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Pamela on a Saturday
New York City. Years ago. A sharp fall Saturday. The air smelled cool and delicious. It was invigorating, like a shot of pure oxygen. I was walking alone up Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village when I saw her. She was standing on the corner of Eleventh Street about a block away. I could see her curly red hair in all its wild abundance, a crimson beacon.
It was about 1pm. I would never have seen her out before eleven. She was nocturnal. When you saw her in the daytime, it was as if you’d awakened a sleeping owl. Daytime was alien to her. It always seemed as if she were adapting to it. The expression, “groping in the dark” needed to be “groping in the light” for Pamela.
“Pamela!” I said.
She blinked, found the source of the words. Then, recognizing me, she laughed a beat or two.
I walked up to her.
“Hi, hello,” she said. Once again, I realized how tall she was, probably 5’ 10”. It was difficult to say because of the fullness of her hair.
“What are you up to?” she said.
“Taking a walk. Such an incredible day. What about you?”
She had on a navy-blue pea coat. She wore a silk scarf tied in a series of complex, appealing swirls about her neck with a broad blue ribbon around the back of her hair. She always dressed with flair, with panache. I used to ask her, “How do you always dress so well? If I gave you a pair of galoshes and a toenail clipper for clothes, you’d look great.”
She’d laugh—again, one or two beats. “I don’t think about it.”
So, there she was. When I said the word “walk” to her, she frowned slightly. She was not fond of exercise.
“Yes, yes,” she said. “You love to walk. I know. I pity you. I’d rather take a cab. I’d take one to cross the street if I could.”
“I know you would. New York taxi drivers should give you an award, or something.”
“I’m still waking up,” she said. Just behind us, looking like a castle waiting to be sieged, was the Jefferson Market Library. A big, red brick anomaly that I loved. I glanced at the library clock. It was one-fifteen.
“What are your plans for today?” I said.
“I’m meeting Wilhem for brunch,” she said. She had the wan skin of redheads.
“Didn’t I tell you? I’ve got a new boyfriend. I’m in love.”
“Wilhem? What’s that name?”
“Dutch. He’s Dutch.”
“How’d you meet him?” She was right, she hadn’t told me about him.
“I met him at a party. I’m a goner. He’s going to ruin me.”
“What’s he do?”
“He does lots of things. Right now he works in a gallery in Soho. He’s got lots of ideas,” she said.
“I’d like to meet this guy,” I said.
She continued her half-convincing lament. “I’m a goner. I’m like a teenager. I can’t think straight. Help me. I’m his sex slave. It’s pathetic.” She laughed at herself.
I couldn’t help but think of that Joni Mitchell line, “Help me, I’m falling in love again.”
“Pamela,” I said, “it sounds like it’s a little too late for help.”
“Too late,” she said, as if repeating some kind of curse. “Too late. Yes, it’s too late.”
I’d heard this once or twice before. When she fell, she fell hard. Often, she’d disappear for weeks, caught in the thralls of romance. I was envious of her abandonment, of her relinquishing everything for love.
“You like this, Pamela,” I said. “Admit it.”
“Part of me does. Part of me is scared out of my mind.”
She’d gone to boarding school in Switzerland and learned to speak fluent French, down to the little pursing of the lips, producing those sounds that are nearly impossible for most Americans to create. She was sophisticated in a European way, without the imperiousness. She was smart, funny and buoyant, but you could see a weighty unhappiness emerge from time to time. She wasn’t self-indulgent, though, complaining or moaning. She was almost always in a good mood. I liked her very much.
“I’ve got to go,” I said. “I’ve got to get on with my walk.”
“Call me,” she said. “I want to talk to you about Fair Harbor. You need to commit. You need to do this. Don’t blow it. Really. Do this.”
She was talking about the house she and some friends were going to rent on Fire Island for the summer. I was dubious. I liked being in New York during the summer. But Pamela was adamant. “This will be good for you,” she said. “Trust me on this. I mean it. Don’t say no.”
“I’ll call you later,” I said. I turned and started to go west on Eleventh Street.
“Call me!” she said, raising her voice so I would hear as I walked away. “Save me from love!”
I left her there in her predicament and went off on my Saturday walk. There was still so much to see. The city unfolded in front of me, foot by foot, slowly moving by me as I walked. Walking was the best way to know the city. Once I walked it, it was imprinted inside me. I continued west, crossed Seventh Avenue and then went down West Fourth Street. I was going to turn left on Perry or Charles, each beautiful streets, and head toward the Hudson River. Which one? Those small, on-the-spot decisions were, in part, what made me feel like an explorer in an undiscovered country.
I thought of Pamela. She might claim to be helpless, but, unlike me on this sharp fall day, she was in love. All that exciting turmoil, all that newness and doubt. When everything is the first time, when you’re giddy and nothing or nobody else matters except the two of you. Time is meaningless. Your vision is narrow—closed, even. You don’t care what happens in the world. I didn’t have that, and I didn’t know if I ever would. But on this crisp autumn day, I had New York. I loved it, and I felt it loved me back. Today, that would be enough.