I hadn’t found a place to live yet, and was crashing on someone’s couch. Staying up all night to tour the city was a welcome change from feeling almost homeless and certainly rootless. Late night, there are no lines to get on the Staten Island Ferry, and the elevators at the Empire State Building load quickly. Every subway car has a seat available. Walter, a bass-baritone colleague had come to town and looked me up. I remember when we worked together in another company that he’d talk about being a night owl; that his day started well into the afternoon and ended at sunrise most nights. So I wasn’t surprised that he suggested a meet up time of 11:00pm.
The September night was warm enough to go without a jacket. We took the last elevator ride up the Empire State Building, and the last ferry ride to Staten Island and back. We walked past the homeless camps in Battery Park along the edge of Manhattan, where men had strung long electrical cords from their tents to city outlets on lampposts, in order to feed their rickety television sets. We saw the Statue of Liberty shining on the dark waters, and felt the foggy night air. Walter didn’t say much, just suggested where to go next, and pointed out interesting things. That night, he made an important recommendation: to take the day off the first time it snowed in New York City, and to go for a walk. He’d done that every year he lived in the city as a young man.
By the time the snow came, I’d secured a one bedroom apartment, on the fourth floor of a dark building on the corner of Manhattan Avenue and 109th Street. The apartment had two windows on its south side that looked out onto the brick wall of the building next door. The elevator rarely worked; I can only recall using it to get to a neighbors’ apartment on the 6th floor, for routine martinis or margaritas on Friday nights. I was temping as an office assistant, usually for JP Morgan’s midtown offices, and often walked the 60 blocks to or from work, to save subway fare but also to feel a sense of space around me. The walk went through Central Park, my salvation and my therapist in those first months. I was freely calling in sick to assignments, in order to take auditions, or to sleep off the previous night’s whatever. So when I got up that morning in early December and saw the snowflakes, tiny grey pencil dots drifting past the windows, adding movement to the view of the brick wall next door, it was easy to change my plans, such as they were. I put on jeans instead of pantyhose, and boots instead of shoes. I skipped the makeup, and stepped outside.
I loved that my apartment was only a block and a half from Central Park. I loved that corner of the Park, the wildest one. At that time the only way to live in that neighborhood was to ignore all evidence of neglect, to step over the occasional dead rat in the hallway outside my door, the used needles on the stoop. I’d ignore the rooster crowing on the roof two buildings down from mine. Rumor had it that he was actually a series of roosters, used in Santeria rituals; the truth was probably that some neighbor was providing her household with fresh eggs. The only doorman in the neighborhood, in a building on 110th midway between CPW and Manhattan, used to step out from his foyer and watch me walk from the subway to the corner of my block, not returning to his post until I was out of sight. I’d tell myself he was sweet, doing his part to make sure I was safe. I would run in the Park, entering at the 108th St gates, jogging down – and downhill – to the 97th Street Transverse where the park leveled out, crossing over to East Meadow, and circle back, noodling up through the North Woods. It was not a sensible choice. But the route was the quietest, most rural that the park offered.
In the North Woods the granite boulders exposed themselves like bone shards emerging from a battered body. Central Park’s tallest trees and least-attended ponds are in the North Woods,. The trees gave natural cover to the drug users and prostitutes, warblers and falcons. Heron fished and even nested this far north, undisturbed by rollerbladers and Benetton-bedecked children screaming on the colorful jungle gyms. That first snowfall covered all the grime, the footprints and used condoms under the trees, the empties and the trash – so much trash! I walked out of the building and lifted my face to the gray, soft brushstrokes.
I went across the street and ordered a black/two sugars, double cup, in Spanish, pouring one inch off the top into the gutter so as not to spill on myself when taking that first sip. The street was just beginning to feel slippery. I walked around the corner, glancing in to see if the night doorman was still on duty (he wasn’t). Crossing Central Park West, I entered the park at 110th. By now the snow had been falling for several hours, probably through the night, and fast. I had to cut my own trail through the trees.
Nothing looked familiar, and the place even smelled differently, until it dawned on me that it smelled like nothing. No garbage, no mold or mud, no pond algae, no stale beer, or dirty diapers. Even the shadow of subway dust, that oily exhaust floating up out of the sidewalks, smogging the city air year round, was tamped down by the snow. Instead, a bright absence of scent, faintly electric. On this day, my daily drumming hangover was muffled by breathing this clean air, by squinting into the soft, diffuse light.
I got to the granite outcropping in the Woods. The snow had transformed everything in a way that made me nervous, like that moment in a dream when it threatens to become a nightmare. Inexplicably my heart raced faster and I broke into a sweat. I wondered if my nightly drinking had finally caught up with me, affecting all my senses, rendering me deaf and dazed. I felt I was in danger not from a stranger but from my own body. Then I realized: the city was muted, not me. Car horns bleated as if wrapped in fiberglass; the pervasive swoosh of traffic barely registered. Even my footsteps were silent. I was left with the sound my own panting, small clouds that immediately evaporated, leaving no trace. A cardinal’s chirp startled me, and looking up, I saw the brilliant berry flash on a black branch. My almost-empty cup was now cold, and I swallowed the last sip, taking in the park-scape: the white snow powdering everything, giving the rock crevices a fragile pericarp, lining up layers on every twig, burying leaves and cushioning my walk. I stood a long moment, looking around.
That’s when I saw the owl, grey and fawn and white, looking at first like a snow-covered ball, a deserted nest for birds or perhaps hibernating wasps. Or was it just a thickening of snow in the shoulder of a tree branch? It did not line up with my understanding of place and time. It was morning in Harlem; I was hungover; the snow was falling. Everything was surreal. But staring hard at me as I drained my coffee was the bird, feathers slightly fluffed in the falling snow, absolutely motionless, imperial. It was as though this small, almost squirrel-like animal, claws wrapped around a branch, eyes half-closed, had commanded the silence, and the city obeyed. I had a moment of burning: I’d been caught trespassing its sound and space. I stared back, willing my heartbeats silent, slowing my breath. The fear that I would disappear like my breath, my sanity, began to change into a desire to be invisible, safe from disturbing this peace.
The moment passed, the owl had no real interest in me. It probably registered me merely as not-food. Much later I looked it up: an Eastern screech owl, the size of a man’s fist, probably astonished by the intrusion on what should have been a solitary event. That stare was not directed at me but through me. When I refocused my attention, blinking snow out of my eyes, the owl looked away and took off, almost immediately blending in with the sky overhead, and disappeared.
I don’t remember returning to the squalid, musty apartment or what I did the rest of the day. But the encounter left an owl-sized sanctuary deep within me. It breached the loneliness of that first year in my new city, and the resulting connection stayed with me. Remembering it, I experience a moment of snowy silence, cold, peaceful. That first snowfall transformed more than a place.
Ana Rojas Halland was a professional opera singer for more than 25 years. She is a stepmother to five young-adult children and currently lives in Eagle, Idaho with her husband, Steve – and Buddy, The Best Dog In All The Land.