by Madhu Kaza
I sit on a bench and a few doors down he's on his bench. We're on Sullivan Street. It's Thursday, it's July, it's late afternoon, it's early evening, and the heat begins to lift. He's an elderly Italian man. His white hair, white shirt, white shorts, white knee socks, and white sneakers are all slightly dingy. I watch the sky, the buildings of this little street, the people passing on the sidewalk. He watches the people. I'm leaning back against the window of a bakery, my body impassive. I imagine I'm taking pictures of the moments unfolding before me, now, now, and now –Thursday and July. I could just as easily be sitting inside at a window gazing out. Except, the man.
Unlike me he sits alert, eager. He leans forward with one hand resting on a cane, the grey plastic and aluminum kind. He faces left, in my direction, looking out for an oncoming pedestrian, his mouth open in anticipation. He engages each person who approaches with his whole body, turning on his bench until eventually he is facing right. Then he watches the figures from behind as they drift towards Houston Street and disappear. He has the look of someone watching a race horse making the rounds. He leans into the activity of the street.
We look at each other, aware but without any demonstration. I'm watching the street, and I'm watching him, and he's looking at me and though he speaks to the children strolling by and to the UPS man and to the young woman sipping an iced coffee, he doesn't call out to me. I'm uneasy and relieved. If he spoke to me it would bring us into a recognizable relation — the I and the you of conversation, of pleasantries, when in fact we are already in a closer relation, tenuously connected but on the same side of these passing moments. For this portion of my day is now fixed to him, we are in tandem, two foci in an ellipse. It is his presence and his distance that keeps me seated, maintaining my vigil for the day.
When the sky darkens I finally stand up to leave. I consider turning South and walking away from him in order to disappear quietly from the scene. But my curiosity leads me in his direction. I am unsure of what will happen. I don't know if he will speak to me as I pass. But even more mysterious to me, is whether I will say anything to him. And if I do, what will come of it? A brisk exchange or something more?
I walk and he turns toward me and follows my movement as he has done with the others. I glance at him and see a deeply wrinkled round face, dull blue eyes. His mouth is slack, he looks at me. I don't smile. I don't say a word and neither does he. As I pass by I sense that something has been lost and something greater has been preserved as I move on into the unspoken reprieve of the night.