Monday Morning, Prospect Park

It’s a misty morning and I know rain’s coming soon, either that or insufferable heat, which is why I’m up at 6 on a Monday putting my running shoes on. I’m headed to Prospect Park, 585 acres of green in the middle of Brooklyn. It’s a mile from home, a gem designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux after they finished Manhattan’s Central Park. Prospect Park opened to the public in 1867 and while it’s experienced a wax and wane of public interest through its lifetime, the Park flourishes today as a highlight in the neighborhood. Of all the times I’ve explored the park, no two trips have been the same and no trip is without some degree of lostness. There are forests, fountains, lakes and streams, waterfalls carefully constructed to look as if they’d always been there. There is a private Quaker Cemetery hidden on a hill, blackberry brambles, and stables and horse trails. There are several long lawny meadows that fill in the summers like a Georges Seurat painting.

I leave  my apartment at a walk that soon turns into a run, joining the other runners and cyclists entering through the Eagle Columns across from Grand Army Plaza, past the statue of James Stranahan, the Park’s father of sorts, its first Commissioner and a dedicated protector of Olmstead and Vaux’s vision. We veer right at the fork, running the pavement loop of West Drive that will eventually turn into East Drive. It’s a well-worn route among the local exercisers but it’s my first time trying it. The road is lined thickly with trees, elm and white ash, rising taller than I ever expect trees to rise in the City. I make it past the bandshell and the ball fields, past Quaker and Lookout Hills where I’m tempted to veer off and wander. Children who seem hardly old enough to be upright are in cleats and jerseys fumbling industriously with soccer balls while mothers and nannies watch on. Dogs run past with their owners.

And then, the lake. The green opens and there it spans, a wide mirrory gray to match the clouds above. A swan swims with its puffy young cygnet in shallow water near the bank. I catch a few words off a conversation between two men. Something about spirit, awakening, and emotional expansiveness. There are people in fishing hats with fishing poles cast. A tired mother bends away from her crying child for a drink at a fountain. I won’t assume we are all here for exactly the same reason, but there is a necessary peace a place like this offers, especially when not too far off is the endless metallic rattling of trains and several million people trying to claim their place in a never-sleeping city.

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I’m at the south end of the park when I give up running. There is too much to see and only slowness will grant me that. This is what inevitably happens on my runs, but this is also part of the reason for going out at all.

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Something’s in bloom and the air smells like honey.

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A red-winged blackbird flashes her fire against the dull sky. I catch an oriole on her way into hiding. I lean in to watch the bumblebee and instead catch the damselfly, narrow and still.

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As in all things, the closer you look the more you see. I get lost in the seeing and walking, grateful for time and aliveness and the words that wake up to keep me company. What, after all, is the point of any of this brief mortal exercise if we don’t stop to take a look while passing through?

Wherever you are, notice things, always.

By the time I curve northwards again to find East Drive I am tired. It’s a couple stops on the nearby shuttle train to get home so I leave the park through Concert Grove, past the unlikely busts of Mozart, Beethoven, and Washington Irving. I’ve bypassed Midwood and the Ravine and the whimsically-named Vale of Cashmere where I’d ordinarily start my trek, getting good and lost before I had the chance to be found.

I’m almost to Lincoln Avenue when I notice soft purple squishing underfoot and look up to find a mulberry tree, its branches hanging deliciously low. I spend the next several minutes collecting the berries in the front pocket of my pack. They’re delicate and flowery and just washed by last night’s rain. I eat a few right there for every few I save for later and get on the train to go home.

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The Brooklyn Chapter

IMG_0019It was New Year’s day, 2014. Back from a year’s travels, I was in San Diego and I was miserable, if anyone can be miserable in such a beautiful place. So I did the foreseeable.

I bought a one way ticket.

My suitcase and I showed up in New York a week later on the coldest day of winter. I had a sublet in Flatbush and that was about it.

Much in ColleenGetsLost fashion, I’d never set foot in Brooklyn. I didn’t know anyone in Brooklyn. I’d never thought about Brooklyn. I had no idea what Brooklyn even meant. It was just cheaper than all the other options.

And that’s how I unwittingly became a cliche.

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Brooklyn, at least the grittier, wannabe circa 80s East Village Brooklyn of Crown Heights/Bed-Stuy/Bushwick, is full of young college educated wanderers, sandwiched between the longstanding black/Haitian/Jamaican/Hasidic community. They come because it’s cheaper than Manhattan and there’s some sort of “scene,” which is I guess why I’m here. Except that they are 10+ years younger than me and walk about in an enviably stylized state of dishevel.

And so I became an old cliche.

No mind. Fast forward a year and I have a lease in Crown Heights, where I moved because my window didn’t look out at a brick wall (shockingly common). I’ve held more jobs in these 18 months than I’d had in the previous ten years. I’ve grown a spine and some guts and a pair. I’ve also grown some hefty hefty calves. I’ve explored Brooklyn: Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, Park Slope, Sunset Heights, Flatbush, Gowanus, and onwards. I’ve seen Manhattan from tip to top and ended up in Queens more than seems possible from missing a Manhattan train stop. I’ve hiked in the Hudson River Valley and crossed over into Jersey.

There are Chinese hand-pulled noodles here, and markets with live fish. There is such a thing as train traffic. You get yelled at at the Bodega by the kind person behind the counter who insists on putting milk and sugar in your coffee for you. People are nicer than you’d think. Everything is harder and smellier here, somehow, than anywhere else.

Stand for ten minutes on my street corner on a typical day and you’ll see a woman in a burqa, a gender ambiguous couple kissing, a Hasidic man on a fork lift doing business with Nigerian construction workers, some gang bangers, and a lot of tattoos, floppy hair, and chunky glasses. I swear I have landed in some sort of cultural tower of Babel. It keeps me hungry for more and running home for respite on a daily basis.

So what EXACTLY am I DOING here? 

The easy answer is living, like everyone everywhere else. I’ve found work, made friends, started volunteering and going to interesting events. New York has a very visible population of “giggers,” people who survive working various gigs in order to maintain a lifestyle that incorporates creative work, or where you just have time to be human. While I worked 60-hours a week like a “normal” person for several months, I’ve also done a collection of other things trying to figure out what fits me best.

Happily, I still get lost, on a near-daily basis, whether actually or metaphorically. There is always an alternate route, a noodle shop, a new friend, a new park trail, a new subway stop to try. And as a newly fledged gigger, I now have the time to tell you about it.