It wasn’t even summer yet and already the heat was unbearable. My brother’s flat in Brooklyn was above a fried chicken place and along with the humidity, as if carried in on drops of moisture and cooking fat, the room – there was only one room – would fill and refill with a nauseating, cloying smell. The extractor fans went off late at night, which meant the mornings were cool and odour-free. Then my brother would go to work and I would have the day to myself. I’d meet him in Manhattan after work and we’d take the Subway back to Brooklyn at some point.
Perhaps I’d been to visit him before, or maybe what I’m going to tell you happened on my first visit to his new place in Park Slope, on the corner of 5th Avenue and 9th Street. The flat was small and the building was rundown. My brother had come to meet me at the airport and when we got home, one of his neighbours was downstairs, an old woman who lived alone, and who, my brother told me, spent most of her day sitting at a table in McDonald’s round the corner. He introduced me to her. She’d lived in the building most her life and was, I seem to remember, a refugee from the War in Europe. I only mention this because she came to play a role in the events that happened a couple of days later.
If you turn left out of the building, then left again onto 9th Street and run all the way to the top of the road, you’ll get to Prospect Park. The more you run in a park, the more the shape of its paths is imbedded in your mind, as if your feet were sketching the map. Repeated movement across a terrain creates paths and paths are a map. You feel the route in your body, see it in your mind, feel it in your feet. I haven’t run through Prospect Park enough times to really feel its perimeter in my body the way I do with Clissold Park. Prospect Park is much bigger, too; over ten times the size.
With Clissold Park it’s as if I know every bit of chipped bark along the running tracks. I know what the path is like when it splits into two on either side of the tree near the paddling pool; I know what it’s like when the bitumen becomes earth at the bottom of the hill that runs parallel to Queen Elizabeth Walk; I know the hills and dales of the track at the far end of the park and where the mud takes longer to dry after rain.
Prospect Park appears to me in fragments: the grand statue at the entrance at the top of 9th Street, the wide road around the park with its cycle route on the left (or is it the right?), the botanical gardens, the lake, the forest and the ravine that are mostly closed to the public and give the feeling of some secret military presence in the middle of the Park. I’d run with my brother in the park already, maybe on this trip I’m thinking about, or if I’d been there before, then in the past. Yes, it must have been the past, because I remember looking forward to going for this run on my own. To run in a city is to make it your own. It makes you feel like the city is familiar to you, that you have an ease in it, that you know how to get around.
It was a cooler day the day I’m remembering and around lunch time I went for my run. I’ve written before about this time in New York, but what I didn’t mention was that when I came back from my run, the key my brother had given me to the building did not fit. For the first couple of days we’d always come back to the apartment together, so I hadn’t had the opportunity to use the key. Now I was locked out. All I had on me were the keys and my running clothes. My brother was in Manhattan. I have a feeling, too, that this was before I knew his mobile number by heart, or maybe he didn’t have a mobile number.
Fifth Avenue is a busy street and New Yorkers are not as likely to ignore you as the English, so I attracted some attention with all my fiddling and struggling with the lock. Two local policemen stopped to inquire, though they couldn’t be of much help, they said. I remember their strong New York accents, like Italians from the Bronx, clichéed. The whole situation was slightly farcical, the way hysteria can seem comical from the outside. And then I remembered the old woman in McDonald’s, and just as my brother had told me, she was there, and she remembered who I was.
The first map I saw of Prospect Park reminded me of Clissold Park. There was something about the shape of the park on the map that felt familiar, as if they were echoes of each other. The details of what was in the two parks was different, but when I looked at the Prospect park map I could see Clissold Park, the Lodge House in the top left-hand corner, the Pump House in the curve halfway to the bottom left-hand corner, where Robinson Crusoe Gate would be. It was uncanny, and it made me wonder about the shape of parks in general and whether there was some logic to the way they were structured. Then I looked at other maps of Prospect Park and they were different, positioned differently, and that got me thinking about maps and how we create them to suit our own vision of the world, the way the early invaders and settlers in Africa and the Americas drew vast blank spaces on their maps, as if no one was living there, as if the land was there for the taking.
History is POV. And I’m sure my brother has his own version of the story of the wrong key, a hidden wish to keep his big brother out; an embarrassing mistake; who knows. For me, it’s an anecdote that adds to my ambivalence about New York, about America in general. On the whole, I don’t like being there. I prefer it as an idea, as the origin of the literary works that have inspired me, of the art movements like New Narrative that have meant a lot to me as a writer, as the source of pretty much all the music I listen to, jazz and R&B. That’s my map of America, and being there just messes with the map in my head.