stop with each move and gamblers trash-talking. Dmitrios might play game after game all day long or sell his table to another player for easy cash.
Before a game of speed chess begins, the two players determine the odds, the amount of time on each side of the clock, and the bet. “You are a master; we cannot play for the same time!” Sergio complains to Pasov, a short graying man with a Russian accent. “I have not won a single game with you this month,” Pasov counters with a sly grin. After they settle on the terms, the first pawn is moved and the clock tapped to start the opponent’s time.
The crowd stands around debating Tom’s moves as he goes on to win each game. With shaggy brown hair and unkempt beard, he collects fives or tens, a twenty, from his opponents. Brown pants sag off his butt and a dirty white t-shirt is stretched tight across his bulging stomach. He keeps a close watch on the duffle bag at his feet. Tom tells me only that he is from California. His friend Don speaks with a Bal’more accent. A Black Vietnam vet, Don tells me I share his mother’s name and by his voice alone I know he loved her.
Sparrows flit from breadcrumb to apple core to cigarette butt. I watch them hop lightly around sharp shards of green and brown glass, and clean their feathers in the fine dirt.
At the center of the park stands a white marble fountain with three carved human figures representing the sea, the stars, and the wind. Above their heads, a shallow bowl spills water into the basin below their feet. I’m drawn to the waves and gales made manifest by their postures, I too feel buffeted by invisible tempests, lost at sea.
My mother must be worried about me; she sends me a book, How to Make Friends. After happy hours and parties with workmates and their friends, and numerous conversations about work or men or movies, the hours alone outnumber the rest.
Sergio tells me he is forty-two and from Tacna, Peru. He puffs out his chest as he says it, proud of his heritage. When I return to my apartment at night, I trace my fingers down the western coast of South America on the world map taped to my wall. There is Tacna, a small black pinpoint at the southernmost tip of Peru.
At age nine or ten I began to watch our blue metal mailbox, rural route #1, for postcards from Uncle Ward. His notes were never personal, often merely puns scrawled in his slanted southpaw print, but the foreign stamps and images of places he’d traveled—France, Romania, China, Brazil—awakened something in me. Evidence of the outside world, the postcards broke open my sheltered existence on the farm.
“Hey, Crazy! Come here.” Joe Isaac tugs on the arm of a chess player. The others glance up and quickly look away, hoping he won’t bother them next. Sergio says Joe’s crazy and I should avoid him, but he seems harmless. Joe Isaac is a small trim man with reddish-brown skin and wiry white hair that sticks out from his head at odd angles. He tells me he was born in Papua, New Guinea but raised in the Netherlands and has visited almost every continent. He lists all the languages he speaks fluently and I can’t help but feel provincial. One day I watched him join a group of Belgian tourists on the sidewalk and switch between French, Dutch, and German languages to converse.
Over the long Fourth of July weekend most of the tables sit empty as the chess players travel to Philadelphia for the World Open. I wonder if the U.S. Chess Federation has any idea how many of its members are homeless. At the conference hotel, some split rooms between four or six or more while others sleep on couches in the lobby or stay up all night playing game after game. They pile into friends’ cars or travel by bus. Tom walked 136 miles back from Philadelphia. He returned to the park weeks later, haggard, troubled.
Dmitrios likes to tell me his dreams. “I dreamed Sergio had a black spot on his chest,” he says, his hands forming a tight circle between heart and lungs. “Either he’s sick or he lost the World Open,” Dmitrios insists. When Sergio returned, I learned he had lost, just missing the $10,000 prize for his ranking.
When Milko, another park regular, loses a game, he pounds his fists on the table and roars. His light blue eyes roll upward and search the sky for any sign of a god. He sighs, takes a breath, and sets up the pieces again.
Dmitrios introduces me to Toby, whom he’s nicknamed “Too Tall.” At six-foot-six, Toby towers over the other chess players, but he’s lanky and his shoulders slump. We’ve just met and are playing a friendly game when a man confronts him demanding money. The man quickly gets angry; his fists ready to brawl. Toby’s eyes widen and he starts to wheeze. He takes a step backward and raises his palms in front of his chest and I imagine him as a boy, a soft-spoken target on the playground. He begins to cough and wheeze, folding forward like he’s bowing. The man walks away disgusted while Toby sits down, his face red and strained, trying to catch a single breath. I don’t know what to say.
A Salvadoreño in paint-dribbled canvas pants watches me from the chess tables. He’s attractive, and we’ve talked a few times. Through his halting English, I grasp he’s asking me for a date. One night, I invite him to a co-worker’s house party and arrange to meet him nearby. When we meet he kisses me like he’s starving, trying to swallow my mouth in one bite. We walk along sidewalks thick with crispy orange leaves, and he keeps trying to shove his tongue down my throat. At the party we can’t really understand one another beyond the clear fact he doesn’t want to be there and instead wants to go to my apartment. I push him off and he leaves the party early, likely thinking me a tease. A few days later, Dmitrios reveals the Salvadoreño had been on the death squads. I had read Didion’s Salvador; I knew what this meant. I shuddered, feeling a mix of horror, shame, and gratitude that I had not slept with him.
I hear I am a frequent character in Dmitrios’s stories, but he is also in mine.
The tree branches are bare and dark against a wooly gray sky. As the season changes, I start to wonder where the chess players will go when snow covers the tables. For now, they grip cups of steaming coffee in gloved hands between chess moves. Joe Isaac has disappeared. Tom, Don, Dmitrios, Sergio, and a few others remain. Sergio says I might find him at the library.
All winter I walk to work through Dupont Circle — the chilly wind, fellow commuters, and traffic my only company.
Inexplicably, the temperature spikes to 70 degrees for a weekend in early February and the park becomes lively again. Sunbathers line the grass and ring the fountain; the chess players do brisk business for a few days until winter returns.
It’s a sunny bright-blue-sky day and I am reading my book, but Dmitrios parks himself next to me and I know he will start talking and not stop until I leave. I should really find another park.
A beech tree bordering two of the chess tables bursts into yellow seed. With every slight breeze, tiny flowers rain down. Mid-game, a young afro’ed chess player shakes the blossoms from his hair self-consciously and laughs.
I want a mountain bike, but can’t afford a new one from City Bikes, so Dmitrios says he can get me a bike for a hundred bucks. I don’t ask questions. A few weeks later he rides up on a dark blue Trek with a few scuffmarks and I hand over five twenties. Now I can commute to work or travel across the city much faster than by Metro. I arrive at work with specks of mud on my face, and balance bags of groceries on the handlebars on my way home. Weekends, I ride north into Maryland, west along the canals, south to Alexandria and Mount Vernon, or I follow city streets over to Eastern Market, angling back through Dupont Circle to see what is happening.
Good chess players study. Early weekday afternoons Sergio sits alone at his table with stacks of pages he photocopied from chess books at the library. He plays out specific openings and endgames over and over until he has them memorized—the Scotch, the French, the Caro-Kann, variations on the Dragon, one after another. He sets up the kings and pawns, adds a bishop or a knight, finds the fastest checkmate, uncovers ways to avoid checkmate.
I am amazed at what you can learn just by sitting still long enough.
Sergio’s pawns are all worth life to him; no piece is ever given up by accident. His style is subtle, like a guerrilla; an obvious threat from the right masks the checkmate coming in two or three moves. Between games he jumps up and punches the air like a featherweight boxer, quick jabs to clear his head before the next match.
Why is chess the fire they burn themselves up in? Is it diversion, obsession, enough cash for a hot meal, all three?
Joe Isaac sits at a table watching a match between Pasov and Sergio. “Why’d you move there? You need to do this –” he points to a queen-side bishop as the clock tick-tick-ticks. “Please fuck off, please,” begs Pasov. Moments later, Pasov loses his patience and shouts, “SIIIIIIILENCE!!!!”
Tourist season, so the D.C. police make a show of patrolling the neighborhood. A cop towers above Don who sits on a bench and takes off his shoe, pulling a small plastic baggie out of his left sock. He unrolls it to reveal his identification.
“Is this your current address?”
Somehow that gives the man in blue the right to look through Don’s bag, asking why he has a screwdriver.
“It’s dangerous out here, man.”
“Next time you’re caught drinking here, you’ll probably get locked up.”
“Now move along.”
Don nods to the officer and walks away in his dusty black suit. I watch him cross Connecticut Avenue and disappear into a crowd. The next time I see Don questioned by an officer, he’ll announce, “I’ve got God on my side.”
Joe Isaac approaches a woman on the sidewalk, grabs her hand and brings it to his chest exclaiming, “Mona Lisa, I love you!” He’s done this many times before. Most of the time the women laugh and keep walking. Other men in the park shake their heads in wonder, grumbling how they couldn’t get away with that. Joe calls me “the Queen,” the Queen of Chess, and I wonder how many women he’s given this pet name.
People walk through this park every day so intent on their destinations they fail to notice this subculture of chess players. How much life have I not noticed?
A Salvadoran man with thick black hair brushed back in a pompadour asks me to call him “Johnny.” I’ve seen him pace the park, lost in thought, his heavy eyebrows furrowed. He wants me to help him with his English, asking how to pronounce words like sitting and bathing.
Too-tall Toby wears one holey t-shirt over another holey t-shirt, ripped pants over another ripped pair. His ten-speed bike is held together with duct tape. I occasionally play chess against him since neither of us wants to gamble or play against the clock. No studied openings or endgames for Toby, he just pushes pieces. I’ll try out various openings I’ve learned from Sergio or Dmitrios, but struggle when the plan falls apart and I have to strategize every move, recognize the threats behind every chess piece. I find it exhausting. Toby pulls out a small notepad from his torn shirt pocket to carefully record his win.
Don only plays chess when he’s sober—not often—and when he plays, he refuses to castle.
Giuseppe smokes Gauloises cigarettes and often shows up in the park wearing a white suit, fedora hat, and polished shoes. I’d guess he’s around sixty. Giuseppe plays chess, but mostly seems to be passing the time. His hints signal he’s looking for a wife or mistress, but I’m interested in neither role.
Every few months a new flyer appears, photocopied and taped to every lamppost in the neighborhood: a pretty young woman missing; her family desperate. Months later, her body will be pulled from the Anacostia River or uncovered in Rock Creek Park or never found. I do not mention any of this to my mother. I think I am saving her from worry, but she watches the news; she already knows. Although I am not pretty, I watch my step.
Flocks of pigeons rustle in the thick grass. Some are speckled like chickens; others expose green or purple flourishes on their wings, or bright reddish-brown feathers among the common grays. They strut around, dazed and blank-eyed, under the park benches, pecking at crumbs, at dirt, at nothing, chasing away competitors and calling to mates with soft throaty coos. The ledges of buildings are lined with spikes to keep the birds from landing, nesting—a heartless strategy. Meanwhile, a pricey Georgetown restaurant has begun serving squab.
Growing up, I knew nothing of homelessness. But the longer I consider the question, the more poverty I remember. Ramshackle houses and trailers, junk strewn about in yards, scrawny dirty kids, but also food drives, free school lunch and breakfast programs, blocks of government cheese. As far as I knew, no one lived out on the streets—neighbors all rooted to a plot of land—but occasionally my parents spoke in hushed voices about drifters. This is what homelessness meant in our rural community: strangers passing through, always moving on to another place. The region relied on migrant labor for the fruit harvests, but those were working families with children I met in school for a couple of months each autumn; drifters were a different story.
It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and Don pushes a bright red Safeway shopping cart with two thick, gray woolen blankets inside it he got from the homeless shelter.
The storm of the decade mires the East Coast from Maine to Virginia, with two feet of snow falling in DC. Pedestrians and skiers take over streets around Dupont Circle, along with the random bicyclist struggling to stay upright on skinny wheels. Any drivers risking the road spin their tires and swerve wildly. The busses and subway lines have ground to a halt. For once, it’s quiet. I walk around the neighborhood delighted, grinning like a fool, but I can return to a warm apartment. I wonder where the chess players have quartered. At work, the bosses all live in the suburbs and can’t make it to the office, but require their assistants to go in. The phones still ring and someone needs to answer, even during a blizzard.
Sun streams through the slowly greening beech trees and Luis rides into the park wearing one green shoe and one red, yellow socks, purple jeans, an unbuttoned black shirt, and a bandanna holding back his long wavy Argentine hair. “HolaChé!” he calls out to his friends. A part-time courier, he plays chess with one leg looped over his bicycle, ready to bolt when his beeper goes off. He hugs me and calls me “sister” but dates girls much prettier than me.
Johnny sits beside the bright yellow tulips in his panama hat; soon, he’s sleeping barefoot in the grass, his woven backpack under his head, hat balanced on his chest.
We’re standing at a chess table when Dmitrios points at the dark windows of a neighboring office building, “We are being watched from there.” I’m uncertain what he means and whether or not he’s kidding. I glance up and look away.
On my lunch break I see a white INS van stopped at a light by the park. I squint my eyes, trying to glimpse past the bars and mesh blocking the back window, but can’t make out any faces inside. I’m worried my friends might have been rounded up and I scan the park, but none of them stand hunched over the chess tables. I return after work, and everyone is there, playing game after game.
Nights and weekends on my own, I wander museums, frequent bookstores, attend author readings, go to movies, take writing workshops, art classes, work-related trainings, and still return to the chess tables to fill my time.
I am reading on a park bench when Joe Isaac’s face comes so close to mine I inhale his coffee breath. As his eyes scan the streets he mumbles urgently, “You see I have this very serious business to talk with you about. Don’t talk with anyone. These people are all crazy here and I do not want them to know my business. Really, I need you to not say nothing to these people.” He wants me to write letters to Warren Christopher and the Pentagon, which I gamely do as he dictates his messages and I read them back to him. He gave up on calling the White House because the switchboard stopped accepting his calls.
A regular sees me and shouts, “What are you doing here?” I smile and shrug, ask, “Where should I be?” “Good point,” he says. His long gray hair is pulled back in a ponytail. He’s a Vietnam vet, contending with the V.A. for his health benefits. We talk about the bomb. If it comes, I will ride my bicycle as far as I can out of the city, but he says he’ll stay and let it obliterate him. Spreading his arms wide and looking up at the sky, he shouts, “I am right here—come and get me!” I fight the urge to step away.
When are you coming home, Mom’s voice pleads over the phone. Does she mean to visit or to live? I am never sure how to answer.
My mother helped me pass as a young professional, sewing my skirts and dresses from patterns and fabric we’d chosen together. No one in Washington, D.C. would imagine I’d grown up with sheep manure on my shoes.
When Jody calls “hey darlin’” in his gritty Marlboro voice, I tense up. His ruddy face has the familiar look of roughnecks from home. I’ve watched him drink in the park, getting mean, meaner, often bullying Toby. His blue eyes are like hard marbles I avoid or coolly fix upon, feigning fearlessness. I don’t ask him his story.
Toby and I decide to ride our bikes downtown to watch the fireworks on the Fourth. I lead the way, hitting the Rock Creek Trail and following it down to the Potomac River. The sky changes to purple-pink, then Prussian blue over the water. About half-way, I pause and look back to see Toby steering with his right hand while holding a severed brake-line in his left hand. I gasp, apologize, but he says it works fine, he just tugs on it when going downhill, but I am awash in guilt for cycling fast, heedless of his peril.
How do you live, how do you travel, how did you get from your birthplace to here, and what happened to you in between? Whenever I ask too many questions about his past, Sergio says, “Curiosity killed the cat, baby.”
The temperature dropped below freezing and the chess players scattered. Some sit among the tables at a Burger King on P Street, playing chess and taking side bets every day until they get kicked out. “Chess cafés” have opened up in the neighborhood, but these guys don’t buy three-dollar coffees. They want to drink without being hassled, and loudly argue the rules, the terms, or the clock. On the first sunny day they will return to the park.
I can see Don all the way down the bench, a quarter turn round Dupont Circle. When our eyes meet, we wave and grin maniacal grins, big and wide.
This sort of wind makes the bees fly in confused spirals. The soapbox screamer’s sermon is ripped away with each gust and his Jesus literature begins to blow around the park. Outside the Metro, a Peruvian street band plays “El Condor Pasa” while seagulls wheel above, dropping one by one to nab bread crusts from the sidewalk. The sky turns from turquoise to ash the instant before a downpour sends everyone scurrying from the park.
Tom, Sergio, and I run to the Borders bookstore across the street as the rain comes down in sheets. While wandering the aisles, Tom flips open an art book of dog photographs and begins to quiz me. What kind of dog is that? Greyhound? Wrong! It’s a Whippet! What kind of dog is this? Pitbull? Wrong! It’s a Presa Canario. This goes on for several minutes while I realize how little I know about dogs and wonder if Tom may have a photographic memory.
“Are you lying to me?! Are you lying to me?! Are you lying to me?! Are you lying to me?!” A cop is screaming at the man sitting beside me on the park bench. I keep my eyes focused on the book in my lap, but my cheeks burn red. I am not a part of this, I don’t know him, and yet, I am witnessing. We had been laughing, he was boasting about nothing only moments before, but now he is made small. His head down, he says, “No.” Repeats, “No.” The cop moves on and we sit in stunned silence.
A hiccupping Mexican man on the park bench tosses me a beer I don’t want; it rolls into the grass behind us, and he waves it away. He scoots closer, hiccupping words, trying to tell me about working tomato fields from Baja to Virginia. The few Spanish words I can conjure aren’t up to the task.
Sergio can lose all sense of time, not notice the streets emptying, the sun going down, the streetlights coming on with a click and hum. He will play chess all night while the swampy air cools and the neighborhood hushes.
Are the chess players are avoiding real life or playing it out on the board? Are their ceaseless matches keeping the Earth in motion?
When he gets his monthly check from the V.A., Don gambles and drinks from a bottle he hides inside his blue blazer. He gets louder by the hour, but isn’t hurting anyone. He sings, “Vivaaaaaaaaaaaa, Las Vegas! Vivaaaaaaaaaaaaa, Las Vegas!” getting comments and snarls from the chess players. “Don’t interrupt talent, goddamnit!” he shouts. By mid-afternoon, he’s passed out on the sidewalk.
It’s 90° out and Betty shimmies down the cigarette-strewn sidewalk in a thick sweater and corduroys. She’s wearing a big black scarf and black socks with a hole in the big toe, no shoes, and snaps her head back trying to catch me watching her. We have never spoken, but she fascinates me. She curses out strangers on the park benches. She pokes at the businessmen holding newspapers in front of their faces, as if the rose-tinted pages of the Wall Street Journal could shield them. She seems to want them to see her, to acknowledge her round brown face, brown eyes, the gaps in her teeth, her humanity. A white man in a suit scowls and loudly tells her to get away from him so she spits at the ground in front of him. He jumps as if she’d slapped him. She moves on down the sidewalk and squats to piss on an elm tree six feet from the tables. The chess players look away and grimace, but how many of them have pissed on the same tree?
Someone was murdered in the park overnight, it’s all over the Saturday morning news, but Joe Isaac swats my questions away. He has no interest in news; he wants to talk philosophy. I catch less than half of what he says. Joe mentions Spinoza often, but I never remember who he is.
For a miserably hot and humid day, Jody is in a good mood. He has a radio tuned to Motown. He shouts, “If you don’t like Barry White, get the fuck out of my park! … If you don’t like Diana Ross, get the fuck out of my park! … If you don’t like Al Green, get the fuck out of AMERICA!” then he and Betty cut loose. They shuffle their feet, shake their butts side to side, feel the beat, eyes closed. Watching them, Don busts out laughing on the park bench and no one seems to mind.
In a loud whoosh, a flock of pigeons swoop in and cover the patch of grass between the street and my park bench in a feathery swarm. What makes them think this piece of earth has any more scraps to peck at than any other?
Joe Isaac wears his burgundy beret as the weather cools and the leaves change color. He’s never in the park over the winter, so I ask him where he goes. It turns out he hitchhikes to Florida every year, sleeping on beaches or with women he meets.
The sky is clear and the autumn leaves glow. I sit in a sunny spot to soak in the feeble rays. Sergio plays chess against a man wearing a navy peacoat. The man aims a smoke at his mouth, and adjusts his king-side knight. He holds the cigarette between his lips, takes it out, moves a pawn, aims again, then flicks his lighter. A bearded Latino wearing a red bandanna pauses with his shopping cart to watch their game; then reaches into a trash barrel to pull out the empties. He crushes the cans with his feet, tosses them into his cart with a dull crunch, and proceeds to the next bin.
After weeks of gray and rain, two inches of fresh snow covers the chess tables, the trees, and the park benches encircling the empty fountain. Windblown snow rests on the sculpted figures: on their shoulders, in the nooks of their elbows, upon their heads.
Upon seeing Don for the first time since late autumn, I ask how he’s doing. “Still a bum,” he says and laughs. “I come from a long line of drunk asses. My daddy was a drunk ass. A proud heritage of drunk asses. How do you feel about having a friend who’s an alcoholic?” I feel honored he considers me a friend.
Spring is warming into summer and a young black man named Reginald brings out his trumpet and plays jazzy improvisations next to the chess masters, gamblers, joggers, jugglers, roller skaters, men curled on park benches, men with shopping carts filled with cans, men smoking discarded cigarette butts, and me; the tourists walking by toss Reginald a dollar.
One of the gamblers tells me he needs to leave the park. “It’s ruining my life,” he says. I empathize, but don’t push. I too am hiding in this park, trapped by habit, biding time, no closer to becoming a writer. Dmitrios encourages me to study chess but Sergio says, “No, it’s good you don’t play! What for? You are a smart lady!” I know I am not a chess player, but I am also not yet a real writer.
It is late summer, and I haven’t seen Too Tall Toby at the park in weeks. I walk past his usual spots, expecting to see him lope around a corner any moment. After work one day I see Dmitrios on the street and finally ask him what he knows. He raised his eyebrows, telling me an argument over chess led to an asthma attack. “Toby died,” he said. At first I didn’t believe him, thinking he must be exaggerating. But Toby didn’t return. Years of small kindnesses, chess games, and the occasional bike ride, and I’d never even learned his last name. Where was Toby’s family? Did he get an obituary, a burial? I felt like I’d let him down.
The moving truck carried what I couldn’t afford to leave behind, which was pretty much everything: my books, clothes, kitchen utensils, a secondhand futon, my bike, and a plant. More than I’d possessed when I moved there.
Gray clouds hung low over the city that mid-December morning. I drove in silence down eerily quiet streets. The chess tables sat empty, but I circled the park anyway. I wiped fog off the windshield with the cuff of my sweatshirt, squinted, and looked toward where I thought the horizon should be.