La Belle Dame Sans Mercy
I don't know what the Staten Island ferry is like today, but years ago it had a lot of open space on the upper deck cabin, and as you came up the stairs from the ferry terminal and the gangway, and got to the top, there were a number of wide benches stretching across the space in front of you for the passengers to sit on and contemplate the views of the harbor.
At that time I was in a low point in my life. I had sort of washed ashore on the island, metaphorically speaking, because of the cheap rents and very quiet culture and general aura of suburban vacuity and mindlessness which seems to pervade the place. My marriage and family had broken up not too long before, my job had gone slowly down the drain, and I was well past 40, which I thought was kind of late in the day to be starting over. So I was sort of coasting until next thing came along, a fresh breeze, an updraft, death, whatever. In accordance with my mood, I had gotten on the ferry past the morning rush hour, just sort of following the wave in. In theory I was going in to do research for a project, but mostly I just wanted to keep moving around, lest I take root in the nowhere that seemed to surround me most of the time, and never move again.
So as I came up the stairs, at the top, sitting on the bench in the center there was this young woman — a very remarkable young woman. It was the beginning of summer, and her light dress blowing, around in the very light breeze, revealed an athletic body and beautiful features, almost movie-star quality, I thought. There were some other people at either end of the bench, but she was alone. With nothing better to do, I eased off to the side so I could have the pleasure of studying her without overtly ogling; as the flâneur I had become I was skilled in people-watching without being obtrusive. Although it was a bit late for your typical going-to-work twenty-something, she seemed dressed for a day in the office; there was the tote bag near her sneaker- clad feet which I guessed would contain office shoes, purse, and so forth. The one thing that was odd was that she seemed to be looking at, studying, some mostly small pieces of note-paper, and a larger book. Her work? I couldn't tell.
I had no intention of accosting her, and yet something compelled me to walk over to take a closer look. And when I did, I realized she was talking to the pieces of paper. I sort of ran aground at that point, rudely (I suppose) staring at her and wondering what she was doing. She looked up and said, 'I guess you think I'm crazy.' Not in an angry way — more speculative or curious, even friendly.
I was quite flustered and started to apologize and back away, but she said, 'Don't worry about it. It's just something I do.'
'Which is what?' I asked.
'Well, I go around collecting the notes and letters people leave behind. No one ever talks to me or sends me letters or notes, so these are my letters and notes. I know I'm not supposed to do it, but I do anyway, and anyway, I don't know the people who wrote them, I don't gossip about them, and no harm is done.'
'I find it hard to believe no one talks to you,' I said. 'You look quite attractive; I'd think you would get a lot of attention.'
'Oh, yes, that, of course. But then they find out I'm “crazy.”' She rolled her eyes a little to demonstrate. 'And the kind of people who pick up a girl on the ferry because she's good-looking don't want a good-looking girl who is also crazy. It's too complicated. Maybe a not-so-good-looking girl could be crazy.'
'Well, you heard me talking to the notes and letters.'
'Does that make you crazy?'
'Come on — it does for a lot of people. And maybe I am. I don't care, really.'
'You could be rehearsing a play, or something.'
'True. And crazy also. Yes, I talk to the letters because they represent persons. For instance' — she picked up a blue paper which had been torn in four parts — 'this is a Dear John. Why Dear John read it on the ferry and tore it up neatly in four pieces and left it here, I don't know. But what I'm doing is fixing him up with this letter' — she pointed out what looked like business correspondence that had been folded but not torn up — 'to see if they will hit it off. This one is ostensibly an office memo but you can read between the lines. It's a long shot, but it might work.'
'And do the letters talk to you?'
'In a way, they do, but I have to make up and speak the lines. Make it less vague, get it out in the world. Then once I get them arranged, I put them in this book' — she motioned to a large, black, album-like tome — 'and I see how they do. Sometimes I move them around, some I discard — sadly! — some I just keep. Keep faith in them!' She drew out another note from the pile, and fell silent while studying it.
The ferry was now pulling into the ferry slip on the Manhattan side. I was at least piqued, and I tried to think of some way not to lose her forever into the vast anonymous crowds of Manhattan, ships that pass in the night and all that, at a considerable distance in this case, but she forestalled me. 'I'll be on this same boat tomorrow, probably, or if not, the next day. But if you don't see me, here's my card. I'll be interested in what you have to say about my little hobby, or obsession, or whatever it is,' she said airily. From the card, set in a cool, hip typeface, I found out that her name was Joyce; the only other information on the card was a phone number.
I was too stunned to say anything much. And as I feared, the next day, she wasn't there. I figured she had come to her senses; and if I changed my mind about that, I still had the card. But a few days later, I did run into her again in the same place. As if no time had passed, she looked up and said, 'Now, this one has real problems.' She indicated a folded-up letter written in pencil. The script was close and somewhat irregular. 'It's all about someone's menstruation irregularities — try to match that up with anyone!' She put it aside and began studying some much smaller notes, little yellow Post-It notes that had been apparently put together in a tiny ad-hoc book. These seemed to be very officey, but there might have been something underlying them — who writes a series of little Post-It notes and troubles to put them together in a little book? The last page had what looked like a cartoon heart drawn on it. But it remained mysterious and uninterpreted.
I decided we had gained sufficient famliarity for me to sit next to her. Mostly, she looked at her papers and occasionally hummed little tunes. Occasionally, she showed me particularly interesting finds and commented on them. Eventually the ferry pulled into its slip and our little idyl ended. 'Well, I've got to go,' she said. 'You can't come with me because I'm not going anywhere. However, I'll see you again soon if you don't run away.'
'Why should I run away?'
'Indeed, you've held up very well so far. Next time, would you like to help me find material? The ferries are pretty good hunting grounds, although there are others.'
'Sure', I said. 'You know, this is a kind of art. You could make a Thing out of it.'
'Well, lf course it is!' she said, without looking up. 'But I don't know how to get it in a gallery or get a grant for it or sell it to rich people, so I guess it's not real art. I just like doing it, that's all. And it will be more enjoyable if you participate and get into it. I've been doing it alone all this time.'
So that's what I did for a while. I would collect odd bits of abandoned paper and, when I saw her, I'd give my pile to her, hoping the papers would prove interesting. When they did, it made me happy.
Of course, I had begun to hope for more, shall we say, action. But then after a few weeks I saw less of her. I called a few times but either the phone was not answered, or when it was, she seemed distracted and had little to say and her plans were indefinite; phone calls were not her thing, evidently. In general, in fact, I thought the situation was fading out, as so many do; she accepted my little contributions, but didn't have much to say about them.
That changed momentarily a few weeks later. When I saw her on the boat, she stopped fiddling with her finds, looked up, and said, 'I'm so glad to see you! I have a question you may be able to answer. The one thing I'm not sure about in this project is how it all comes together. I mean, if it's supposed to be art, I think it has to come together, doesn't it?'
I felt quite inspired by the question after the period of indifference; my chance to shine had come. 'Well,' I answered,' all these people are in the world, and the letters are notes are like lines connecting them. So as you accumulate the notes, a suggestive outline appears of the great pattern of relationships which make up our world. That is, if you have the confidence that there is such a pattern. It's like a portrait of our city. The faith to bring the connections together from seemingly random materials — that's the contribution of the artist.' I was pretty surprised at my own speech, but because of my professional experience and my amusements, I am capable of a little artspeak on occasion. And it was an occasion, although at the moment I didn't know it; that was the last time I would see Joyce on the ferry, although it would not be the last time I would see her at all.
As it happened, some weeks afterward I found a trash pile in a large overgrown vacant lot I was wandering in. A lot of broken concrete had been dumped, and in front of it a variety of officey paper trash, while behind the concrete, a sunflower of impressive size had grown up in the later summer sun, like a kind of vegetative exclamation point for me.
The trash turned out to be a trove of the kind of thing I thought Joyce was looking for, and had the idea when I saw her again, as I thought I would, my new materials would win some kind of favor, or at least get some of her attention back. I hastily collected some right away, as if I had found gold, and later came back a number of times and collected more. I arranged my finds in folders. I planned to feed Joyce selected, staged folders and imagined how he might arrange them for dramatic effect.
However, I did not see her on the boat any more, and her phone remained unanswered. I kept collecting and sifting anyway.
Then a day came when I found the trash pile hauled off and the sunflower cut down. A light drizzle was settling things. It all seemed to signal an end. I did notice that, in cutting down the sunflower, whoever did it allowed a lot of seeds to fall on the ground and the broken concrete, and I promised myself they would grow. But I never went back to find out.
By chance — I was in a laundromat — I later saw Joyce on television in one of those human-interest stories of eccentrics and their odd practices. She was with a young, good-looking, well-dressed man who may have been a boyfriend or gallery proprietor or both. She had one of her collection books with her, and the interviewer talked about her 'art' and what it meant. 'Well,' she answered, 'these notes and messages represent people, and all these people are in the world, and the letters and notes are like lines connecting them. So as I accumulate the notes, a suggestive outline appears of the great pattern of relationships which make up the world we live in. That is, if we have the confidence that there is such a pattern. It's like a portrait of our city. The faith to work at bringing the connections together from seemingly random materials — that's the contribution of the artist.'
The boyfriend and the interviewer nodded sagely and indicated that they, too, could see the connection emerging from the seemingly random items, now that Joyce had mentioned it — had brought it out of the void for them.
A few days later I drifted onto the ferry, and as had become my habit, found myself idly looking for little bits of paper. There didn't seem to be any; maybe I didn't look very hard. Finally, almost at the end of the trip, I found an empty blank envelope, and pulled a pencil out of my pocket.
'Dear Joyce,' I wrote on the envelope. But then I couldn't think of anything to say. So I drew a crude picture of the sunflower, and left it at that, left the paper on the seat, and walked off the boat, into yet another day, another story, another life.