The Man I Met

By Marc Jones

In my mind he’s desperate. He’s keeping the night close and walking with a lean against the bitter wind. The barest light from the old streetlamp catches him in film-noir frame as he walks past the closed-up store, and I’d love to go back and watch him doing it all over again.

Until then, there’s a no man’s land around my house. It spreads there, created by a virus pandemic that pins this habitual and heart-steered traveller within the confines of home.  It’s almost a demilitarised zone, through which only the occasional mask-wearer will pass hurriedly and without confidence to pause and share their day.  

When I step away from this window to a changed world, I am surrounded by the remembrances of days gone by. The pictures, the souvenirs, the guidebooks on my shelves all give charge to my spirit and enable me to think greedily of the times I hope will come again soon. 

I think of where will be first or at least safest place to go, and where to signal loudest and with deepest joy that this imprisonment is over.

For me it’s easy. Closing my eyes and letting myself drift, I can conjure the walk on a hot day, through the blissful emerald soul-collage of Central Park, to the glorious wide steps of the majestic Metropolitan Museum of Art in the concrete heaven of New York City.

I can’t wait to bathe in that urban soundscape of life going on once more, and in an unmasked and unafraid bustle. No other city has that ‘take it on the chin’ arrogance so clearly and boastfully tied to a romantic heritage of lovers and art.  

I would choose from the food-trucks parked so invitingly at the almost impossibly perfect address of 1000, Fifth Avenue.  Could it be any more New York? The Manhattan Hot-Dog, with sweet chillies and harsh celery salt make my mouth water just to even hope for. 

Street food and museums.  That wonderful brash dichotomy of styles that no other city can match, with its easy contrasts of Luis Vuitton and canvas hi-tops,  Hip-hop at Carnegie Hall or beautiful stepped brownstones nudging neon Time Square.

After that lunch from the gods, I’ll walk up the steps into the beautiful and elegant Met. Feeling the glorious chill within as a respite from the city heat.

This will be a trip with a point.  After a year in lockdown, and family life through a laptop screen I want to share the end of my isolation with the master of its image.

Throughout his abundantly creative life Edward Hopper crafted a connection, for all of us who had not experienced it, to sparsity, loneliness and solitude.  His work adorns the walls here in this glorious white marble monument, perched proudly alongside two million other exhibits, which, in our virus free honeymoon future, will be seen again by over six million people a year.

My aim, when I walk through those boulevard-like galleries, will be to find that man I have missed. He’s the figure in Hopper’s sketch of ‘Night Shadows’, a simplistic yet weepingly brilliant etching of a solitary man, walking past a closed-up corner bar towards a dark, shapeless nothing away from the reach of the almost pointless streetlight. 

When I saw it on my first trip to New York, it was with a sense that I were a voyeur. It was none of my business where he was going or who he was; but I could catch a glimpse of someone else’s life in the dark: a street corner with only sinister possibilities.

Now I’ll see it as something else. The man is me, walking with confidence and with purpose, away from the shuttered locked-down streets, and into the light, not away from it.  I want to nod to the sketch with a grateful understanding that not only our interpretations change, but our ability to characterise our circumstances does too.

During lockdown it had been all too easy as a traveller to feel that same isolation, ‘prevented’ from returning to the world. But I know that all my travels in the past and those in the future are a privilege. To temporarily suffer the inconvenience of being locked-in, healthy, warm and fed, is nothing compared to the many who will not have a return to New York to look forward to.

To know that I will breakfast again in the wondrous Carnegie Diner, will take the spectacular Staten Island ferry past Liberty in late morning, and laze over coffee in Bryant Park once more is to know the world is still out there, and while I can’t wait to go back, I know it will be a glorious privilege when I finally do.