Monday, April 06, 2009


The building was easy to miss. It was narrow, recessed a bit from the street, and identified only by the peeling number 62 of a faded gold decal above the door. At every window, from the ground floor to the sixth, the blinds had been drawn tight and the windowboxes were empty. There were traces of ornate dark lettering across the brick face, high up, from a law office long since gone, but it was impossible to guess whether the present purpose of the building was residential or commercial, or even if most of the rooms were tenanted at all. A pair of boxy yews flanked the door on either side; they appeared to have been trimmed within recent memory but the concrete planters that held them were dotted with cigarette butts and scraps of cellophane.

The woman stepped out of the doorway, pulling on her gloves, and stepped firmly but without evident hurry in the direction of the street; then she turned abruptly to the right and joined the flow of pedestrians moving uptown. She wore a long grey coat, well-made if not particularly stylish, a dark, trim Tyrolean hat with a single woodpecker feather in the band, and black low heels. Her hair was graying and she made no attempt to conceal it, but nevertheless she appeared to be still in her late thirties at most. She walked haughtily, her chin up, towering a good two inches above the other women walking in the crowd, as well as no small number of the men.

The morning was damp and chilly, though it was no longer raining. The sky above was a uniform slate gray, and its muted tone was repeated by both the pavement and the walls of the surrounding buildings. At the intersections the perpendicular columns of traffic halted or advanced, guided by silent bursts of signals. The crowd knotted and waited, spilled tentatively into the street, then surged ahead.

The woman overtook a man who was clutching a thick manilla envelope secured with a string wound around its clasp. Heavy-set and limping slightly, laboring with the exertion, he wore a suit and tie that were indistinguishable from those of any number of his fellow travelers, but unlike them he bore no hat, not even in his hand. His hair, which needed trimming, was matted with sweat, and as the street inclined slightly up a hill he began to fall behind the other. He steadied himself against a lamppost for a moment until he had caught his breath, and then resumed.

A block ahead of him a young couple stepped out of a cab. The man was tall and almost unnaturally slender. Though clean-shaven and neatly coiffed he wore a frayed, unbuttoned bomber jacket that did not fit him well and which had certainly been bought second-hand, as well as a pair of weathered jeans and brown loafers. His companion might have been completely unremarkable -- she was wearing a simple gray jacket over a white blouse and dark skirt -- had she been neither so unaffectedly pretty nor so obviously enthralled with her surroundings. She shook her head against the chill and shrieked with delight as she caught hold of the man's hand. They paused until they could work their way across the grain of pedestrians, then darted into a storefront near at hand.

As they departed two men in their thirties stepped into the space they had occupied and strode vigorously ahead. They wore dark suits and fedoras that were to all appearances identical, and they were talking intently and rapidly in a foreign tongue. They wove around clusters of lingerers without hesitating or breaking apart, and while they waited for the lights to change they kept their eyes down and never glanced around them.

Outside a hotel two porters stood waiting as a Greyhound slowly lumbered to the curb. The bus stopped, opened its doors, and dieseled as the passengers began to disembark. The driver, in uniform and cap, stepped to the curb and opened the luggage compartment; the porters advanced while a family -- husband, wife, and two small boys -- stood by. The crowd broke around them, stepping under the hotel's marquee.

As they approached the great square, in the center of the hive, the swarm dissolved and dispersed, merged into others heading east and west. The yellow cabs slowed and lined up behind the traffic signals; the rain began to fall, but only a few drops, black on the weathered sidewalks.

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