I wind my way down through the spandrels and tendons of the Upper West Side, one Sunday morning.
I bank east through Central Park, seeing almost no one. The streets are quiet, the sky looks like weak blue tea traced with bare winter branches. I’ve been here months now; I cut my way through the city like a scalpel, precise and quick. I slice along the southern pericardium of the Jackie Kennedy reservoir, the beating, sloshing heart of this urban oasis, pumping joggers and dog walkers to and fro at all hours.
New York City is like a bionic human, kept alive long after her natural time has run out. Bits of warm surviving flesh are strung together by a network of metal and wire and glass.
I thread Cleopatra’s Needle and turn down the flagstone sidewalk of Park Avenue, passing a dozing hotdog cart and the Strand book table, unattended.
Then the air changes, thickening and sweetening, familiar enough that I don’t find it putrid. Horse manure. Smell is the strongest sense tied to memory. I learned that from a Snapple cap, and the smell of horse fills my head with images of afternoons in 1997, of Gale’s Barn in Horseheads, New York. The green grass, the dark clouds coming over the hills, the electric fences. The people and animals towered equally over my seven-year-old self. Too quiet and scared to ask for help tacking up. Straining to hear my instructor’s belted commands over the roar of an airplane landing at the Elmira-Corning regional airport, adjacent to our pastures. The lump in my throat as my Mom’s Tahoe pulled into the driveway to drop me off at 4 p.m., and the wave of relief when her tires crunched over the dirt again at 5:30 with a meatball sub in the backseat. That was freedom.
I am shaken from my reverie by the clop clop of hooves on pavement.
Horse carriages are lined up like parked cars along Park Avenue South, across from the Plaza Hotel. The drivers huddle by the corner of the park a few yards off, bundled in black wool and caps and talking in low brogues. The horses stand with two front feet up on the curb like kickstands, backs sloped upward and necks hanging down, mostly still. Dusty sheets hang on some for warmth. I reach out toward the muzzle of one to feel his hot breath. The muzzle is the softest part, by far.
Of all the little trappings of past life chosen for preservation by the higher consciousness of the city, this is the strangest to me. A carriage pulled languidly down the concrete canyon of Fifth Avenue, backing up traffic behind it, looks like an illustration from a dystopian novel, not like a scene from unironic present day.
Is this romance? Romance always has a tinge of sadness to it, I find.
Was I really free? Is the sadness I see in their eyes now any different from what I thought I saw in Jerry, my little barrel-shaped chestnut lesson pony? Maybe there is no wildness anymore. There are things we keep alive and things we let die.