Lie Park: Fragments from a Psychogeography of the Sixth Borough of New York

Nonfiction / Pete Segall

 

:: Lie Park:

Fragments from a Psychogeography of the Sixth Borough of New York ::

On nights when I was young and lat­er as an adult I would fol­low Ohio Avenue as it sloped toward the Hud­son. Years before, at the begin­ning of the last cen­tu­ry, the street was lined with vast, sprawl­ing homes, the homes of exec­u­tives, ship­ping mag­nates, men with build­ings bear­ing their fam­i­ly name at Choate and Yale. Mas­sive alders blocked the sun set­ting over the riv­er. The spaces sur­round­ing these homes—spaces that could be legit­i­mate­ly called “grounds”—were expan­sive enough to actu­al­ly be for­bid­ding. That much space in the city, pri­vate­ly held, was bewil­der­ing and a warn­ing, a brute odd­i­ty whose vast­ness demand­ed one keep away (remem­ber­ing here that bewil­der is a lin­guis­tic rel­a­tive of wilder­ness, of which these spaces were a very par­tic­u­lar sort).

My par­ents jok­ing­ly called Ohio “Fifth Avenue Squared.” When my wife and I moved here from the Upper West Side, she said we might as well be in Ohio the state, it felt so removed from the rest of the city.

I don’t ever recall see­ing any­one on these grounds when I’d make this walk in my teens, though that’s prob­a­bly mem­o­ry slan­der­ing real­i­ty. I must have seen a game of touch foot­ball or a din­ner par­ty between the branch­es or even a soli­tary per­son tak­ing a walk like me. I’m sure one of these things must have hap­pened. But for what­ev­er rea­son the evi­dence, the mem­o­ry, has been purged.

Today, the man­sions along Ohio, as well as Rot­ter­dam and Bre­mer­haven and Southamp­ton, and their grounds are gone. In their place are apart­ment blocks, too unre­mark­able to car­ry the mer­its of bru­tal­ism. Every hun­dred yards or so an alder remains, though in their soli­tude they are the ones who seem bewil­dered, who seem to have wan­dered into a land­scape they have no busi­ness being a part of. What­ev­er bush-league Robert Moses over­saw the rethink­ing of Ohio Avenue from gild­ed to glut­ted did make one curi­ous choice: at the very end of the road, at the last bit of arch­ing land before the riv­er, a serene cres­cent of wood­land was left untouched.

It’s main­ly oak and catal­pa; rows of phlox and baby’s breath. It’s a place I find end­less­ly hum­ble. It makes no assump­tions and does not demand any­thing of you. It is not impos­ing or inspir­ing, makes no reach toward the sub­lime. As a park it is like a well-designed post office and I say that in the most affec­tion­ate way pos­si­ble for I believe that’s what drew me there almost every night as cer­tain aspects of my life were col­laps­ing or cur­dling or stalling out. The sim­plic­i­ty was depend­able and com­fort­ing. This lit­tle col­lec­tion of trees and shade is actu­al­ly a real park with a real name, over­seen by the Depart­ment of Parks, just like Prospect and Cen­tral and Union Square. It’s called Lie Park.

*

Lie Park. It’s fun to imag­ine a few bureau­crats sit­ting down and decid­ing that this tight­ly hemmed wedge of green­ery was insignif­i­cant enough that it was actu­al­ly a fic­tion. The mon­u­ment of the Hud­son before you, the dinosaur skele­ton of the Mor­gen­thau Bridge off to the right, the full­ness of all time and space cap­tured in the west­ern sky above every­thing: where you are is not real. This place is not here. It only exists because you need it to.

*

I rarely encoun­tered any­one else in the park. If I did it was either elder­ly cou­ples or young par­ents, labor­ing to get their babies to sleep. It was strange that such a peace­ful place would go unused. One night I stopped at a bode­ga on the way down the hill to ask if there was some­thing keep­ing peo­ple away from the park, ghost sto­ries or unre­port­ed sex­u­al assaults, any­thing, but the guy behind the counter just shook his head. He was old­er than me, Ethiopi­an or Eritre­an, with bright, blis­ter­ing eyes. Noth­ing wrong with it, he said. It’s just so small. I guess you could say that’s the prob­lem.

I bought a tall boy of Miller High Life and thanked him for his time. It was late in the sum­mer. I knew that by the time I reached the park, drank my beer, engaged in what­ev­er con­tem­pla­tion I arrived upon (this seemed to be the park’s price of admis­sion) and walked back home, it would be well past dark. My wife would ask if I’d gone on anoth­er walk and I would say yes. She would ask why I nev­er invit­ed her to come with. I would make a face and say some­thing like, I’m not sure.

*

Trygve Lie was a Nor­we­gian diplo­mat and the first sec­re­tary gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations, before it had its per­ma­nent home in Man­hat­tan. From all I can tell he was a mid­dling fig­ure, unre­mark­able enough that this half-extant park was deemed a suf­fi­cient memo­r­i­al to him. I have come across an account of his life in New York that men­tions his fond­ness for the area. “[W]hen there, one imag­ines that a city is not only a wel­ter. It hums, but soft­ly,” he wrote to a Nor­we­gian friend.

*

I poured out the last few ounces of my beer at the base of a catal­pa for poor Mr. Lie. The lights from the apart­ments up the hill were begin­ning to feel oppres­sive. The pres­ences of Riverdale and Co-Op City in the dis­tance were almost too much to bear. I need­ed to go back home. Instead of going up Ohio, I fol­lowed the walk­ing path north, where it even­tu­al­ly dropped me into Armistice Boule­vard.

Every­thing about Armistice Boule­vard seems to serve as a reminder of our own impend­ing deaths.

Not a thought was giv­en to sleep­ing police­men, actu­al police­men, cross­ing guards, brighter sig­nage, more stop­lights. The Boule­vard was ful­ly formed and immutable. You don’t move among traf­fic with­out an acute aware­ness that time is gain­ing on you. Over­lay speed on place and you know your term here is fixed. But even in spite of its parade of patholo­gies, I knew that Armistice Boule­vard was just as much a part of my expe­ri­ence as Lie Park.

*

One evening, when my wife said she was stay­ing in Mid­town for din­ner with a friend who I know now wasn’t just that, I walked back to the Arm. In a very real sort of way I felt cleaved, that there was a part of me tak­ing this walk because the idea of wan­der­ing the bor­ough had start­ed to coa­lesce from point­less strolling impuls­es into a thing with form and teeth; and anoth­er part that need­ed to be out of the house. These were two entire­ly dif­fer­ent motives head­ing toward their own objec­tives. To walk as an observ­er was sound enough to lead me, open-eyed, some­place I hadn’t intend­ed to go. I might have start­ed on Armistice (it was only two blocks from our own house) and paid atten­tion to the rock­et-pro­pelled traf­fic, the pre­pon­der­ance of big box stores, from dia­per empo­ria to cof­fin deal­er­ships but soon­er or lat­er some­thing would have pulled me aside. Or some­one. A voice, a mem­o­ry, an unde­fined urge. To walk through the city with­out pur­pose is to leave your­self sus­cep­ti­ble to hid­den grav­i­ties. We’ve aged out the fla­neur. There are too many large bod­ies and sin­gu­lar­i­ties.

But if I’d gone sim­ply to go, to remove myself from a place that I’d already pol­lut­ed with bad feel­ing and was well on its way to becom­ing a spir­i­tu­al brown­field, then I could have set off for the Arm know­ing my course was not in any dan­ger of devi­at­ing. Grief makes pre­cise nav­i­ga­tors. We run cold and true. Which would it be then, the observ­er or the escapee? To be both was impos­si­ble. I stood between the Astral 17 Sta­di­um Mul­ti­plex and a school bus whole­saler and had to assume a role. The air around me feels brit­tle and I’m slight­ly nau­seous. I’m not good at deci­sions.

 

From the writer

:: Account ::

In Feb­ru­ary of 2001 I was laid off from my dot-com job in Man­hat­tan. I was giv­en an obscene­ly large sev­er­ance pack­age. A week lat­er I got a phone call telling me I’d been accept­ed to grad school.

I had mon­ey and nowhere to be and a date of depar­ture. So I start­ed walk­ing. I walked from the West Vil­lage to Coney Island. I walked up Broad­way to the Clois­ters. If there is one thing New York is good for it’s that its unceas­ing human fric­tion is a strong way of get­ting you mov­ing.

In an “Art of Non­fic­tion” inter­view in The Paris Review, Geoff Dyer makes the claim that the dis­tinc­tion between fic­tion and non­fic­tion isn’t about facts but form. There obvi­ous­ly is no sixth bor­ough of New York, but mov­ing through that or any city—and the psy­chic imprint left by move­ment and place—is a form fit­ted to truth. The inven­tion of street names or topo­graph­ic details does not make the act of emo­tion­al obser­va­tion as evoked by place less real. (Tryvge Lie was real, if that mat­ters.) The New York here is my New York: a hec­tic and bewil­der­ing and sur­pris­ing place, and a ter­ri­ble one for the lone­ly. It does not mat­ter what that feel­ing is laid over. If the form car­ries the expec­ta­tion and feel­ing of truth, then there is no rea­son not to call it true.

 

Pete Segall is a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, where he was a Tru­man Capote Fel­low. His work has appeared in Con­junc­tions, Elec­tric Literature’s Rec­om­mend­ed Read­ing, Smoke­Long Quar­ter­ly, Match­bookJoy­land, and else­where, and is forth­com­ing in The Lit­er­ary Review. He has received fel­low­ships from the Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter and Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts.