By the age of ten or twelve, we could name our world, every street, train station, bus stop, candy store, ethnic church, ghetto and gang, even the individual drunks leaning on the lampposts outside the weathered doors of the dark bars.
Urban kids with city smarts, we walked and went to sleep with the mental maps of the neighborhoods we needed to know, a kind of pre-adult cultural competence that even our parents did not command or give us credit for, locked as they were in their larger yet limited grown-up world of work and home.
But for all our nuanced knowledge of people, places, religions, and safe routes home, at that stage of life our childhood botany was even simpler than what we knew of sexual anatomy: grass, bush, flower, and tree filled our total inventory of what grew in the local park, an egg-shaped former reservoir since filled in to make playgrounds, tennis courts, ball fields, a quarter-mile track, and a circuit of benches. There, at her favorite seat, I’d find my grandmother in late afternoons to walk her home across the busy road that ringed the park’s walls. In the heart, flanks, and curves of “The Oval,” the essential but largely unnoticed plants served, for my friends and me, as backgrounds, pathways, frames, borders or zones that we hid behind, ran through, skirted around, rolled in or climbed over. One day a friend’s mother asked us “What do you do for so many hours in that hedge, the one with all the forsythia?” It had never occurred to me that flowers had names, much less one that sounded like the dark-eyed Italian girl in my sixth-grade class.
By full adolescence, running cross-country for my high school team, my terms for the landscape I jogged through were almost as elemental as those of my elementary school days: meadows, hills, ditches, rock faces, these were the features that the race course snaked through at Van Cortland Park, the third largest in the city, an oasis from concrete canyons and sweaty asphalt, with a long-forgotten African-American burial ground itself buried somewhere among the woods and their other wounds.
Not much over five feet tall, with a short stride and only a modicum of motivation, there was never a chance of my placing well much less winning a race, which was a relief before these events even started, as I saw the two and a half miles ahead of me as an outing not a test, a half day in urban country, far removed from the moods and measures of my family’s tiny apartment. I was happy to fill my lungs, feel my small body grow itself, taste the salt of exertion, and know the ecstasy in exhaustion, a kind of sex for the soul, whose embrace made me cry in relief for the onlyness of a long-distance runner, grateful for the solitude, and never lonely in the crowded pack.
At those times, I could step deeper into the pulsing chambers of the park’s green heart, the arms of its trees, the angled, warm rocks of its thighs and groin, and for a brief score of breaths displace even lovely, red-haired Roberta Nadel of Cruger Avenue from my private realm of desire, letting the stony curves, the dust and dips and green scrim of the route take over the place where the poetry of those moments would plant itself, where what had once been freedom’s backdrop now became its reason for being.
Joel Savishinsky’s Breaking the Watch: The Meanings of Retirement in America, won the Gerontological Society’s annual book prize. Poetry and essays of his are in Blue Collar Review, Caesura, The New York Times, SLANT, and Windfall. His collection Our Aching Bones, Our Breaking Hearts: Poems on Aging appeared in 2023.