We didn’t have to get down on our knees to see them. We didn’t have to pray. When she gently touched my shoulder and whispered, “Look, they are here”, I only smiled, knowingly and trying not to disturb her innocence. “Yes, darling, I know. I know they are”.
I still couldn’t tell from her voice or her eyes whether the ghosts scared her or made her happy. I assume it was both, but then there was simply too much to assume away from Fifth Avenue. When New York took you outside its famed junctures and buildings, it began to lose its disgusting clarity. The clarity that banged on your head and thrashed your chest and your exhausted ankles. Suddenly, the engrossing mess no longer looked or sounded all that engrossing. Suddenly, you badly wanted the noise, the pavements, the people to make sense. Because suddenly, New York was splitting itself into this stupefying maze of millions of streets that were there not to be listened to. Those streets… They were there to listen to you.
And this is where the ghosts lived.
As we were walking here this evening, slowly and almost reverently, I remembered the first day she told me about the ghosts. It happened in late August, three years ago. That day, it wasn’t so much us exploring these streets as the fact that we got horribly lost. Invisible newcomers, we had drifted away from the harrowing density, civilized wilderness of Central Park, and ended up in an anonymous street where you could almost be alone. Almost. It was not dark yet, and we were in that sort of mood: we switched off the mobile phones, we stuffed the all too confusing maps and tourist guides deeper in our pockets, and we were just… “Flânons”, she said, trying to remember her French. “Flânons”, I replied, trying to remember mine.
That evening, it was still quite early, but the low clouds, paving the way for a premature autumn, made the day look much older than it really was. The low clouds were teasing us with the swift, sullen wind that was not yet capable of doing much damage to the trees. Too unsure of themselves, random leaves were floating around in a tentative, detached manner. You felt for them. They didn’t look brave, they looked panicky. And then suddenly she said, “The girl who is playing the violin, over there. The street corner, look”. While the street was not exactly desolate, it took me just five seconds: “Yes, what about her?” She looked a little disappointed, a little taken aback. “Well, can’t you see? She isn’t there. Can’t you see?! She is a ghost”.
I looked around. I looked at an Indian curry place with its smudgy door and windows, a grocery where you would almost feel embarrassed to pay more than one dollar for anything, steady rows of lamp-posts that shed no light but were merely posts, scraps of local newspapers and ice-cream wrappers scattered about our feet… People who were either too numb or too business-like to care for a melody that got drowned in their heels, iPods and the smoke of their cigarettes. “Yes, I said, I see what you mean. She is. God, I didn’t even notice her at first!..”.
All the same, we stopped to listen. The girl was good. Her playing wasn’t accurate, but then, in the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, anyone can play accurately. You certainly don’t need that in a New York street. Particularly, and there really was no doubt about that, if you were a ghost. “It’s brilliant!” I said, trying to take in all the little bumps and breaks of her passion that was so irresistible yet so out of place. What was it she was playing?.. We pricked our ears, but it was hard to place the tune: that proverbial piece we all know, vaguely recognize but find so hard to remember. “It’s a really famous one”, I whispered. To which she replied: “Yes, but I just can’t remember what’s it called”. And neither could I. At some point she jerked the lapel of my jacket, as softly as only she could, and we came up to the girl. The girl (she looked twenty) may have been nothing but an apparition, but there was a hat, and there was money in it. We stooped down to throw in all the change we had. The girl nodded abstractly as we retreated and made our way further down the street. “Won’t be of much use to her”, I said. She sighed in agreement.
And of course, as the night grew nearer, we saw many more of them. Sometimes it would be me who stopped her and pointed in the direction of a phantom drunkard, policeman or an office clerk rushing off home, and sometimes she was the first to exclaim: “But look, look at the beggar! The beggar’s a ghost, too”. Yes, of course he was. The beggar was a ghost, too…
However, it was different this evening. At first, it was the usual routine we had long gotten used to: one by one, the ghosts were slowly emerging, creeping and crawling out of tenement buildings and street corners. Dangling in the background. But it got worse, and pretty soon there were simply too many of them. Which made it all a bit of a blur, because at some point it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between them and… others. Normal people, real people, people like us. Usually, it would be so easy to tell: this lack of lustre in their hair, the peculiar curve of their lips, the very remoteness of their frail silhouettes… This time, though, nothing was giving them away. And this evening, for the first time ever, she seemed confused about New York ghosts.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You look… pale”.
“You… don’t think…”.
I smiled, knowingly and trying not to…
“No, no, don’t worry, I don’t”.
And then I saw it, the direction of her gaze. She was looking at someone.
There’s perhaps one thing you should know about New York ghosts. They never reappear. They only exist once, and if you choose to retrace your steps and face their cadaverous features for the second time, you won’t be able to see them. Sometimes you might be so lucky as to see trampled grass or maybe their footprints, but even that is unlikely. What is more likely is that you will face other people, other ghosts; or you won’t face anything at all. But this evening was different, and here was that same girl, on the street corner, playing her violin, playing the same piece. There was no mistake: I suddenly became conscious of the street, which was the same street as three years ago.
“It’s… her”, she said.
“But it can’t be! And she’s playing that same piece…”.
I could feel her trembling. She was like a warm, homely, frightened bird caught out in the chilly air of an open-street evening. I wanted to lead her away, take up her thoughts and her imagination with the latest exhibitions of the Metropolitan Museum, but I could also see that she couldn’t resist and simply had to put it all to rest. Besides, none of the latest Metropolitan exhibitions interested her. And so we got closer. This time, though, it was not about the hat or our change. We wanted to get a closer look at the girl’s face and that pallid summer frock, to prove ourselves wrong and laugh at our own silliness. But all we saw was the same girl. The girl that was our first New York ghost from three years back.
The girl noticed us, and we felt the expression of her eyes that in a matter of seconds turned from anxiety into fear into utter, all-encompassing horror. The girl stopped playing and began muttering something. The name, the title: we didn’t want to hear.
It was seconds later that we became aware of some strange movement behind us, and as we turned around we saw dozens, hundreds of other ghosts closing in on the two of us. All those ghosts we’d seen in this city, they were probing us with their ashen eyes and slow-motion steps. “What do they want from us?” she cried. But what was there I could tell her? How could I possibly break it to her? That they were after our innocence, laid bare against the dusty pavements of New York?..
The strange silent garden of this awful, delightful city. No, we didn’t accept it. After all, it was New York, and you accept nothing in New York. But then New York doesn’t really care: it accepts you, oh don’t you ever doubt that... So no, we didn’t take them in, all those ghosts, as their one single breath began to tickle our bewildered senses. We didn’t. But there was one unspoken deal, one that none of them had a clue about: it was too late, closing time was upon us, so she and I, we decided to play along.