My father was a great walker. It was his only sport and his only pastime, if you don’t count reading or going to synagogue. He recalled walks the way some people recount epic ballgames, marathon strolls he accomplished as a young man when he and his friend Fred, a refugee like him, would wander from Washington Heights to Greenwich Village and back again.
My father was a professor of German literature, and his small store of natural history was connected to his walks. The Hudson River was an estuary and had tides. Manhattan schist — the mica-rich bedrock of the city — was blended into the city’s sidewalks, which accounted for their sparkle. City College, where he went to school at night, was built out of the schist quarried to create the school’s foundation, so that the gothic towers on 138th Street were in some sense a vertical extension of the sidewalks of New York. These facts were themselves imparted on walks.
My father came to this country at 16. Haunted by loss — his parents were murdered in the Holocaust — and frequently afflicted by doubts and regrets, he was at his resolute best when out walking. He was also much easier to talk to, not because he was more forthcoming but because his oblique utterances and sudden silences meshed well with a city where sights and sounds can feel like elaborations of consciousness as much as disruptions of it.
Americans, he once told me, hurried too much to walk properly, whereas in Vienna, where he was a boy, there was a certain style of walking — hands clasped behind the back, head bent in conversation — that men adopted as they strolled side by side. I remember his delight at sharing the details of a book he was reading that described a walk Gustav Mahler took with Sigmund Freud in 1910 through the narrow streets of Leiden, Holland. Mahler, panicked about his marriage, had sought out Freud, who later boasted that he resolved the distraught composer’s sexual neuroses in a single ambulatory session.
My father believed in the walking cure. Thus it was a particular sorrow when, in his 60s, his gait began to lose rhythm and my mother noticed that he was listing to one side. A neurologist diagnosed Parkinson’s disease.
My parents moved back to New York City from the Westchester suburb where they had migrated when my sister and I were young. Giving up their car was not a hardship. My mother didn’t like to drive, and my father, who no longer could, had always been a terrible driver. For years I thought it took a family of four to change lanes.
Our suburb, barbarically, did not even have sidewalks, but on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my father could still navigate the streets. If he got tired, there were coffee shops on every block. I also lived on the Upper West Side and often met my father for lunch on West 70th Street at a place he liked called Café Mozart, long since closed. After lunch, I would walk him the two blocks to his apartment building. As we stood under the canopy, he sometimes announced, “Now I’ll walk you home!”
My father’s mind had begun to falter — at lunch, he would forget to remove the fancy toothpick from his sandwich before taking a bite. I was afraid that even if he did not fall, he might get lost walking the half-mile home from my apartment, on 83rd Street, to his. Still, I let him do it; I could not deny him this last assertion of self-sufficiency, wobbly as he was. Once or twice after saying goodbye I shadowed him home, aware that if he fell I would not reach him in time.
Gradually the walking stopped. At home, in flashes of his old self, my father would speak of Heinrich Heine, who spent his last years in Paris having been confined to what he called his matratzengruft, his mattress grave. Finally we moved my father, who had sunk into dementia, to a nursing home on 106th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam.
The walk that I made from my apartment to the Jewish Home and Hospital remains fixed not only in my mind but in my body. I walked along the east side of Central Park West, with the park on my right. The hexagonal tiles that form the sidewalk on that side of the street were familiar from childhood, toylike puzzle pieces pushed easily out of place by the roots of the trees that grew much larger on the park side.
At 106th, I made a left at the red-brick remains of the New York Cancer Hospital, today part of a luxury-apartment complex but at the time a gloomy ruin. It was the country’s first hospital dedicated to cancer, and its circular wards were light-filled innovations. Its conical towers, designed in the 19th century, evoked a French chateau. But cancer care was primitive then, and the hospital built its own crematoria to dispose of the dead. The building had a second tragic act as a nursing home — shut down in 1974 amid horrible tales of abuse. The place always crushed my spirit and slowed my steps.
My father, oddly, looked even more professorial in his nursing home, his white beard neatly trimmed by an aide. But his mind, behind the furrowed mask of deep thought, was gone. After my visit, I headed straight for Central Park, entering through the aptly named Strangers’ Gate at 106th Street and climbing the flight of dark slate steps.
I’d become a bird-watcher not long before, and the park held a new sort of promise. In spring and fall I would bring binoculars and bird my way home. I was eager to lose my thoughts in the trees, and eager to find them too — dementia can feel contagious. I wanted to test my memory for newly acquired bird names, to fill my head with bird song and ward off my father’s fate. I wanted to escape the city as if sickness were an urban sorrow and not a universal one. Inside the park, I’d wander south toward the man-made lake at 101st, following the stream that runs east beneath stone arches into thickly shadowed woods, until I came to the meadow that slopes off to the south. I felt certain that my father, in all his vast city walking, had never set foot there.
I still feel mysteriously close to my father whenever I find myself in the North Woods of Central Park. Birds, trees and rocky ground can seem antithetical to who he was when he was alive, but my father knew that towers of higher learning are linked to stones half a billion years old in the bowels of the earth. And he knew that city sidewalks are mixed with mica, just as the fresh water of the Hudson River — which is really an estuary — mingles with salt as it rushes back to the sea.
Source: The New York Times Magazine
April 23, 2015
By Jonathan Rosen, photo by Rory Mulligan