The first half of “The Ramble” appeared in the journal South Loop Review in 2012. A handsome annual focusing on art and creative nonfiction produced by Columbia College Chicago, SLR was discontinued a couple of years back, and replaced by a new publishing venture from CCC called Punctuate. “The Ramble” is thus pretty much unavailable; and since only the first part appeared in the journal, and the subject and theme work rather well for that new, more roomy blog-cellar called The Charnel House, I thought to make the full essay (or whatever it is) available on The Pit Stop.
Y no hallo sino la palabra que huye,/ La iniciación melódica de la flauta fluye/ Y la barca del sueño que en el espacio boga. (Rubén Darío)
The Ramble represents a tiny fraction of the total area of Central Park: bound by the 79th Street crossing to the north, The Lake to the south and west, and the park loop road to the east. To call it a wood would hardly do justice to the word, or the place. Not the morass of old growth, creeper and bearshit stretching from Cape Cod to the Great Plains that our pioneer forebears tamed.
But this is an enchanted wood, I say. A city wood. Its geography is deceiving. Unstable. It does not hew to the immutable laws of space and time we associate with Euclid, Galileo, and Newton. It is as Blake’s universe in a grain of sand, common to all enchanted places: clown cars and mirror halls, hypercubes and wormholes, subways called Moebius, cell nuclei with their miles of DNA tightly coiled, the acres cultivated on the crenellated surfaces of the brain and intestine, fractal shorelines magnified until Zeno’s blunt arrow never reaches its mark. All measure is estimation and imposition, willful blindness to a truth that The Ramble whispers every time I enter. Will you be able to find your way out? Have you seen this path before? Are you sure you haven’t just made a circle? If you have, then why does nothing look familiar?
Mimicking the dreamwork, in The Ramble distant places come to share a border, and neighborhoods are rent apart. In dreams I have walked up the wooded hill behind the house where I grew up and into a natatorium that was eight miles and three townships away. I have fallen asleep on the 65-block jag of the A train between 125th Street and Columbus Circle and woken up in Buenos Aires, unable to convince the English-speaking conductor that this was irregular, not to say impossible. Then, in a building across from the obelisk on the Avenida Nueve de Julio, the hallways look suspiciously like those of my high school, and eventually I come upon my mathematics classroom, and my calculus teacher, to whom I am unable to explain my two-month absence or lack of preparation—except, of course, for the fact that I fell asleep on the New York City subway and ended up in Argentina.
As in the dream of my transposed mathematics classroom, the woods of The Ramble mutate as I walk them. Each footstep measures time differently. I might find the magnolias in full blossom and the pond under a foot of snow, watch the birds meeting themselves on their way back north, clasping their wings in their beaks as they turn to gaze over their scapulars. I might come upon my own footsteps (so I did make a circle), and then myself as a younger or older man, staring at the wood with a forlorn, romantic intensity. Then again in The Ramble every stranger looks, in his or her city way, just a little familiar, like distant kin. And what is true of the people is true of the place: no matter how many times I go, nothing ever looks entirely familiar, nothing ever looks utterly strange.
And if I happen to find my way out of The Ramble, I am afraid that, like the time-traveller, I might find the City changed: nothing north of the Flatiron but meadows and woodland, or one continuous high-rise development as far as the eye can see, the name changed to Trumpopolis, or Bloomberglandia, the name flashing by on endless pinball neon tickers and stenciled to the bellies of titanic, golden, cloudlike blimps; the Natural History museum shorn of its Teddy Roosevelt rotunda, or the rotunda overgrown with vegetation like some Mayan shrine, the dome caved in like a sacked cathedral’s, rats and possums nesting like the first mammals in the partly-collapsed skeletons of once-rearing Brachiosaur and crouching Allosaur. I might find new tenants in the apartment where I used to live, my key useless, or, like Cheever’s swimmer, the building condemned, or demolished, or replaced, together with the rest of my block, by a shopping mall. Wife and children gone, grown or dead, or maybe never born, and myself, unmarried or widowed, beardless or monkishly bearded. I am Israel Potter, Wakefield, Rip Van Winkle, Lovecraft’s “Outsider,” I am …
(But I was there only half an hour, I think. I never even ate the banana in my bag. Look: it’s still yellow. Not even any spots. I was supposed to be home at one.)
No matter how long we have lived in a great city, through a combination of occasional, serendipitous deviations from our own semi-conscious routine, and the city’s continual renewal, we are always poised to discover some heretofore-hidden nook. The Ramble makes palpable this concept of the city as a finite space infinitely subdividable. But the city wears the mask of another idea: the perfect Cartesian space, its streets, avenues and floors numbered as diligently and unequivocally as any x, y, and z axis. The Cartesian grid pretends to exhaust our knowledge of the city (I know precisely where a, b, and c are located), and the City yearns for the perfection of Cartesian space, even as The Ramble revels in an alternate, equally seductive idea that the space inside every square or cube is inexhaustible and unknowable; that the frontier is not out there but in here, shifting like the play of sunlight through branches; and if it is inside the grid, then it must be part of the grid, and so how can the grid be anything but the pretense of knowledge and order? How can I speak of knowing the city? What does it mean, finally, to know a place? I can weave my net finer and finer, but when I cast it, the littlest beasts will always slip through. Was that not the net whereby Descartes attempted to capture himself?
Thus only in The Ramble can one truly speak of “escaping the city”: not to the insipid curves of the beautiful, the gardens and lawns of nostalgia and authority, the ballfields where the slums and boroughs disport themselves, but rather, into the mood, and perhaps with some practice, the consciousness that within every measured prison of Cartesian space, there is a tunnel; there is a wrinkle, a tear, et cetera, in every square yard of that oh-so-worn metaphor of the Cartesian fabric. Who knows but that I might be walking between 87th and 88th Streets on the West side and suddenly find myself staring up at the grillwork of the Williamsburg Bridge? No matter that people never leave their neighborhoods, they are always one step from lost, from the rotten plank and the unhinged grate. Don’t blink, don’t daydream, don’t let your mind wander, because where the mind goes the body is bound to follow. Fix your gaze on the cupola on the horizon. The skyscrapers are rooted in schist, true; but how they sway!
If you happen to find your way out of The Ramble with such a new awareness—and (so many conditions!) if you happen to find the world pretty much as you left it—then you will be dimly conscious, crossing the avenue, east or west, that between this streetlight and the next there is an uncharted manhole without cover or bottom, and that every spidery crack in the sidewalk threatens to engulf you. You will learn to recognize the gaits of those who, like you, have just emerged, as you would someone who had just stepped off a carousel, or a boat after months at sea: unsteady, even wary, as if the Self could be spilled like liquid from an open container; a drunken weaving between building and curb and back to building, in a vain attempt to divine the intention of the sidewalk; and then those sudden turns, almost pirouettes, as if they were responding to an inaudible call, or to an invisible tap on the shoulder; or, perhaps, to recover something they imagined had fallen through a hole in their pocket.
Years ago, when you first started coming to The Ramble, you were confident, even to the point of arrogance. Your mother liked to say you had a built-in compass, and when your family drove out to Jersey or up to Westchester to visit some mall, they always followed you out to the car at the end of the day. That was your job: you never had to carry a shopping bag (you were too little to, anyway); you just had to locate the car in that sea of concrete and glinting metal and windshield glass. But it never occurred to you to exert these powers in The Ramble until, one August day, you made it from the east to west entrances with unexpected celerity. You turned back and stared at that weird little park-bound wood. Could you do it again? Galvanized, you made a detour (as it were) around the south end of The Lake and re-entered The Ramble from the west side. You were careful to make the same turns as before. But somehow you ended up trapped at The Lake’s north edge, watching like a manor ghost the lovers row leisurely by. You wasted another half hour finding your way back to the west entrance (at least you thought it was the west entrance; you could only really be sure coming from the other side, but you hadn’t wanted to waste time going around The Lake again, although it might have been faster than fighting your way back here, wherever that was), and tried again, careful to correct for the error. But you must have overcompensated, because you ended up at Belvedere Castle instead, looking out now over the mocking symmetry of the Great Lawn. At last, with twilight fast approaching, you found the main path again, what you believed to be the most direct east-west route. Now came the real test, for commutativity: you walked it backwards, not like you were wearing flippers, of course not, just in the opposite direction, from east to west, and you found the west exit once again. You walked the path back and forth until dark, until you were certain you had it memorized, in your muscles, in landmarks—the arched stone, the great flowering magnolia, the endowed bench—and in inherited rules of thumb (“always turn left to find the center of a labyrinth”). You were puffed up with the idea that you had outwitted the Designer. In the following days you announced your discovery to friends and family, all of whom looked at you like you were a little off. You even offered to serve as a guide to the occasional lost-looking tourist, particularly if they were young and pretty and unattended.
Then the misgivings began. Not that you were lost. The very fact that you were not lost troubled you. To what extent could this straight east-west path you discovered be called The Ramble? Could it be that you were only sure you were in The Ramble when you were lost? You tried leaving the path. But every sidetrack led you immediately back to the main route. Your first thought was that all that stuff about infinite complexity, clown cars and funny walks, spatial paradoxes and universes in grains of sand, was nonsense. But try as you might, you could not shrug it off. You grew frustrated, then desperate. Depressed by the wretched pittance of mystery the modern world had left for you, for your age; nostalgic for the cold tickle at the nape of your neck when you used to wander these paths without knowing east from west, when The Ramble was as sublime as the open ocean or outer space, oh, world-weary traveller, nothing more to see, nothing commensurate, as Fitzgerald once wrote, to his capacity for wonder! Reason, logic, analysis, mystery-murdering curses of the human mind, dragging Beauty, those lost tourists, damsels in distress, into the cruel light of Inquisition, and then to the gallows!
Then another thought: that The Ramble was really just hiding, that your original desire to discover the most direct east-west route had forced it to withdraw. The coy Ramble hides, veiled by the nearest thicket, a stone’s throw from where you walk!* Now you were faced with a different task, one which, compared to the first, seemed infinitely more difficult: You had to make yourself lost again. How to proceed? Where to begin? You walked twenty paces with your eyes closed, opened them to make sure you were not about to run into a tree, did the same thing again, ten times. As you walked you swung your arms wildly, like a Hollywood monster. But when you opened your eyes again, you were still on the silk road. Too mechanical; all those multiples of ten. Try prime numbers instead. When you had exhausted every prime up to twenty-nine (to go any further would have been dangerous, you thought), you opted for walking with your head down, only looking at the concrete a few inches in front of your shoes. If you ran up against dirt or branch, you veered one way or the other to make sure you stayed on a path, whatever path it might be. Sometimes voices overtook and passed you. In time you stopped hearing them. The ever-identical strip of concrete scrolling by helped to clear your mind. You tried to stop thinking entirely. But every time you looked up (and you did so, you thought, too often), you still were not lost.
And then you came upon one of those rusty green signs like you see in malls and sports complexes, pretending to tell visitors that they are HERE: here, a scrimmage of white lines with a ludicrously pointing arrow. As helpful as that mysterious sentence you still remembered from the first computer adventure game: You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. With each movement—east, west, north, south—the machine would spit back the same message, until you either ran out of food and died, or found your way out.
A blue blob on the map, representing the fish pond: the center of The Ramble, or perhaps better, its heart. For the moment you forgot your desire to become lost, put one finger on the arrow and the other on the blob, your eyes tracking back and forth between them, until you were sure you had memorized the proper series of turns. And off you went, in full explorer mode once again. Right, left, right, left …
Pattern exhausted, the pond should have been directly in front of you. Only there was no pond. The magnolia you could see across the clearing was not the great magnolia of the east-west crossing—or, if it was the same magnolia, you were seeing it from a new angle. None of the benches here were benches you recognized. In fact, nothing at all looked familiar.
Eventually you do arrive at the pond. If you have not already, you will. According to your watch, a half hour has elapsed, but it might as well be half a day, half a life. Jays frolic in the creek. Dragonflies conjugate on leaves. Blurry orange and grey fish glide by, tracing the figures of numbers yet to be discovered. Quiet, gloom pervade here, no matter the season, the declination or relative brightness of the sun. There is mystery barely contained in the trembling leaves and sobbing water, the rustle of the birds, the squat insects that hover before your nose and the logs resigned to rot. And in the men who always occupy the benches: tourists who forgot to bring their guidebooks along, sleeping drunks, dog-walkers with empty leashes, shirtless men with soft expressions and one strap of their overalls undone, familiar strangers all of them, lost souls, you. And if some errant boat from The Lake were to pass rowing through the sky, or a swan were to suddenly flap down through the trees and land in the water, scattering the fish and smaller birds until a new silence had been established, a silence such as only a swan can preside over, you imagine none of these men would raise an eyebrow. And neither (you think, taking your place now on a bench beside them) would you. Your head is a carousel, and a dark current drags at your thoughts. You realize that you may never find your way back. You realize that you are not waiting for anything.
* Only it is not the foliage that makes The Ramble The Ramble; winter is no less mysterious. As the bare trees open one path to another, the effect is of wandering in a hall of mirrors, always able to see the people on the adjancent paths, but never able to meet up with them.