Lately, when asked what I do, I've found I prefer "I am a writer" to "I am unemployed." (Though in truth the two mean much the same thing.) And the part of being a writer that I like best is Preparing to Write. It's a wonderful pastime, especially this time of year. Preparing to Write in blossomy balmy spring is a walk through a well-watered glade, where good ideas sprout like blades of grass. Unlike actual Writing. That's a deadly desert under whose heartless sun those tender shoots wither.
Preparing to Write is especially fine in the Ramble at New York's Central Park, a densely wooded area with lots of little footpaths meandering through sheltered grottoes. It's an excellent place for bird watching. It's also an excellent place for gay men to make new friends. As I Prepare to Write--perhaps an essay along the lines of how New York is a city of villages, its myriad subcultures all time sharing with one another--all I need to do is go sit on a bench and watch the birders drift out and the cruisers drift in. And I can even do some birding.
I enter the park at 103d Street, a mile or more from the Ramble. When Preparing to Write, it's better not to rush. So I stop near a small pond to watch the reeds sway and listen to the sparrows. Among the reeds a great egret, its long white neck twisted up snakelike, watches the water. I watch the egret watch the fish.
"Seen anything interesting?" A diffident woman of a certain age, holding binoculars, offers the standard bird-watcher greeting. In New York, subcultures identify one another by certain tokens; birders look for binoculars, swing dancers scan for dancing shoes. I point out the egret. We raise our binoculars, dutifully remark that it is a beautiful bird. We've both seen egrets before.
My acquaintance is visiting from California, taking care of her brother, who is in the hospital. She seems careworn and shy. A bird calls from a nearby tree, its voice nasal and insistent, like a seagull with hiccups. "Flicker," I say, casually; flickers are too common to be considered "good" birds, but I like to show off my knowledge of birdcalls. I raise my binoculars, as does she, and the bird takes off, revealing a golden wash beneath its wings. "Oh," she exclaims. "It's yellow-shafted!" And I think, "Well, of course." All flickers in the East are. But then I realize that out West the flickers are red-shafted. I remember a feather that a friend in Vancouver gave me, black and white with the vivid red-orange shaft. I look back at the bird, golden-winged in flight, and it seems more beautiful, less ordinary.
My companion, still watching it fly, is alight with pleasure. Although I really did intend to go to the Ramble to Prepare to Write, I think, "If Christ didn't say, 'The trysting gay men you will always have with you,' he certainly meant to." So I jettison my plans. We decide to walk together across the park and look for birds.
We follow the pond to a woods of fallen willows and stands of ferns. It's easy to forget the seething streets of Manhattan just a quarter-mile distant, for May is the height of the warbler migration. A succession of songsters performs cameos against the melancholy chorus of white-throated sparrows. Black and whites, black-throated blues--gemlike birds drop out of treetops, flutter up from the undergrowth. Coloratura birds sing arias, then step out from behind curtains of greenery to take a bow. My companion's spirits rise higher, and I am glad to see her made glad. I begin to feel quite beneficent; Lord Bountiful of the Warblers, unpacking jewels from my own personal treasure trove.
By the middle of the walk she has started spotting birds before I do. Hey, I think a tad resentfully, I'm showing her around. But when she spots a northern pintail on the lake at the north edge of the park, I have no choice but to be grateful. The pintail is an elegant long-necked duck; I've never seen one in Central Park before. We continue our walk companionably, Easter-egg hunters with a single basket.
When we reach the East Side we're both a little giddy from having shared an unexpected joy with a stranger. A moment of confusion--how to say goodbye when we have barely said hello? I raise my hand and wave, as if she were in a train and I were on the platform. She waves back, turns, walks out of the park. By this time, it's late afternoon. I'm certain that when I arrive at the Ramble it will be way too late to observe the shift from birders to cruisers. But as I drift south through the slanting golden light of the day's end, I realize that I'll have to Prepare to Write this essay several days longer. The thought leaves me quite content.