By now we are used to the February thaws, followed by the gotcha of returning cold. But how do we know the thaw will itself return, for real? Take an island 13 miles long by two miles wide and pave it. Throw in several thousand street- and headlights so that the only visible nighttime heavenly body is the moon. Keep it up for a hundred years until all ye olde nature-savvy instincts are stifled. How does a city dweller track spring?
More light, said Goethe on his deathbed — whether because he glimpsed the city of jasper and gold or because his consciousness was failing, we will leave for another time. But more light is what the living in pre-spring get. The sun sets later — really later, not just because of the annual spring-ahead clock trick. Its path also slides north, changing the angle of its beams. The dawn light that bored through east-facing windows in midwinter, pale but blunt like a pyrite hammer, now slips in sidelong, warm and oblique, like a melody.
Sparrows see it and react. Their one-note public-service announcement becomes louder and more frequent. Every sidewalk scaffold has its barker. Territorial marker? Sexual advance? How would I know, I’m not Audubon. But whatever their reasons, we hear them.
Sparrows are incidental inhabitants. Build a city, they will come. Urban man has intentionally built parks to serve as aides-mémoires of lost wilderness. In pre-spring, most trees are still bare and diagrammatic, like flow charts, not living, leafed-out beings. But the flowering trees have shown their stuff. Magnolia blossoms are pink and fleshy, Callery pears put on a white foam. When the magnolia petals fall, they leave a litter like carnage; the pear blossoms blow away like snow.
Restaurateurs set out hopeful tables. For many days they stand empty, chairs tilted unsittably forward. No one stands at the waitresses’ station. The juice man sits in his sidewalk shack, but he has been there all winter, watching soccer on a small screen to keep himself warm. Outside the Italian place the owners’ son was planted, surveying the empty avenue, but he was there only because it got a little hectic in the kitchen, he was taking a break.
Farmers’ markets are thrice-weekly visits of those who still know nature. Now their stock changes. For months they have been reduced to tubers, keeper apples, and gross misshapen carrots that look as if they were sown by cave women. Now there are trays of pansies, bright and fluttering as girls. Nothing new that is real food yet, but time to get your hopes up.
All winter we have been wearing down coats. The youth of today favor the brand with the official-looking patch that makes them all look as if they were in the ski patrol. I’ve got something my wife got for me I don’t know where. Gloves in one pocket, knit cap in the other. Down balls up under a concert seat, stuffs in a gym locker. It is soft, malleable, thick, faithful. Enough already.
We want coats of a lighter weight that don’t have to be zipped up or sealed with scarves. We want our hands not to be covered in skins, or plunged into pockets. We want our hair (N.B.: my few hairs) to play in the wind. We anticipate the same disencumbrance from women: acres of legs, shoals of shoulders. This isn’t California, but soon enough you will see the showoff motorist with his top down. The die-hard patrons of shared bicycles have been making a brave show of it as slop disappears, in the face of continued wind chill, but soon they will be legion. On the steps and banisters of the park, the skateboarders will be practicing their flips, and their crashes.
The wind changes. Because the city hugs a coast, the winter wind can be keen. I knew someone who lived in an apartment that overlooked Spuyten Duyvil (Spouting Devil). “Spouting” refers to the currents in the water below, but it applies equally to those of the air. In the winter she had to sleep with her head under a blanket and a space heater turned up full blast. What land and sea have not provided, man supplies. I live in the shadow of the utility headquarters, a 24-story tower with a Babylonian mausoleum on top and nothing else tall around it. It seems to summon the winds and hurl them down our little street like duyvils. The wind makes the window-unit air conditioners that cannot be removed in the winter, only covered with towels and duct tape, howl and sing like harmoniums. There comes a day though when it is caressing not punishing, invigorating not wearying, playful not bitter.
The entertainers, like the sparrows, know. The chess players return to their posts, eight black Bobby Fischers awaiting the passing Spassky. The pail drummers return, with their white plastic kits; so much energy and rhythmic precision, to such dull effect. Surely that is only my taste. I can watch the juggler for as long as I have free time. His recorded accompaniment is rippling, New Age ear candy, which both mimics and prompts you what to think of his motions. Maybe every juggler in the world can do what he does, I know I could not do any of it. Balls whirl in a tight dogfight, then one or several take a long high leap. He strolls them down his extended arms, or takes them for a walk over his forehead. For this he gets claps, change. I wait for the return of the one-man bluegrass ensemble, singing shout-songs, wailing at his banjo, and stomping out the beat with a foot tambourine.
This morning a storm came from the Midwest. It flooded the cross-park transverse, wetting the feet of bus riders, and poured in a waterfall onto an uptown subway platform. Upstate it coated fields and branches with half an inch of sleet.