(Originally published in the NY Times)
I went for a walk the other night. Someone said it was supposed to rain, but the skies looked clear to me. I headed up Eighth Avenue, crossed over at 23rd Street and at 10th Avenue saw a stairwell going up and took it. I was on the High Line. That much I’d expected. What I had not anticipated was how crowded it would be, like being stuck on a moving sidewalk at an airport. But the night was too nice to begrudge anyone anything, particularly a chance to experience beauty.
So I imagined I was a tourist too, headed for a distant gate to board a plane to a place I’ve never been.
Somewhere along the way, I lost my hat. I didn’t realize this until I had exited the park at 30th Street, by which point I couldn’t imagine going back up to retrace my steps. I chose to take the lowlife route home, in the shadow of the High Line, instead.
It’s a different world down there. I stood at the mouth of a carwash, circa 1970, empty but operating. I saw a hooker who looked like a boy who looked like a girl, or maybe it was a girlish boy who wanted to look like a hooker. Either way, she smiled when I whistled at her.
I came to a gas station where 14 taxis were lined up for a single pump. I almost hopped in one but kept walking. I saw a pay phone up ahead — a pay phone! — and had to take a look. I flashed on how you had to plug them with quarters when making a long-distance call — the sound of the coins dropping, the magic of voices connecting, the disconsolate feeling when your coins ran out.
One man was using the phone, another leaning against the booth, as if waiting in line. The leaning man was very dark-skinned and striking-looking in his dark clothes, as if dressed for cold weather. He was holding a bouquet of white roses. He looked as if he lived on the streets.
I smiled at him and tipped my missing hat. “Gorgeous night,” I said, and I felt it was true, though the streets here were deserted and dirty; part of the gorgeousness in that moment was him and the old phone booth. He smiled back.
At the corner, I felt a presence and turned around. The man with roses was walking toward me very fast. The rose heads bobbed up and down against his chest, and I thought of a dozen bareheaded babies.
“I know you,” I heard him saying. “We’ve met.”
I did not rule this out. I have lived in New York only three years but have had many memorable encounters with strangers. More than once, I have had the same taxi driver twice. The man stopped in front of me and stared into my eyes, as if trying to read my mind. Then his eyes brightened. “Did I write a poem for you?” he said.
I stared back, searching my memory. A curtain lifted: Winter, 2009. Two in the morning. A snowstorm. I get out of a cab at Seventh and Christopher, and see a homeless-looking man on the corner. I give him the five bucks left from my cab fare. He thanks me but says he never takes something for nothing. All he can give me is a poem in return. He gives me a list of options.
“A love poem, of course,” I request. And so he stands there, in the whirling snow, and recites by heart a poem about love — and being about love, about heartbreak. The words go from his mouth to my ears and are carried off by the wind. Two and a half years later, on a different corner but under the same sky, we meet again.
“Billy, I’m going to write another poem for you,” he said. His name, he reminded me, was Wolf Song. He wanted to write it down for me this time. Neither of us had anything to write with. “Will you buy me a pen?” the poet asked.
There was a convenience store behind us. I bought Wolf Song a black ballpoint pen for a dollar. He got a beer from the fridge; I paid for that, too.
We left and started walking. “Come on, I’m taking you to my archive,” Wolf Song said. “You’ll see; it’s covered with poems.” He had the pen behind his ear and his beer in a paper bag.
I got a little nervous. The sun was setting. We were heading down a nearly empty street. From above us on the High Line came the buzz of the crowd; if I were to yell, no one would hear me.
“We need some paper, Billy,” he said.
There was a scrap of newspaper on the sidewalk, torn from The Times. He picked it up. Something caught my eye: “Look, there’s a map of the sky.” I recognized the Sunday “Sky Watch” column — a chart of the constellations.
Wolf Song looked stunned. He said he’d been thinking about a poem about the sky all day long. “It was meant to be, then,” I said. “Will you write it on the stars for me?”
He led me to his archive: a doorway, just a little enclosure. There were no poems posted on the walls. But to him there were. This was his retreat for poetry-making. I could almost feel his words encircling us.
Then he walked toward a car parked on the street. He put the roses and his can of beer on the hood — his desk. He put the newspaper down, then hesitated, pen in hand, as if suddenly self-conscious. “You write it,” he said. “I don’t have good handwriting.”
I assured him that it would be beautiful.
“O.K., Billy, this is only for you,” he said, and slowly, painstakingly, carefully forming each letter, he wrote his poem over the map of constellations. When he finished, he read it aloud, a koan to the heavens.
We both looked at the words of the poem on the scrap of paper on the empty street under the High Line and the darkening sky. Something passed between us. Both of us had tears in our eyes.
We shook hands and thanked each other. He gave me my poem and three roses, leaving nine for himself to give to other New Yorkers he would meet that night under the starry sky.
“We will see each other again,” I told him. “I know it.”
I turned and began walking. It was only then that I read the text accompanying the sky map in the newspaper:
This week the planet Venus will pass in front of the sun, becoming evident as a small black circle slowly moving across the solar disk. Such an occurrence is called a transit of Venus, one of the rarest of astronomical events.
It went on to say that only six times in recorded history have humans witnessed the passage of Venus in front of the sun, a chance meeting of two celestial bodies. After this one coming up on Tuesday, the next transit won’t be for 105 years.
When I got to the corner, I looked back to wave at the poet, but he was gone.