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One day’s Greek odyssey: Stranded on the beach


“I have scarcely exaggerated a detail of this curious and absurd adventure. It occurred almost exactly as I have stated it.”

— Mark Twain

The book was too big. The words outweighed my brain. The damn thing was taking so long to read my eyes were what got red. Now, when I don’t like a book, I throw it against a wall. But this time I was on a bench in Union Square Park and the skateboarders were moving too fast anyway. So I decided to sell the big Greek book at The Strand instead. Figured I might be able to get a slice of Joe’s out of all this.

Closed the big Greek book. Ready to start out for Broadway. But the autumn wind whipped my eyes bloodshot and a second gust howled “dirty cockroaches!” Blindly setting down the big Greek book. Wiping my eyes with my sleeves to see I had handed it to the man doing the howling, who sat down beside me and reiterated: “Look at these people, will ya, the dirty cockroaches.”

He must’ve been 6 feet tall sitting down. The reek of fish and cigarettes insultingly complimenting each other. Fish from the black garbage bag vest he wore. Cigarettes from the chain smoking he was doing.

“I don’t inhale, I just puff so as not to lose my voice,” he puffed. “Spare a light, pal?” he puffed again.

“Looks like you found a way,” I said.

“Chrissakes, I can’t get a light in this town to save my f—ing life!” he laughed in a chain of smokey coughs.

“Don’t lose your voice,” I said.

He then went on to explain how the chain started in Tompkins Square Park when he lost his lighter. Papers in one pocket and tobacco in the other, he’d rolled and rolled ever since. Just to keep the chain burning. Eventually rolling west to Washington Square Park. All the time asking around for a light. Rolling and asking all the way up to Union Square Park. With a light, he said, he’d be able to quit.

“I think there’s a newsstand on Broadway,” I said. “Maybe they have matches.”

“It’s the 21st f—ing century, pal”, he puffed. “And don’t you know why it’s called Broadway? ’Cause the way to hell is broad!”

“It might be on University Place anyway,” I said.

“Will ya look at these dirty cockroaches,” he puffed as he peered around through his own smoke. “I know they all got lights.”

Watching him start to roll the next link on the chain, I figured he needed a light more than I needed a slice of Joe’s.

“Look,” I said, “I gotta run this errand, but after that I’ll get you a light.”

“You don’t get s—, pal,” he puffed. “I ain’t long for this town.”


“Don’t mourn,” he puffed. “Don’t mourn. No. Not yet. I know somebody willing to spare a light. It’s come to this. Yeah. The Lady.”

“The Lady?” I asked.

“The Lady herself,” he puffed.

“What Lady?” I asked.

“Lady,” he puffed, “Liberty.”


“By way of the beach,” he puffed, “by way of the beach.”

“The beach?” I asked.

“By way of the beach,” he puffed.

“Look,” I said, “I’m telling you I’ll get you a light. Shouldn’t take too long. I’ll be back if you’ll be here.”

Then as I stood up, I felt a nudge in my back.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked as I looked and saw him nudging me with a closed fist.

“Before you go,” he puffed as he opened his fist to reveal the baggie of white, “just sprinkle a little of this in your palm and have a taste and then let’s negotiate.”

“Maybe some other time,” I said. “Just wait here.”

So he remained there on the bench and I started out for Broadway. “By way of the beach” echoing in my mind as I crossed 14th. “What beach?” echoing back as I passed the movie theater. Crossing the street to the block the Strand was on. Rounding the corner along 12th. Passing the book-for-a-buck carts. Getting in the back of the booksellers line. Waiting. Thinking. “The beach…” as the line started moving. “The beach…” as I was getting closer. Then reaching into my bag for the big Greek book…that wasn’t there.

“Son of a…,” I started saying to myself, “…Gansevoort!” his voice in my head howled.

Bobbing and weaving, people’s Strand bags swinging all around me, I raced back toward the dividing line.

By the time I got back to Union Square Park, the bench where we met was empty. I looked all around for him. But he was gone. I sat there for a minute to catch my breath. Tapping my feet to the rhythm of the park around me. Dog walkers. Stroller pushers. All flowing around the metronome of my mind, repeating in time: “Gansevoort… Gansevoort… Gansevoort…”

By the time I got to Hudson River Park, it was raining. The pilings in the rain looked like people drowning. Walking past the Little Island. Walking down a piece. And there was the flashy new beach, dulled by the rain. On a clear day, you could see the Statue of Liberty. In the rain, I could see several abandoned drinks, a couple half-buried flip-flops and a blurry book in the sand. When I picked it up…

“Son of a…,” I howled at the rain, “…Elin Hilderbrand!”

Not knowing who this “bestseller” was, I flipped the book over, wiping away the sand to reveal praise upon praise, all crowning her: “the queen of beach reads… .”

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