The city of a million stories presents a million other narrative opportunities. Turn a different corner and see a deep green block with beech trees and dress shops with barefoot women in the doorways, versus the corner one more down, all cobblestones rising up through broken asphalt and cabs. Phones now not only allow for talking to no one without being seen as crazy but let narrative fragments pause for the instant it takes for me to run into them. Instead of dissolving into nothingness, I absorb gawd he kicks worst in the morning from a very pregnant woman waddling down the street, somehow fit inside a sheer dress stretched balloon tight; a tall, older woman, her hair gathered in what looks like a pine cone, mauve top drooping in a ruffle using her gemstoned free hand to emphasize Park Avenue and all that; and a little barrel of a man, buttoned up tight in a black suit, pushing thick metal-framed glasses up his face: they want to circle the wagons. The air is never still for story.
In Union Square men play chess, boards set up across broad milk crates between ones they sit on. As I have forgotten, so I remember: middle school lunch periods hiding from bullies in Mrs. Brock’s room, breaking out the red and black cardboard chessboards and the thin plastic pieces; high school in a closet in the science building, Dave bringing his roll-up mat just like the one above, the heavy plastic pieces that felt substantial and carved. Dave convinced me to sign up for U.S. Chess, and a membership card showed up in the mail. I will admit putting it in my wallet and carrying it around. (Aside from a school ID, there’s not much to go in an early teenager’s wallet. Certainly not money.) In the little room I eat a Carnation Breakfast Bar for lunch and play. I get good enough–or Dave has a bad enough day–that I draw him. After that I lose interest. A tie against a real player is demonstration enough, of something.
In the now, I haven’t played for I don’t know how long. The guy sees me taking this picture and waves me over. Come on, you’re not as bad as you think. You got a tie-dyed shirt on. Anybody brave enough to wear that in New York can’t be all that bad. Five dollars a game. He makes it two games and some pointers. I so happen to have two fresh twenties (from the ATM ten seconds’ walk from my stoop I couldn’t find the first time I looked for it). He’d be happy to break one.
The milk crate bows when I sit. The guy is tall, with the articulate hands and fingers people of African descent have: all length and ease. I know this when he shakes one of my whitey ones. I feel strange, on display. Union Square is a hot stone riot of people, noise, and the gentle flatulence of Honda generators powering the food carts. The Staples I was aiming for is across the way, but it’s open 24 hours. I have nowhere I need to be. I can be here.
I am white. (In the chess game, I mean.) The only opening I remember is Giuoco Piano, and that in fragments. I tell him this, even though he must see it. Pawns, knight, bishop out in a reasonable sequence. Not bad, not bad. See, you know more than you know. He laughs, mostly with his voice and his relaxed shoulders, but I can see him watching with more than half attention. His face is lined, but not that old, an ease and broadness to it. He may be checking me for an act, deciding I am not putting him on.
The stories come now. Where you from? I hear Seattle’s nice. You guys beat IBM yet? Yeah, I suppose Apple would be the one they’re upset about now. Got a guy in here last week, from Singapore. I ask him what he does, he says robotics. Robot arms for undersea subs. I mean, wow, you talk about interesting! But he was like you–whatever. He laughs.
Acting teachers will tell you to make bold choices, but my play is like in high school: keeping fingers on the pieces and making undaring choices. I don’t think moves ahead but do the amateur’s basic check for embarrassing mistakes. It’s an even game. He may be throwing easy ones.
I take a high-value piece–rook, maybe even queen–offering to trade mine. Conversation stops. I observe this: must be serious now. He laughs. Yeah, stops when things get interesting. Some internal observer notes that the noise and heat and engine roar parts and flows around us, the chessboard space in its own time. He and the board and I are not here as ourselves but all together as this game.
In the end he wins, but it’s respectable, and he says so. You ain’t so bad. You did all right. I don’t feel elated, but I hardly feel bad, assuming he’s quite a good player. I feel awake after weeks of fatigue. His tips are simple and a rush, mostly about taking time to set up and evaluating whether a sacrifice gets you farther in the long run, tips in the spirit of the free sample that satisfy the contract by offering the free sample.
The next game I am black. I am more in the present, aware of the halfway point. I am halfway through my time in this present and in the greater tumult that is this place, and it is very different now.
I talk more, ask more questions? Who is this guy? The city is so big and turbulent I will probably never see him again even if I come to here at the same time. He does marketing and laughs so hard at how much he hates his job he rotates off the crate edge. He is divorced too, I think he said six years now, after eighteen in. People tell me it is always getting better, I say. Yes, sir. So much better you can’t believe. I was in Hawaii this time last year, anxious, punishing myself, cleaning the kitchen. Well, you’re in a different place now. Nothing wrong with that.
He is more aggressive and I make more mistakes. I am noticing the heat, people walking. He gets up a pawn and I make bold choices: bishop for bishop, queen threatening the rook. Something happens and he cleans me out, leaving the king to run around a pawn. Things turn with speed when they turn. Cloud-filtered sun is high and the pieces cast no shadows. They all come in to the lower corner and there’s nowhere to go.
Well, not bad, my friend, not bad. He pulls out a wad of bills to peel off a five and a ten. I think you’re gonna do all right. I thank him and he shakes with his elegant, gentle hand again. The crowd moves in its school of fish and some amplified voice talks over Mario Brothers sounds. I don’t look back, but up. The clouds are high, sinuous and white: East Coast clouds, the ones I have the vaguest memories of but that match the clouds now. I am not really sure what I am seeing, but I probably remember it better than I know.