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Not-So-Mean Streets

It happened by accident, I swear.

After spending several months in Florida, managing a family crisis — a tangled combination of mother, brother, hospital and jail — I had just arrived in New York. I hadn’t eaten in 10 hours, so I walked from Redhook, where I was staying, to Carroll Gardens in search of .?.?. what’s that called, lunch at 6 p.m.? .?.?. oh, right: dinner.

They called it a matinee supper at the French bistro where I wound up. Afterward, I was sated but stuck, since I was set to meet my friend Kay there in Carroll Gardens later that night.

Kay knew that an extended stay in the gritty, geriatric interior of Palm Beach County could drastically alter a man’s perspective. I’d negotiated Medicaid red tape and probation offices and spent a lot of time in a nursing home with at least one howling midget. I’d seen a clown named Corky do magic for a room full of catatonics. Kay understood I was exhausted and confused and needed guidance.

“You need to take it easy,” she said.

Kay wanted to bring me to a party.

“I’ll come get you, but I have an appointment with my personal trainer. See you in two hours?”

In full vagabond mode, I was carrying my belongings and had nowhere to go. Stuffed with couscous and drunk on Chimay Red, I at first wanted to wander the streets in search of candy.

I was kind of feeling like Junior Mints, or maybe a nice cylinder of exquisitely foil-gilded Rolos, but Tootsie Rolls did the trick. Did you realize they’re three for a quarter in nearly every bodega? I know the market, and that’s a real deal. No wonder I like New York.

A buck-fifty in change got me somewhere around a half pound of Tootsies, and I ate them slowly while gazing blankly into shop windows. After an hour, Kay called to check in on me.

“What are you doing, hon?”

“Staring at people on Smith Street and devouring Tootsie Rolls.”

“All right, I’m coming as soon as I can.”

Stores were closing, the sun dipped lower. It was summer, or would have been, had New York not been overtaken that week by a surprise visit by autumn. There was hard afternoon light, a brisk breeze and leaves blowing in the streets. It felt like everyone should have been making last-minute preparations for Halloween costumes, or picking up some decorative squash for the harvest holidays.

In other words, the city was cozy. So when I got tired, it seemed perfectly natural to settle down on a nice patch of pavement right at the corner of Smith and Carroll.

For the record, it wasn’t the sidewalk itself, but a slightly raised section set in from the street. Sidewalk-adjacent, we’ll call it. My slab was just long enough for me to lie fully stretched out on, head perched against the chainlink fence of the school behind me. The arrangement was surprisingly comfortable.

I had no books with me, so I read some news on my Sidekick. That was satisfying until I became alarmed by a string of recent science headlines: “Monkeys Using Sentences,” “Study Shows Apes Can Plan Ahead,” “Spider Monkeys Go on Warpath.” According to my Sidekick, the simian Singularity was fast approaching, and no one except me was connecting the dots.

I wanted to alert the world, but my Kicker ran out of juice, the Tootsie Rolls were gone, and I started feeling drowsy. Completely unmoored from the external world, I zipped up my hoodie, quietly observed pedestrians — and, well, you know, dozed off.

I’m guessing I was out for a half-hour. I woke up with my mouth slightly open. And yet, my new situation was extremely satisfying. I had forgotten about Florida and hospital bills and my brother’s burgeoning petty-criminal career. I serenely accepted a future of human servitude to verbal monkeys. Alone, on the street, eyes half shut, I had awakened with no worries. Who needs to pay for therapy or yoga or Esalen retreats when there’s free sidewalk everywhere? If I’d owned a crystal, it would have been totally recharged. It was my greatest moment of clarity in months. I highly recommend it.

I stayed put. The setting sun was kaleidoscoping across the spectrum and projecting a fiery light show against the storefronts. As the clouds changed colors, I looked for pictures and saw feisty rabbits, a nifty tandem bicycle and the ornery visage of Logray, the Ewok shaman. You see? Clarity.

Then I worried I’d found too much clarity. Could this be a dangerous threshold here, the same one that leads to sinister laughing at the sky or wearing one shoe in the park? Was this a gateway nap? Just as I was considering the logistics of trimming my beard in the window of a liquor store on the other corner, Kay emerged from the subway.

“What are you doing?” she asked, her shadow falling over me.

“Sorting things out,” I said, still flat on my slab.

“Oh, Josh,” Kay said. “Were you asleep?”

The blown leaves stuck to my legs must have given it all away.

“Guess so,” I said. “And boy do I feel reborn. Did you catch that sunset?”