One of the very cool things about my building is the rooftop deck, which, at nine stories, gives you an exhilarating view of the city. Look west and you’ll see John D. Rockefeller’s Riverside Church on 121st, which of course looks like the chapel named for him at the University of Chicago, but which is nonetheless reassuring because it became a cutting edge of civil rights (and other) activism in the 1960s; also because it hosts an AA meeting every Monday night in one of the richly paneled rooms on the first floor, close by the sanctuary itself. You’ll also see Morningside Park, just below Columbia, which is identifiable by the trees that climb its steep shale, the hard surface that undergirds all of Manhattan.
Look east and you’ll be almost face to face with the limestone spire of the 2nd Dutch Reformed Church built in 1910, now a thriving Jehovah’s Witness congregation; lean a little and you can see Marcus Garvey Park one block off Lenox. Look south and you can see the Empire State Building’s radio tower, and in the foreground of that vision are the treetops of Central Park just below 110th.
Look anywhere else and you’ll trip over yourself.
This afternoon I went up to the deck to drink some beer and read over a piece I’m trying to peddle to a mainstream Left publication. I’m a little confused by the enthusiastic reception it has received among friends, because everybody seems to agree that it makes sense—this is a new experience, even with friends—so I thought I’d go up there and decipher the code I’d unknowingly cracked.
I was holding a glass of Chesterfield Ale in my left hand; in the other I carried a Ziploc bag containing a can of Natural Light covered in ice; the official, ostensible business was tucked under my right arm.
When the elevator door opened onto the roof, I stepped out, and then stopped because a sun-hatted woman with a turtle in her hand was crouching protectively, left forearm raised against my intrusion. I stepped back into the elevator.
She said, “Are you a dog?” and as I hastened to assure her that I was not, she said “I’m sorry, I mean do you have a dog?” This query set off several unwanted associations involving beautiful animals moving gracefully through hunting grounds, because I did have dogs while I was married, but I was able in almost an instant to say, “No, I don’t.”
“Dogs love to hound turtles,” she said as she straightened up, then bent again to place the turtle in a boutique bag filled with newspaper.
“Is that your turtle,” I asked, still standing in the elevator, and immediately scolded myself, correcting enough to say, “I mean, are you babysitting or does he live here full time?” She wasn’t ugly, and by this time I didn’t know how to hold the door and get off the elevator without spilling beer.
“Oh no, he’s mine, full time, yeah, he’s a handful.”
“I can see that, look at the size of him,” I said, noting that the turtle’s shell was about 6 by 5 inches, nicely mottled, a little rough around the edges, though, as if he’d been a chew toy before the adoption papers were final. More dogs, more associations. “But, uh,” I continued, “do you take him everywhere with you, I mean, like, on the subway, like a dog?”
“Oh no, he stays at home! We’re up here because he needs sunshine, especially now that it’s spring. I let him crawl around for fifteen minutes, it warms him up.” She looked at the turtle. “Makes him happy.”
“The turtle is happy,” I said, I’m still holding the elevator door with my left hand and I really want to ask why spring matters to reptiles—I’m sure it does—but instead I said, “that’s a good thing, how are you doing?”
She looked at me quizzically, as if no one had ever asked her this question, or as if she’s getting ready to answer it in earnest, but meanwhile she stepped sideways into the elevator, turtle in tow. “What’s his name,” I asked as I stepped out, gesturing with the glass of beer and finally spilling some.
Then she looked at me with serious doubt, I could tell because she was squinting. “I’m doing fine,” she said, “are you OK?”
“Well, yeah, more or less,” I said as the elevator door closed.