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Table of Contents
Naked Man in the Circle
by Catherine Gigante-Brown
"There's a naked man in the Circle," someone said.
Sure enough, if you stood on the corner of Sixteenth Street and looked down toward the entrance of Prospect Park, you could see him. He was standing in the middle of the cobblestone sphere, the one with the black marble war memorial in the center. The man's dark skin appeared to be glowing in the dying light of day. He was unmoving, even in the cool breeziness of the approaching evening. Undaunted, his muscular buttocks faced the street. Cars swirled around the Circle, some drivers not even noticing him. The naked man stood at attention, facing the monument itself.
"Maybe he's a veteran," someone else offered.
They gathered on the sidewalk outside Farell's Bar and Grill. Most of them had just gotten off work. The steel workers rebuilding the Manhattan Bridge. The nurse's aides from Methodist Hospital a few blocks away. The firefighters just coming off their 24-hour tours. The pretty, young attorney with the gnarled Thalidomide hand. The drug dealer. The writer. They were all there.
"What the fuck's his problem?"
One of the firefighters was busy marveling at the perfect line the buildings made down one side of Sixteenth Street, between Eighth Avenue and Prospect Park West, which locals like him referred to as Ninth Avenue. These buildings weren't brownstones, but four-story tenements originally made for the common folk who worked for the people who lived in the brownstones. Although they were built more than 100 years ago, things hadn't changed very much around the Circle.
The firefighter came from people who came from buildings like these.
No one else seemed to appreciate the clean, neat line of the rooftops, even though he tried to point it out to anyone who would listen. He had taken a class in architecture many years ago, before he became a firefighter, when he'd been a track worker. He had liked that physical job, swinging a 12-pound spike maul and sweating in the sun. But for some reason, he also wanted to learn how to draw building renderings, so he took a night class at New York City Technical College. But that was a very long time ago. He had been in love with a waitress then. She had gone off to Arizona to study the wilderness and was murdered in the wild. After that, nothing else made much sense to the firefighter.
"Look at that line," he said. "How clean, how straight, how perfect. Like it's one single structure. But it's not. It's a whole blockful of buildings the same height, the same design. And if you notice, the lines meet at the very same place on the horizon. I forget what that's called but there's a name for it."
His girlfriend, the writer, looked. She saw exactly what he was talking about even though she hadn't swallowed two Styrofoam containers of lukewarm Budweiser. (She had guzzled two wine coolers instead.) One of Farrell's containers held a quart of beer. You could get a nice buzz for less than three dollars a pop. Only now, no one in the neighborhood knew what would happen to the old pub. Its doors had been open since 1933, but since the owner, Eddie Farrell, died a few months earlier, its fate was uncertain.
The naked man was still in the Circle. He was unaware of the small crowds which had clustered on the surrounding avenue. A plainclothes policeman stood to his left, weakly shaking the naked man's pants at him. It was the delicate gesture one might use to entice a bull. The chain which held the plainclothesman's badge glinted in the dull sunlight. He said something to the naked man which no one else could hear. Not even the naked man himself. His head did not turn. He did not even look up or acknowledge the police officers' presence. He simply stared and stared at the monument.
"Turn around," one of the women outside Farrell's said.
"You do some of Georgio's shit and you eat afterwards. Know what I mean? You can eat a whole god-damn meal."
The writer stared at the sky above the straight, perfect line of the buildings. It glowed pink and gold and had a brightness behind it. A Cecil B. DeMille sky, her father called it. Straight from The Ten Commandments. "Where's your Messiah now, Moses?"
"Did you get the invitation to June's party? It's the 11th at five."
The sound of two more sirens coming from two different directions harmonized. Now there were three squad cars in the Circle. Three squad cars, six uniformed police officers and one plainclothesman. Plus one naked black man who didn't even realize they were there. The officers discussed the situation with each other. No one wanted to touch the man. No one wanted to handcuff a naked, homeless guy. And who could blame them?
"Well, at least they know he isn't armed," someone said.
It was true.
The rosy yellow of the sky was deepening into a purplish blue, a hazy violet. The line of the buildings below it was unmoving, like the naked man who silently paid homage to the marble monument in the Circle.
The past few summers, at least three movies had been shot in this neighborhood. The reason wasn't because it was so picturesque but because it was so real. Like the man in the Circle. You just couldn't make this stuff up. And if you tried, no one would believe you anyway. Especially the people from around here, the working-class section of Park Slope. Park Slop, some called it. Or No Park, Park Slope, because it was so hard to find a parking space here ever since the yuppies moved in.
But most people in Park Slope in 1994 were born there, bred there, died there, only to be waked at M.J. Smith and Sons one block down and prayed for at Holy Name of Jesus Church right across the street. These people weren't Yuppies who moved here simply because it was so quaint or the rent was cheaper than Manhattan. They grew up here, skinned their knees on the hard, concrete streets. They sweated here, worked here in the sewers and in the schools, then were buried here, in narrow plots at Green-Wood Cemetery high up on the hill, overlooking it all.
Mae West was buried in Green-Wood. So were Abner Doubleday, DeWitt Clinton, Ray Sharkey and hosts of others who'd died of AIDS. Most of the people who stood outside Farrell's and drank Bud in the trickling afternoon sun knew and loved someone who was buried in Green-Wood. Most of them would end up there, too. Perhaps even the naked man in the Circle. Only not yet.
The police officers were still standing there talking. Then a screaming ambulance from Methodist arrived to seal his fate. They had blankets and a stretcher. They had sirens and lights. But first, the Emergency Service Workers discussed the matter with the police officers.
"Poor fuck," someone said.
The sky was dark and the painfully-straight line of the rooftops was not so evident anymore. It was difficult to distinguish where it ended and the sky began. "All the kids I grew up with are either dead, dying or in jail," the fireman remarked sadly to no one in particular.
"No, I haven't," he said. "I'm still here."
One block away, in the Circle, the naked man went quietly with the EMS workers. After they wrapped a blanket around him, he looked like Gunga Din, who wore a skirt in the movie. He lay obediently on the stretcher and allowed himself to be strapped in. The doors closed. The sirens moaned. The lights reflected off the nearby buildings quite theatrically. Then the ambulance drove off. Just like that.
©Jim Zola: IMG_6305
"No one would believe this whole thing."
The police officers finally finished discussing the situation and left the Circle themselves. There would be paperwork to file and someone had to go down to Methodist to meet the naked man there. The Circle seemed lonely without them, their striped vehicles and the naked man, whose ebony flesh was nearly as dark as the skin of the monument of itself.
"Want to come down with me to Fifth? I have to do laundry. Five loads, maybe six. Got nothing to wear to work tomorrow. Then we can hang out at that Polish bar on the corner. It's a really cool place. You'll love it."
So, the fireman and his girlfriend, the writer, tagged along. He drank Budweiser from a sweaty can while she sipped flat ginger ale because they didn't have Coke or wine coolers. Their friend ran back and forth between the bar and the laundromat.
The fireman had grown up a block away from there. He had lived in an apartment building whose hallways always smelled of cat piss and ammonia. His parents worked hard to send both him and his sister to private school. He was smart ("But if only he'd apply himself...") and they were the poorest kids at Berkeley, but at least they had a chance. Then his family moved to the safety of a wood frame house on Eighth Avenue when he was fifteen. Perhaps this was his real salvation, moving away from the poverty of Fifth Avenue.
The fireman remembered when Luigi's Pizzeria had first opened. It was 1971 or something. He remembered the social club for ancient Italian men and a lot of other places that weren't there anymore. People who weren't there anymore either. The Polish bar was okay. Run-down, ugly, but friendly. Pool table, grimy booths, waxy wood paneling, a rotary dial phone in the corner. A stuffed toy mouse flying in a crepe-paper balloon which the barmaid reprimanded him for touching when he stretched his hand toward the ceiling.
The firefighter felt the need to go outside. The sky was black, but not as black as the monument in the Circle. Luigi's was still open, but he wasn't hungry. On the street, he met someone he used to know. They used to be kids together in a place full of imperfect lines and sad buildings. They talked. The man was HIV-positive and his brother, dead. These were boys the fireman had played stick ball with, boys he had been with on the night that junkie had snapped off the head of a live pigeon right near the Grand Prospect Hall across from the Expressway, right in front of them, to shock them. It worked; they were horrified.
And the Nineteenth Street girls who once were pretty now were hags. If they were still alive, that is. It just didn't make sense anymore.
His friend's laundry was in the spin cycle in the laundromat across the street. Gray-whiskered drunks did shots of vodka with water chasers inside the Polish bar. And the fireman's girlfriend, the writer, rushed out onto the pavement, looking for him. She found him standing there all alone, crying.