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, Matchbook, Joyland, 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.