If I were a rickshaw driver like Harry in New York, I'd have that famous mantra handy, too. We met him outside the Roosevelt Hotel, at the corner of Madison Avenue and 45th Street, Friday night after an exhausting and not very happy day. As I had expected, I didn't place higher than my finalist berth in the ForeWord contest, and in the sweltering Jacob Javits Convention Center at BookExpo America, as the winners were impersonally announced on a PowerPoint screen, my roiling mammalian brain let my conscious mind know for the first time that I did, in fact, really care. Disheartened and coated with clammy sweat, I proceeded to my appointment in a steamy little BEA booth to record a podcast about Night Blind, during which my passionately prepared answers to five prepared questions seemed vapid and rote. "To hell with corporate economics," I found myself exhorting to the weary interviewer and two unflappable underage techies. "I'm tired of not having control over what happens to my writing. Writers are always at the bottom of the food chain. But now I have this beautiful book, and I made it happen." They smiled faintly and fussed with various knobs.
Outside the cavernous hall, waiting for the hotel shuttle, my brave ferocity evaporated, along with a couple of infuriating tears. "What's the point," I muttered to Ted. "Maybe I could take this if I was 37, but I'm 57, and I think I've about had it." He rested a reassuring arm lightly on my shoulder. His touch, unconfining and eloquent, was a gesture vastly better than words, which for the moment were the enemy.
We decided to eat in the mostly deserted Roosevelt Grille. I ordered a kamikaze, my favorite cocktail lately and also a metaphorically sound choice for the occasion. "I think I want to drink in sympathy," my teetotaller husband said. I've never seen him drink; I should have said no but I said yes and the waiter and I decided he should have a Cosmo. When it came, Ted bent over slowly like a large animal, sniffed it, and sipped it without lifting it up. It touched me -- how he sacrificed his abstinence like a ritual to exorcise disappointment, and how he seemed to taste the drink with his whole body. Then he sipped it again and again and then he picked up the martini glass in both hands like it was a coffee mug and drained the rosy dregs.
"I feel zingy," he said.
A baby grand piano in a corner played some indistinguishable tune, mechanically programmed, without a person. The vestigial bench, pulled out as if to make room for, say, Art Tatum, looked undusted.
"That's depressing," I said. "It's New York City, for godssake. Couldn't they find some actual hungry kid to actually play piano?"
"Labor unions," Ted speculated, wiping a drop of cranberry and Triple Sec from the corner of his mouth.
"That sucks," I said. I couldn't see the point of being witty, even though we were sitting so close to the Algonquin Hotel you could get there in the time it takes to say "Razors pain you, rivers are damp."
After dinner we went outside for fresh air. That's where we met Harry. "Want a ride around the park?" We paid him $60 and clambered into the little buggy and, with an innocent tingle of the bike bell, Harry pulled away into the early evening traffic -- black Lincolns, UPS trucks, yellow cabs. For a half hour our carbon footprint was nil.
He said he was 50 and drives the pedicab four hours a day, after going to school to be an air conditioning repair person. His wife is a Colombian dance choreographer; they don't always get along. Beads of sweat sluffed off him effortlessly, and he talked and pulled our 350 pounds and breathed in miraculous congruence.
At the south end of Central Park, he took us to the "literary walk," its quadruple rows of elms shimmering in the evening sun. Robert Burns, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott silently peered over strollers. At the Reservoir, he said he always tells passengers that's where Holden Caulfield saw the ducks -- and, when we let out with appreciative "ohs" and "ahs," he said Ted and I must be educated.
"A lot of people don't know what I'm talking about when I mention Catcher in the Rye these days," Harry said. A little boy with big eyes stared out of a horse-drawn carriage, and I smiled at him. He looked a little afraid, as if it was all too much, to be at the mercy of the big clumping horse, smelling the unavoidable pungent dung. I reached for Ted's hand and it was there, welcoming and warm.
Back at the hotel Harry gave us his card: Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, it said.
And I found myself calming down, murmuring the rest of Dotty Parker's New York rosary, also my own: "Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live."