NY Park volunteers

Cameos from a summer's hot end in NY

It starts out reasonably, weather-wise, a perfect blue sky, breezy late August day. St. Peter's Church, mid-town, the last free Thursday concert of the summer, and oh what a finale. The Amina Figarova Sextet, with the tireless, talented Amina, a modest drummer, a flute player whose every breath produces a trill of perfect notes, the trumpeter whose solos are so inventive the audience is not sure when he is finished and clap before he has completed his arc, which produces a grimace of frustration on his face and laughter in his fellow musicians. Good company in Nathan and Le Cora, the former a teacher between jobs and the latter a singer herself. An hour and a half of brilliant jazz, not only free but fabulous.

Standing at the corner of Avenue A and 9th Street, waiting to cross, a woman comes up to the light standard and pulls off some old tape, rubs it smooth, sprays it with silver paint. She is part of a brigade of neighbourhood volunteers that keep Tompkins Square looking good. The next day students from NYU are giving a day of service, working on the other side of the park, weeding flower beds, painting backdrops in the handball court. Sunday morning, while the bells chime at St. Brigid's, a young woman works a worn broom under benches to dislodge litter.

Lincoln Centre, the plaza is full, every chair occupied, some of them since 5:30, maybe earlier, people munching on sandwiches they brought for the evening, or spooning gelato that is sold from a cart parked behind the Philharmonic building, all waiting for the HD presentation of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin to begin at 7:45. The night is torrid, any ruffling of the atmosphere rare as if rationed by a stingy wind God. A beautiful, tastefully but casually dressed, smooth-skinned 86 year old in the chair behind recalls her early days in New York, her playwright husband, the fun they had. Widowed for nearly 20 years, her life is busy with her four children and five grandchildren and events like this one, which she chose because Tchaikovsky is so good with melodies, she says.
The young man sitting next to her, and the striking young woman on his left side, are recent graduates from a City University music programme. He will teach music, and she, a soprano, will continue her studies at Julliard. Perhaps one day, in a colour blind casting of Eugene Onegin, she will step onto the Met stage as Tatiana.

Steaming Sunday afternoon on East 10th. A mid-height man, slight build, neatly dressed, skin the colour of nutmeg, stands as if his feet are literally stuck to the sidewalk in front of a residential building next to a branch library. He is weaving, not violently, but slowly like he is doing T'ai-Chi, which he is not. Arms at his side, head rolling a bit. A delivery boy stops loading a truck to glance over; is he okay? Will he fall? Suspense hangs in the sticky air until someone disposing garbage in the big black bin attracts the man's attention and he waltzes a few steps off. Across the street, a couple in spandex, her with midriff bare, practice handstands.
During an air-conditioned break in The Bean, on First Avenue, a slight man with a thick Polish accent asks, do you know what this music is? He is referring to the rock/pop blasting from the speakers. This is not Mozart, this is not Alleluia, he says, this is Satan, chaos, emotion, destruction. His grey hair is slicked back, making a neat deck that falls to just above his collar. He is clean shaven, but the glasses he wears remind me of Trotsky.

Back into the heat, where people with sacks and rolling carts line up for their portions of potatoes, bananas, small plastic boxes of salad the Bowery Mission is handing out.  Deeper into the park, under the big shade trees, servers ladle hot soup out of industrial-size vats. Just beyond them, and behind a fence, children dodge in and out of jets of water.

Last stop of the day,  a consignment store around the corner, where a sweating, bald headed six-footer tries on sun glasses with white frames and performs along with Elvis, whose voice syrups out from the radio. "On a cold and grey Chicago morning... " but this is New York in late summer, and it is anything but cold.