I was with them when they passed the old violin player bent over playing a happy air at the tunnel’s mouth, in the park. The day was getting on to night, and still he was there. I was with them on the Great Lawn, when they pranced and goofed for each other’s cameras, and they pointed at the last pink in the summer sky, when Mandy and Kelsey knocked each other over, laughing, and when they took off their shoes and felt the grass’ cool.
They stayed close together, close on each other’s heels on gum-spotted subway platforms, among sidewalk stands selling glittery 3 dollar hairpins or necklaces of pearly bits of shell. I took dozens of pictures of them, earnest faces in a row bent over finger puppets, lions and walruses of yarn, or over necklaces of stained glass or ceramic in Soho; holding up cheap T-shirts in Chinatown, with appraising eyes, or fingering 5 dollar ties for Dad on Fulton Street. Running to the last car of the R train or the 2 train, they’d pile in with the frantic glee of kids getting away with something, grinning as the doors close. They’d all grab the same pole, lose their balance at the same time, laugh at the same moment.
I was with them when a bassist and a guitarist sang a Mexican song on the subway, when a beggar intoned pitifully to the whole car his search for a few more bucks for a room for the night: when a noodle man made one more twist on a blob of dough, and noodles appeared magically in his hands, and when I devoured them; when men pulled a huge fish from the tank and knocked it on the head, when Van Gogh’s sky hung before them swirling blue and white above that meadow: when they waded in the fountain at Washington Square Park, when they nibbled timidly on cannolis at Café Reggio, a place stained dark with time; when they tilted their heads back at the arches of the cathedral, when they gazed at the Tiffany landscape. I was with them when they tripped out of the romantic dream of the movie theatre onto the warm air of Broadway near midnight, when they gagged at the sight of a gay couple kissing, when they gawked at the mad diamond glitter at Tiffany’s. I was with them when the men on Canal Street shouted “White gold yellow gold we got bling bling come and get it we got it bling bling bling,” when the cops bagged the African with the fake Prada purses in a sheet at Times Square, when they dared me to ride the glass elevator up 48 stories with them. But I wouldn’t do it, like they wouldn’t accept my dare to eat baklava, or olives. I was with them when they flocked toward Zabar’s for the name alone, inherited from motherly memories, where they smelled the smoked salmon, the cheeses, the coffees, the struedels, and bought mugs with the special name; when they watched Brooklyn slide by from the ferry, when they saw angels on ancient tombstones at Trinity Church, when they watched a man on the unicycle juggling a knife, a torch, and a bowling pin: when they drooped on stoops and on benches, when they dozed on the floor at Barnes and Noble, worn down by the city -- when they clustered close around me among the black men at 110th street, coming home to Karen’s.
They were young, this side of perfect, knowing nothing even of their own unhappinesses. They were young, they were strangers, they were the best of friends. They did not yet know how much their mothers were in them. I saw, I knew. They were a way they were never again to be; they were as they had always been. They were alive and I was with them. They were alive and their energy merged with the river of the cruel city’s life and came back to them mysteriously doubled. The world was big enough for five girls, on four days, in 2006. The world was in crisis, but they did not know it. Someday they’ll wander by chance into a dilapidated temple of memory and see four candles lit to those days, and remember, smiling.