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Truth and Music in Washington Square Park

November 13, 2012

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Sally started her life in New York in front of the arch in Washington Square Park. I walked toward it one October evening in the hope of a new beginning.

It was nearly twilight on one of the first cool nights of fall. The benches lining the park’s pathways were nearly all filled. Three older men spoke loudly with a park ranger in a white truck. One of them apologized, said he had only been joking. The white truck drove slowly on, circling round the fountain at the park’s center.

And mingling with the heavy R&B beat of the men’s boombox was another, archer, beat, a syncopated low note mimicking and mocking the piped-in music, curling itself around the pulsing rhythm, sultry and tempting.

Drawn past the fountain, I walked on to the arch. “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God,” reads the monument’s inscription. Wisdom and honesty: characteristics that could serve as the backbone of a peaceful life. Two paths that lead toward the same destination: Truth.

But Truth was not the reason I came; it was not the force that pulled me toward that monument. No, that force was Music.

Six young men stood beneath the arch. Two saxophones; one trumpet; one trombone; one drummer; and the tuba, whose insistent, wry growls had flirted so audaciously with the boombox. A small crowd had gathered around them. NYU students with long sweaters and tiny skirts and slouchy, weathered boots, their legs bare in the new fall chill. Tall boys with backpacks and jeans leaning on each other.

In the center of the ring formed by the spectators, one man danced, his rhythmic convulsions ostensibly arousing no concern in the audience. His shoulders shook and his arms flopped through the air like lanterns. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet for three minutes and then suddenly burst into frantic motions, gesturing wildly in a language only he knew. Was he a local artist? A homeless person? The band’s groupie? An NYU music professor? A drug addict? An epileptic? In New York City, so many questions go unanswered.

The song seemed to go on forever, turning in upon itself and then marching ever forward. I was still; I was entranced; I could not leave, though I was late for an engagement with a friend. An attractive young couple stood to my left. The young woman, petite and dark-haired, wore a patterned wool sweater. She was joined by a tall man with dark curly hair who bent down to kiss her. Their tiny daughter swayed and toddled toward the center of the crowd. Her mother pushed her forward, and the little girl dropped a dollar bill into the open box in front of the band.

And one song bled into another, as one era of a life can blur into something entirely different and unrecognizable.

I walked on.

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