Southerly by David Haywood

18

Busytown

New York has insomnia. Even at two o'clock in the morning -- when Bob-the-baby finally graces us with sleep -- the roar of the city penetrates the walls of our apartment. The wail of ambulance sirens. The young black men shouting to their friends on Broadway. The clip-clop of Latino girls in high-heel shoes. The holler of the 24-hour street hawkers: "You want water, folks? I got it right here. You want it cold, folks? I got it ice-cold." And the sound of several hundred-thousand motorists shouting "Fuck you!" at each other.

In the apartment next door, the pianist has started up. He's rehearsing 'Rhapsody in Blue'. I try to stop myself from counting the notes in the opening glissando. There are seventeen. The A key above middle C has something wrong with the damper, and it goes 'dong-g-g-g' every time he strikes it. I had never before realized that Gershwin was so fond of key changes; I pray that the piece will modulate into a key that doesn't contain A.

I fall asleep without noticing, and when I regain consciousness the pianist is still playing. The glissando goes '... E, F, G, dong-g-g-g'. Bob-the-baby wakes, and shouts loudly: "Grass, grass, grass, grass, grass, grass, grass..." -- an announcement that he's ready to visit Central Park. The bedside clock reads 6.30 am. I wonder what the weather is doing. The apartment's windows open onto an air-shaft, and the rooms are perpetually dark, regardless of the time of day. But if I rest the back of my head on the sitting-room windowsill, I can just perceive sunlight falling onto an upper storey of the tenement. A fine day, then.

We say goodbye to Jennifer at Cathedral Parkway station. Just across the intersection is Central Park. Bob-the-baby's legs begin to gyrate as he is lowered towards the grass. He literally hits the ground running. We have a brief father-son conversation: "Dude, where are you planning to go?" He replies by pointing both arms in opposite directions -- a gesture I interpret to mean: "The horizon."

At the swings, we meet Sarah and baby Elaine. The playground is densely populated, but Sarah is the only other adult who is a parent rather than a nanny -- a fact that seems to have put us onto a first name basis. Sarah feeds Bob a grape, and then launches into Part VII of her autobiography: "So then I decided to turn my one-woman-play into a short film. I directed and edited; one of my husband's friends did the camera work. After the première, a Hollywood producer said she wanted to turn it into a feature film. But I wasn't sure if she was more interested in my breasts than the script. You know how it is with Hollywood producers."

Above: Bob enjoys the swings.

We leave the playground, and Bob scampers to the summit of The Great Hill. A few days ago, we met a rapper called HappyBunny001, who asked if he could borrow Bob for a few hours: "Just to cruise round the park and pick up some of those young honeys." I suggest that a baby might imply the unwelcome presence of a spouse. "Far as I'm concerned, his mother died during childbirth. That gets me the sympathy vote on top of the whole cute baby vibe." It makes me realize that I've a lot to learn before I can contemplate a career in rap.

HappyBunny001 is entirely correct about Bob's chick-magnetism. A pretty young woman entices Bob into her lap. "Oh my God, your son is going to be such a handsome man when he grows up. I'm gonna write my phone number on his arm -- tell him to call me the instant he turns eighteen." She hunts for a pen in her handbag. "I just know I'm going to be into cute eighteen-year-olds when I'm forty," she says.

Bob and I return to the apartment for lunch. The pianist is silent, but now the opera-lady has begun to practise her scales. The young man in the room across the air-shaft gazes silently at his computer. The people in the apartment below him have transformed their window into an orchid paludarium -- Bob is entranced by the eerie virid light that radiates from the gro-lamps. In another apartment, a child is crying. An irritated voice drifts faintly along the air-shaft: "I wish those people would do something about that baby."

An email from Jolisa Gracewood awaits me. In one of those strange co-incidences that afflict New Zealanders, our tenement building is only a few tens of metres from her old apartment. She writes: "We used to live on West 112th Street -- just steps away from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. If you're feeling religious one day, pop in and say hello to the peacocks who wander the grounds. And give our regards to Bank Street Books, where we spent a small fortune." She attaches a photograph of herself looking Audrey Hepburn-ish on Amsterdam Avenue.

Bob-the-baby is a big fan of the subway. I'm forced to explain (for the hundredth time) why I'm not going to let him run around the platform. A woman asks me: "Where's your accent from -- are you English?" I tell her that we're New Zealanders. "Oh, so it's an Australian accent." It takes enormous will-power to stop myself pushing her under a train.

Our destination is Staten Island. After the subway ride, Bob is positively vibrating with energy. He runs circuits around the deck of the ferry; I lumber wearily in his wake. On the island, we promenade beside the seafront, and admire the Manhattan skyline. Back on board, Bob resumes his exercise regime. After ten minutes, he spots an attractive red-head, and stops to play peek-a-boo with her.

"How can such a little boy be such a big flirt?" she asks me. A hundred metres away, Liberty Island suddenly hoves into view. I lift Bob to the handrail: "Look -- the Statue of Liberty: 'Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore -- send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.'" The pretty woman laughs: "We don't think that any more."

She insists on accompanying us to the subway. It's nearly rush hour; a teenage boy offers me his seat on the train. The bloke sitting next to us wears a hard-hat that proclaims: "America is full". "I got married when I was eighteen," he tells me. "I'm forty-three now -- we just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I mean, sometimes I can't stand the sight of my wife, but you're married, what'ya gonna do."

"I'll tell you the secret of my success: try to get along with everyone. I've worked on all the big construction projects in Manhattan -- even 7 World Trade Center in the 1980s -- and, you know, I've never made an enemy. That's why people always like having me on the job."

The train rattles towards 112th Street; Bob-the-baby sags drowsily in my arms. Above our heads, although we don't really know it yet, the great institutions of Wall Street have disintegrated. A prosperous future is being rewritten into something far less pleasant. I wonder how many construction projects there'll be over the next few years. How many of us will lose our jobs, our homes, our health, and our happiness? What will Bob's childhood be like? Will Jennifer and I look back on our time in New York City, and say: "We were there in the last days of Busytown -- before the good times ended."

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