The blind Malians were singing on the stage on the other side of the road as crowds filled the outdoor theater and more stood in long lines snaking around both sides of the park. But from our picnic blanket, we could hear them loud and clear.
When the music started, Big Girl J paused her dinosaur roars and started to dance, first side to side with her elbows in the air, then twirling in circles around the grownups gathered on the ground around the picnic blanket with nearly empty cups of wine and plates of chocolate cake.
The grownups were talking about all kinds of things: books we’d recently read and loved, our families, Freshhell‘s birthday. We celebrated with bread and cheese and baba ghanoush and salad and a cake with delicate chocolate flowers.
Earlier in the day, AJ and I had met up with Freshhell and her daughter Dusty to take the Staten Island ferry. I’ve been on the Staten Island ferry before, and it’s well worth the trip just for the free ride past the Statue of Liberty. That’s the only way I’ve taken it before. But Freshhell had done some research and so we did some exploring. We took a bus across the island, with the help of the bus driver who made sure we didn’t miss our stop. We wound our way on foot through narrow one-way streets, past churches and drug stores and houses in every conceivable building style to a huge grotto built of stones and shells and covered in pictures, candles, a cheap Catholic statuary. The whole time I had Jim White’s “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornados” in my head: “Sometimes I’m glad I built my mansion from crazy little stones.”
Staten Island is an odd mix of kitsch and once beautiful homes that haven’t been taken care of as well as they could. It looks more like a lack of funds than a lack of attention. There are ebullient and beautifully tended gardens surrounding homes with paint peeled or scoured down to the bare wood. There are still hurricane Xs on the windows. But the water is everywhere you look and there is a peculiar grace to the decay.
We walked down toward the water to Alice Austen’s house. Alice was a photographer in the late 19th century who chronicled a lot of daily life in New York city at the time. Her former house, a lovely building right on the water with a gracious lawn sloping down to a rocky beach, is now a museum. The house has been largely untouched since Alice’s day. The walls are hung with her photographs of policemen and ragpickers and organ grinders and street sweepers. I stared for a long time at a photo of Herald Square from the 1890s but found nothing to ground me. It was a foreign country.
We stepped back out on the porch and followed a path down to some wooden stairs leading to the beach. AJ and I sat on the steps and watched the water — the Staten Island Ferry going back and forth, the cars stuck in traffic on the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, a fire boat releasing all of its hoses at once for no apparent reason in a perplexing mid-river fountain.Freshhell and Dusty braved the rocks collecting beach glass and mussel shells.
A stretch of beach with no people but us. On Staten Island, you realize how much noise is always around you in this city, because suddenly, it’s not.
Afterwards, we headed back to Brooklyn and went our separate ways, Freshhell and Dusty to rest before an afternoon trip to Central Park, AJ and I to the local diner to celebrate the end of school.
It was the longest night of the year, and the music went on long after we all — Freshhell and Dusty, Cranky and Big Girl J, Maggie, Mr. Spy, AJ and I — left the park and headed home. Sometime later, after the house was dark and everyone else was asleep, I woke up thinking the sun was still up. But it was the enormous moon, shining through the skylight.