The pleasures of people watching infuse “The Subway Stops at Bryant Park,” a captivating collection of short stories set in and around a Midtown Manhattan park.
Across from the New York Public Library, Bryant Park welcomes a cast of unusual regulars. The old woman who rolls in on Tuesdays with a suitcase swathed in plastic wrap. The guy with waterlogged shoes and pockets full of coins filched from the fountain. The silent park sweeper who catches leaves as they fall.
A superb storyteller, N. West Moss lets us get to know a few of these characters, while others slide in and out of view. Sometimes Bryant Park is main stage; sometimes it’s barely mentioned. With cinematic skill, Moss moves the scenes as if she has a camera rolling. In “Beautiful Mom,” the stolid statue of Gertrude Stein leans over the reunion of a daughter and her runaway mother. In “Patience and Fortitude,” the library’s stone lions witness a young woman’s discovery that a happy childhood will not “inoculate a person against the human tsunami of carelessness.”
My favorite is “Dubonnet,” a coming-of-old-age tale in which we find out why that woman wheels a plastic-wrapped suitcase to the weekly piano concert. “I mean, I’m not naive,” she tells us, “and what with the tourists in the park, there would be criminals too, and I just wanted to be able to relax.” After spending some time in her mind, this makes sense.
That’s the takeaway from this emotionally rich collection. Moss opens her characters’ minds to us, and we open our hearts to them.
Many of the stories have been published elsewhere. All have a wistful quality, and there’s a recurring theme of grief, making Ross’ twin dedications to her mother and father more poignant.
Altogether, her stories illustrate the importance of a gathering place such as Bryant Park, once a haven for druggies that was reclaimed in the 1990s. West describes the trade-offs of this revival through Omeer, a doorman across the street. The park was an eyesore when he was young and optimistic. Then the bulldozers moved in, the druggies moved out and the park became a pleasant place where Omeer could spend his lunch hours. But in time, his friendly old tenants left and “new, driven ones” hustled past the graying doorman. “As the park and the neighborhood blossomed, however, the kindness of the people seemed pushed to the side, as though kindness was the price that had to be paid for progress.”
Such observations, set in the lives of vivid characters, promise to enrich a summer day in the park, where you can look up between chapters and contemplate the stories of the people strolling past.
Maureen McCarthy is a Star Tribune team leader.
The Subway Stops at Bryant Park
By: N. West Moss.
Publisher: Leapfrog Press, 153 pages, $15.95.