Phantom Hills of Mannahatta
(Photos by Bald Punk – Click twice to fully enlarge)
Last Friday afternoon, after work which had me gutting an apartment in Brooklyn, I took the R train back to Manhattan and got off at the 8th Street subway station in Greenwich Village. I came up the blackened, gum-blotted stairs and was met by dark gray skies. I thought it was going to rain. Chilly air slipped inside my windbreaker, and it hit me that the gloomy clouds were a sign of the coming winter.
I plodded up Broadway on my way to Strand bookstore on 13th Street, and passed mostly small buildings, averaging about fifteen stories in height. That section of the road bends left toward New Jersey, and from the doors outside Grace Church on 10th, it’s the last place you can see straight as an arrow all the way to Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan.
With the border between Greenwich Village and Midtown South looming at 14th Street, the vibe changes in that area. It’s not necessarily something new-agey. I would attribute it to all the working class people on the streets of midtown as opposed to the overwhelming number of students and bohemian-types traipsing about the Village.
My vision was clouded, though I didn’t pay close attention. I was caught up in the changing vibe, thinking about the coming winter, and longing for the books-galore-environment of Strand. On one side of the store there’s a maze of shelves, packed to the rafters with books that cater to whimsical researchers like myself, and on the other, is table after table of popular paperbacks and hard covers that make choosing a quality read less of a toil. After spending the day blanketed by clouds of dust and listening to frenetic merengue music, Strand is a great place to go and cleanse the palate.
My eyes drifted to Strand’s red awning. Superimposed over the sidewalk before me was a rutted, mud-laden path. On the corner just ahead was a vendor selling honey-roasted nuts, and it seemed he stood on a gun-metal colored, flat stone. Wood smoke filled my nostrils and what looked like a forest of pines drifted before my eyes.
I blinked, wiping my eyes, and took in a tree-lined hill that rose to the height of Grace Church’s steeple. It wasn’t my imagination . . .
I turned my head to the left, and looked into the shadows. I tried to tell myself that what I had seen was nothing more than a vivid daydream.
I did my best to focus on something solid. I perused the windows of the antique shops. To my surprise, one store that for years had looked like an overstocked, old furniture warehouse, now sold mostly clothing.
Soon only a thin, pastoral film lingered in my eyes. Yet I couldn’t shake the idea that what I had seen was real.
I crossed the street toward the front doors of Grace Church. In the yard, I spotted Benny “the cigar store Indian,” sitting on a bench framed by prickly green shrubs. The old homeless man was clean-shaven, and wore a faded coat and worn slacks. He gave a tentative smile, and I could see a pale-yellow aura encircled his head.
I cordially nodded, hoping to skip any conversation, and he did the same.
He’s not the kind of friend I have to stop and chat with each time I see him—and for all I know he was talking with a ghost or something.
“Had a long day?” Benny cried, squinting.
I wiped my face, thinking it was still dusty, and gave a boisterous laugh. “I bet there used to be a big hill here back in the day,” I said, knowing Benny–who believes he’s a reincarnated Lenape Indian from the time of Henry Hudson—might have something to say about that.
The old homeless man frowned.
“What is it Benny?” I called out to him in the same tone I would to my dog, Scrappy D, when I want to rile him up. Yet still looking to avoid conversation, I picked up my pace.
Benny lifted his hand and opened it.
I saw the hills again, though the trees were barren. I stopped.
“At one time there was a hill here that rose as high as Grace’s steeple,” Benny said. “Every so often I catch someone walking by who I know sees it like you do now.”
“You’re crazy!” I lied.
“They are called the Phantom Hills of Mannahatta,” he said. “Don’t be afraid, but be cautious.”
“There are fairies, elves, and a perhaps the odd demon, who may spring out from the phantom hills. They might try and trick you into following them.”
“They will lure you with the promises of riches or a libertine party. Resist with all your heart. There is no coming back. Whitman walked off with a sprite and was never seen again.”
“Now you listen!” I cried, posturing like a man who knew he was right. “There is no need to turn Walt Whitman into a ghost or a lost soul or something.”
“Think what you want.”
“Walt Whitman died in Camden, NJ,” I said bitterly.
“Ha!” Benny smiled with a bright light in his eyes. “Believe what you like!”
“I gotta go,” I said, making a beeline to Strand.
“Remember, don’t follow anyone off into the phantom hills, no telling where they might lead you.”
And I took his advice. I really did. And I probably would have followed it to the letter if that damn sprite wasn’t such a trickster.
Here are all the posts in this series: Episode Twenty-One – November 2009