Dancing on the Precipice


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Staten Island is an odd place. I hadn't been there in over a decade, and last time I was there all I did was go bowling. They had a fine bowling alley, I must say. It was straightforward?none of that "disco bowling" crap you find in Manhattan. n This time, Morgan and I took the ferry over there to look for ukes at the Mandolin Brothers music store?and this time I paused to take some careful note of my surroundings. I was surprised to discover that not much had changed in Staten Island since I was last there. In fact it hadn't changed, it seems, since 1970 or thereabouts. At least it seemed that way to look at the storefronts in the parts of town the bus passed through.


I don't mean that as any sort of snide crack, either. Quite the opposite?I was thrilled to discover that every block did not feature a chain store, that a Rexall drugstore (I grew up with Rexall Drugs) was making a valiant last stand there.


Lots of Sri Lankan places, too, I noticed.


They had trees, and even where we stood, you could smell low tide. At least I think it was low tide. It was very pleasant. With the exception of the traffic, it was hard to believe that it was part of the city.


A couple hours later we were back in Manhattan, sitting at a bar. A couple hours after that, I was stumbling and tapping my way home. It had been a three-borough day, and I was drunk and beat. Traveling always wears me out. Knowing the sort of thing that was taking place on the street in front of my apartment, I'd been hoping to get home while it was still light, but sometimes these things don't work out quite the way you plan them to. The way things stood, I knew I'd have to be on my guard.


When I left the apartment Monday morning, there had been a sign taped to the front door, informing me that the city was going to be tearing things up around an intersection I passed through every night. Water or gas or something.


That's never good news. I found a note like that taped to my front door in Philly once, and before I knew it I was trapped in the apartment for three days, given that the city tore up the sidewalk and planted heavy-duty machinery directly in front of my building's steps, without leaving me any way out.


I knew this new note meant that navigation was about to become extremely treacherous, even if things weren't as bad as they had been in Philly. Surprisingly, though, the next three days were okay. The various work sites on the corners and on the sidewalks kept moving, but there was always space to maneuver around them simply enough. Moreover, I was able to do all my traveling in the daytime. It was no big deal. Tonight was the first time since the work began I'd be making my way in complete darkness.


Everything went fine. I walked the sidewalk same way I did every night. Turned and crossed the street at the same point I always do. During that final leg before my apartment, though, my cane hit one of those plastic orange barrels. I tried to the right, closer to the street, but hit caution tape and a sawhorse. I tried farther to the left, toward the buildings, and hit more caution tape. They'd always left a pedestrian walkway open up until now, but tonight I couldn't find it.


Well, fuck, I mumbled. There didn't seem to be any way around. I'd found myself lost and trapped in construction sites before, and was in no mood to let it happen to me tonight.


I grabbed hold of the caution tape, which seemed to be tied to someone's front gate. Yeah, fuck it, I thought, I'll just duck under here and move real slow. Keep the cane out in front of me.


Something, though, told me that it would just be easier to feel my way into the street and tap my way down the line of cars, hoping no oncoming traffic would clip me as it passed.


So that's what I did, pissed now at the whole situation, swinging the cane high and wild, tapping wheels at first, then doors, then rearview mirrors, then windows, then trunks. I was surprised (and relieved) that I didn't set off any car alarms.


I did this for the length of three or four cars, walking out there in the street, hoping no one would speed past, before feeling my way back to the sidewalk. Once there, everything seemed clear again. No more tape, no more sawhorses or barrels. I continued on my way, and got back to my place without further incident.


I slept poorly again that night. It had been a few weeks now, and it was really beginning to take its toll. If it wasn't one of the cats waking me up, it was my own brain. The next morning, my hands shook. I couldn't hold on to anything, and I seemed to be slowly losing control of the most basic of bodily functions.


I got myself together, though, and left for work around the same obscene hour I always do.


On the sidewalk, I lit a smoke and began approaching the scene of last night's minor debacle, looking for the simple, clear path I was sure I'd missed the night before. I'd been drunk, after all?I'm sure it was right there, but I just hadn't found it. They couldn't force people to walk in the street like that all the time, without giving them some sort of walkway or something.


When I got up to the work site, however, I saw that there was no walkway?that the entire width of sidewalk, for a length of about 15 feet, had been cordoned off with caution tape, that sawhorse I'd hit and a couple plastic barrels.


I stopped in my tracks and stared.


See, it's not exactly accurate to say that the sidewalk had been cordoned off, because the sidewalk wasn't there anymore. In fact, there wasn't much of anything there anymore, except air and darkness. What had been a sidewalk just 24 hours earlier was now an open pit, dropping straight down about 15 feet, waiting for me there like Satan's yawn.


"Jeepers," I said.


Had I gone with my first instinct the night before and ducked under that flimsy strip of caution tape, I would've gone straight into that pit. Part of me was horrified at how damn close I'd come this time to snuffing it without even trying. Part of me just thought it was kind of funny, in a stupid way.


As I walked out into the street and around the cars again, I decided that maybe I'd trying coming home via a different route that night.


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