Issue 111, Summer 1989
May 15, 1959 . . .
That day I could not work because the sky was grey. The day before I had not worked because the sky was blue. I left the Public Library, where I was working at my history of the French Revolution (a work I could no longer do at home because the view from my apartment made me nervous), and decided to take a short walk on Fifth Avenue, uptown of course, because to walk downtown would have been fatal to my work. That section of Fifth Avenue destroys the mental background against which I can work on pre-revolutionary France. So I came down the steps keeping myself slightly to the left of center and without looking in front of me, because that view is also fatal to my work. I reached the first level before the steps, that large section behind the lions, stretching all the way from Forty-second to Fortieth, and hesitated before taking what might have been a fatal course. Should I walk down straight from there, then turn left, that is, uptown, once I had reached the sidewalk? Or should I walk down obliquely from there, on an almost diagonal line of an imaginary rectangle covering the whole area between the foot of the stairs and the sidewalk, from my position left of center to the left end of the stairs? And in case I decided for this diagonal walk, should I pass very close to the uptown lion, almost brushing its pedestal with my left shoulder, and reach the sidewalk still in that diagonal line? Yet another route meant reaching another major decision when I came to the flagpole: pass it, either on the right or the left side, with consequences no one could possibly foresee.
And then and then . . . What about the benches, namely the benches in the number of three? Three benches, even when empty, which is often the case on a grey day, have definitely a meaning all by themselves.
That day the distribution of humanity over that open space was as follows: one bum per bench, seated exactly on the middle of the bench. That was an element of fact in the prospect before me not to be disregarded, and almost making it imperative to abandon at once every idea of the diagonal way out, either brushing the southeast pedestal with my left shoulder or not brushing it at all. Three symmetrical bums on three benches. And no one seated under the flagpole asymmetrically or otherwise. I could pass close to those bums counting three or a multiple of three and close my eyes or touch the nail of the third finger of my left hand with the nail of the third finger of my right hand. That might either not help at all, or help beyond all hope, but it would certainly not harm. There remained the outer railing, of course, along which the distribution of humanity was not at all pleasing. On the contrary. There were two men and a women first andthen a fourth man. A conundrum. Far from harmless.
I could have walked close to them and done something, such as stop breathing, or I could have disregarded them altogether to concentrate on my three bums and pass them triumphantly. I knew now what those three bums were supposed to stand for: my finishing the book. If I could pass those bums while they were still symmetrically seated there, I would finish the book in something three: either three days (impossible) or three months (why not? most certainly), or three years (God forbid!). To offset this last possibility, which seemed disastrous, I crossed my fingers on both hands and spat three times in front of me. A light wind rose and made it necessary for me to wipe my face with the back of my hand (first one hand, then the other, to keep the symmetry alive).