Swings of Harlem

Valeria Luiselli

The Things Maia and I
Need for Our Map-Walks
  1. New shoes
  2. Real map (foldable)
  3. Polaroid camera (borrow?)
  4. Two notebooks and two pens
  5. Cloth to cover snapshots
  6. Jackets with large pockets
Riverside Park
Riverside Drive & 116th St

The fat autumn sun hangs low over the Hudson. I’m sitting alone on the park bench, swathed in a blue cloak; the camera in my bag, wrapped up in its red cloth.

It’s been at least three years since I was alone in a park, without Maia. I’m immediately awkward: a camera, no kid.

I had met Frias in front of the Korean restaurant on Broadway before coming to the park. Frias is a friend who owns many different types of cameras and takes good pictures and makes movies. He doesn’t appear in this map again until somewhere in the middle. Then he vanishes completely. He handed me the Polaroid in its red cloth and let me unwrap it. A beautiful thing. He took it back immediately – like a toy you don’t really want to share – and showed me how to use it. It opens up like Maia’s Maclaren stroller so straightaway I knew how to open and close it.

We went over the basics: load, focus, shutter. While I was learning how to use the focus, I snapped a shot by mistake. The camera-mouth spit out a photo – he quickly grabbed it and hid it in his jacket pocket. The photos, he explained, have to be in complete darkness while they develop. I put the camera in my bag.

He said: Take good care of it. He said: As if it was your own kid. I promised I would take care of the camera. He doesn’t have kids.

I get up from the park bench and walk over to the playground a few meters further on and ask an almost teenage girl – relentless melancholia, acne, mind-noise – if I can take a picture of her swinging.

She says Okay, and pushes her feet softly against the ground for impulse, eyes fixed on her lap, muttering to herself. I take the photo and clumsily place it in my coat pocket. When I say Thanks she looks back at me and smiles – a beautiful smile, suddenly unencumbered.

While I’m walking up 116th St to take the subway and head for the daycare to fetch Maia, I take the picture out of my coat pocket, study it.

General Grant Memorial Park
Playground at top of hill
Riverside & 124th St

She’s wearing blue jeans, a red t-shirt with a dog printed on it, a pink coat and white socks so tiny it always makes me wonder how she manages to screw her chubby feet into them. She sits on the floor by the door to her bedroom, concentrating, trying, thrusting her entire soul upon a blue Converse tennis shoe she wants to fit to her right foot. I try to explain: You have to put your foot into the shoe and not the shoe into the foot. Does it matter, in her world of such few words, if foot or shoe comes first?

She glances back at me – her huge, almond-shaped eyes silently demanding that I let her be, that I quit giving instructions, that I just sit and watch her do it. She looks at me, past me, and towards the other side of me – and then back at her foot. She tries the opposite of what she’s been doing. It doesn’t really make a difference. Maybe she’s right: the shoe in the foot and not the foot in the shoe. There’s a grammatical ambivalence in the act. Overwhelmed, she lets the shoe fall from her hands and onto the floor. Gaze fixed on her feet, a heavy, sincere, single tear swells in her eye, inches down her cheek, clings to the edge of her chin, swings a little, and plunges into her lap.

Morningside Park
Morningside Ave & 123rd St

I haven’t used a Polaroid camera in many years. The only one I ever owned broke in Cape Town. It rolled down the front steps of the house where I lived – first happy, then unhappy – for six months. I never fixed it. I never fixed anything that broke in that house – myself included. I left it there with half of my belongings and never went back for them. Some pictures left inside a drawer: Two people on a boat embracing, Young man on front steps tying shoelace, Me with a stomach-ache and wearing socks lying on a green couch, Table with breakfast leftovers on January 1st 2003.

Riverbank Park
145th Street

Two girls, about ten or eleven years old, on the swing next to us. We eavesdrop on their conversation while I push and Maia lets herself be pushed – it’s impossible not to overhear, because they’re shouting, their words moving back and forth with them, flying across swings, interweaving, blending, bouncing against each other, then disappearing in the crisp afternoon air.

What’s your least favorite subject?
Your least favorite subject.
Science. Yours?
Mine too.
My dad helps me with the homework though.
What does he do?
He’s mostly a poet.
And an English teacher. But he’s really smart. He says someone will publish him. One day.
And yours?
Mine’s a hostage negotiator.
Like a real estate broker?
What’s that?
Me neither.
How about we go over to the slides?
Marcus Garvey Park
Madison Avenue & 120th St

Maia has almost stopped stuttering. At times it comes back – the difficult “p” – the almost painful “b” – the long “m” in Mamma. Sometimes she gets so frustrated that she bursts into tears. Those days, we sing out loud a lot, because she never stutters when she’s singing, and she knows it. We both sing off-key.

On good days, when there’s no stuttering at all, she tells long, winding, cryptic stories. They remind me of Bob Dylan’s obscure post-Christian-conversion lyrics. If she had a little more vocabulary and knew how to write, she would maybe write a song like “The Changing of the Guards” – unfathomable. She says things I want to write down immediately but don’t, because I almost never have a pen handy; things like Look, Mamma, the river looks like a knife.

Fred Samuel Playground
Malcolm X Ave & 139th St

When I was a little older than Maia is now, perhaps six or seven, I was often called into the headmistress’ office on account of my “foul mouth”. I was constantly punished, constantly sent to after-school detention. But only once did the headmistress seriously punish me. The punishment: washing my tongue with a bar of soap. The offense: using a “big word” during story-telling time. The first grade teacher was reading us a story in which a couple of children made a snowman in their backyard. When they had finally finished it and placed a hat on its round, brainless head, the snowman suddenly came to life and addressed the children. By their names. I was deeply shocked by this uncanny event. So, in a rapture of enthusiasm, or perhaps in fear, I half-covered my mouth with both palms and said: Holy Fuck.

Morningside Park
Morningside Ave & 123rd St

I like the way Kimya Dawson sings. It sounds like she’s smiling while she’s singing, like she’s always about to break into a soft, quiet smile.

I’m not sure what part of the body is responsible for unleashing a smile. I try to smile a few times, fixing my attention on the tiny twitches in my face as a smile opens across it. But it’s impossible to smile frankly while I’m watching myself.

I sing Kimya Dawson’s “Tire Swing” to Maia, as I push. I like a line that goes “Cause I like to be gone most of the time, and you like to be home most of the time.” Am I too old to listen to The Moldy Peaches? I’m almost 30.

That song makes me smile. In a frank, simple way. I’m pretty sure that that particular smile, the one that comes while I’m singing and pushing Maia, starts somewhere in the stomach muscles.

Carmansville Playground
Amsterdam Ave & 152nd St

Why do children mostly swing with their mouths open and their eyes closed when they’re moving forward?

Central Park East & 107th St

Someone told me a sad story about the horses that pull carriages at the southern tip of Central Park. I don’t know if it’s true but can’t help remembering it every time I go there, even at the northern end of the park, where there are no horses. Someone said: You know they try to kill themselves, these horses? Some of them knock their heads against walls and trees. They thrust themselves into the rocks. They bite their limbs. They can’t break free.

Sakura Park

The first time she saw the Polaroid camera she thought it was a toy truck. She asked why it didn’t have any tires.

I opened it and showed her how to use it – snapped a shot of her and placed the rectangular picture face down on the floor, my hand pressed against it. I asked her to blow on it once and close her eyes, to create a sense of expectation, and after a few minutes, I flipped it over and asked her to open her eyes. She wasn’t as impressed as I thought she would be.

Isn’t this pretty?
Not so much.
What do you mean not so much?
I mean just a little bit.

But now she’s grown fond of it. When she’s not swinging she helps me take the pictures from the camera-mouth and hide them in my pocket as soon as they slide out. She knows we have to protect them from the light. And when my pockets are filled with polaroids and there’s no more space, she offers her scarf to wrap around them. Her pockets are too small. She always blows once on the covered picture before unveiling it.

Jackie Robinson Park
Bradhurst Ave & 150th St

I had a number of white button-through shirts which I wore to school as part of my uniform. My mother had mistakenly bought ones without pockets, so she had to make the pockets herself. She bought a few meters of white cotton and cut strips to sew onto the shirts. For some obscure reason – guilt, perhaps – she decided to make the new pockets extra long. They stretched down the left side of my rib cage, from my collarbone to about the level of my belly button. She would drop a pencil into the pocket every morning. But it was to no avail, as I was always unable to reach far enough down into the pocket without performing some conspicuous contortion. (I used to sit in the front row of the classroom, always under the close surveillance of my teacher.) Every day, I preferred asking the person sitting next to me for a pencil instead of bearing the humiliation of disclosing the depth of my pocket to any of my classmates. Plus, the pockets were notoriously fake, rather badly sewn, and ugly, so I never even took off my school blazer – a horrid chocolate colored garment which gnawed at the neck. I, of course, never lost the pencil my mother triumphantly fished from the pretend pocket each afternoon and then placed back there each morning, so she was always sure her contraption worked, was a breakthrough invention, a work of genius.

My coat pockets now are not too deep and always full of things: little cars, pennies, elastic bands, plastic insects. I have to empty them out before we head out with the Polaroid to look for swings – I need pocket-space for the pictures.

Saint Nicholas Park
Saint Nicholas & 140th St

We’re about to cross the street when she says: Mamma no jaywalking. Later that night I look up the word on Google. Wikipedia says:

A term commonly used in North America to refer to illegal or reckless pedestrian crossing of a roadway (…) In the early 20th century, ‘jay’ (…) was a pejorative term for a rural resident, assumed by many urbanites to be stupid, slightly unintelligent, or perhaps simply naïve.

I like that final clarification: “stupid (comma) slightly unintelligent”. English is not my mother tongue, but it has become my daughter-tongue. I learnt English when I was six. Words that Maia loves, like “firefighter”, “puddle”, “cheese”, and “puzzle” I knew first in Spanish and learned in translation. But I relearn them through her every day now. They roll off her tongue while we walk hand in hand along the street – her little fingers, at once fragile and strong, resting on the palm of my hand; my long, cold fingers enveloping hers. Difficult to know who holds whose hand.

At times during these slow walks I remember some lines I always liked by Galway Kinnell, and never fully understood until a few years ago:

I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.

I want to say that to her, explain it, explain everything, but instead I hold her hand and listen, while we wait for the pedestrian sign to give us permission to cross the street. She says “Pocket!” and looks up at me in expectation. I pick her words up, one by one, pronounce them after her. She repeats them after me, patiently correcting or perhaps just re-channeling my jaywalking, short-cutting and rather uncharacteristic pronunciation of the English language – her heavy Harlem accent reverberating somewhere deep inside me, mixing with my own worn-out words.

Marcus Garvey Park
Madison Avenue & 120th St

An old Chinese lady is teaching her son, or perhaps her son-in-law, or perhaps her grandson, how to carry his newborn baby in a mei tai carrier. She is zesty, authoritarian and extremely short – a combination that would normally produce a horrible person, but in this case produced a disarmingly funny one. Her thick white hair hangs over her forehead like a close-cropped umbrella. The lower straps of the mei tai are fastened around her chest and tied at the back. She scoops the baby from the stroller, nattering away, raises him and bites him softly on the nose – the child wails –; then she frogs his legs into a squat and with one hand pulls the carrier up over his back. He snuggles in and stops crying. She doesn’t stop talking while she flips the straps over her shoulders, crosses them at the back, pulls them to the front and makes a big knot under the newborn’s bottom. Then, with a single hand she unlocks the stroller and folds it closed. She stomps her foot against the wheel to flip it up, snatches the carry lash in one hand, and swings the stroller around her shoulder. When she’s all done, she stands up straight, adjusts her jacket, smiles – a gap between her tiny front teeth – and takes a short jerky bow. The young father observes, stoically. I feel like clapping, but I don’t. I think to myself: Holy fuck. But I don’t say it. Maia watches her – eyes and mouth wide open – from her swing, which by now has come to a complete halt.

Charles Young Playground
Lennox Ave & 144th St

This map ends where the last swing in Harlem begins. But it hasn’t ended yet.

How can I say: The way time passes while she’s swinging.

Sometimes, if it’s getting late and it’s just the two of us in the park, I sit on a swing and swing next to her, my skeleton swaying like a long chain of logically bound parts, for an instant aided – and not weighed down – by gravity.

Alexander Hamilton Playground
Hamilton Ave & 141st St

When do children stop liking swings?

Carmansville Playground
Amsterdam Ave & 152nd St

I had to give Frias his camera back. I had started to feel ownership over it, like a borrowed book you’ve already underlined in hope that its owner will have forgotten all about it. I bought a new one – very cheap, yellow and black, almost weightless – that opens up like the back of a Chevrolet pick-up. I don’t like it that much, but I know I will grow used to it. Maia likes it better than the old one, because of the yellow. I also bought a new kind of film, since the shop ran out of the one I was using.

The girl in the shop – a moody, quasi-adult in a tank top with some witty line written across it – asked me why I take Polaroid pictures instead of digital ones when I complained about the price of the new film. She was a little intimidating. I couldn’t come up with a good answer on the spot, I just shrugged and tried to smile, but the question remained with me on my long subway ride back to Harlem from Chinatown.

The first reason – perhaps the only real one – is that Maia hates my iPhone and thinks that taking pictures with it is an activity that should be consistently boycotted.

Two, I’ve been looking for the same light in the parks that I found in Jonas Mekas’s Diaries years ago.

Three, I want to.

Four, I’m too old to be a hipster anyway, so it’s all right. It’s all right.

Five, carrying a mechanical snatcher of instant happiness, instant boredom, instant nonchalance, instant self-awareness, allows me to look at things as if I were already writing them.

Central Park West & 110th St

There’s a young weeping willow which stands at the shore of a large artificial pond on the northwestern end of the park. The sun sets exactly behind it during the cold months, lighting up the edges of the few yellow leaves still clinging to its low hanging branchlets. Ducks paddle aimlessly in the near-freezing water behind, always rather lonely in their togetherness.

As we approach the tree I say Maia, I think this is my favorite place in the world. She looks at me and replies, a sudden tone of unflinching authority in her otherwise soft, gentle voice:

Slow down, Mamma, slow down.

What do you mean?

I mean slow down.

I often wonder if she means what she says. If she understands her words, the sense that uncoils in their specific combinations. Standing under the fickle umbrella of the willow tree, we gather a few branchlets together. I show her how to hold them tight between her hands, lift her feet, hang, swing.

Saint Nicholas Park
Saint Nicholas & 140th St

Why do children talk to themselves a lot when they’re sitting on a swing but not so much when they’re swinging?

Sakura Park
120th St

Saturday morning getting old and wearing out too quickly into midday. People walking, wobbling, running, jogging, but mostly just talking on the phone, even when they’re pushing their kids on a swing.

Impossible to write. (Migraine).

Impossible to think. (Too much light).

Linger in a playground with Maia. Take just one shot and go home.

Migraine: resplendent, radiant, effulgent world.

Morningside Park
Morningside Ave & 123rd St

What do grown-ups think about when they’re pushing their kids on a swing?

Riverside Park
Riverside Drive & 116th St

Along the streets of Harlem there are rectangles of earth cut into the asphalt, each with a small tree in the center. Things sprout or lie about around the tree. Sometimes flowers, almost always weeds, cigarette ends, litter, generalized debris. Coming out of the daycare, we find a dead rat in one of those miniature rectangular gardens. Maia stops and fixes her eyes on the corpse of the rat. Very serious, she whispers: Wake up, little mouse, it’s wake-up time. Just that, two or three times. No reply from the rat. Then, offended by its indifference, she takes my hand and says He’s not waking up Mamma, let’s go swing. We go – slowly and in silence.