Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Tale of the Old Chess Quadrant

Washington Square Park, NYC, south-west entrance. The ruins of the old chess circle lie beyond the fence during the time of the renovation.
From Journal #52
Thursday, March 18, 2010—

5:31—WSQ—Entering the defunct park by way of an oneiric meridian. Staring in disbelief at the incredible sight of the torn up Old Chess Quadrant, as the sun retreats behind the buildings, pulling all the colors with it, and as the surface cools, the destroyed park, like some barren asteroid, rotates helplessly into evening, and then night.

Under the Orange Glow of the Lamps

The old globe lamps are still in place (precariously!), high in the air, ringing the circle and illuminating this tableaux of destruction and carnage, despite the fact that the quadrant has been torn up and gutted: the old benches gone—all the concrete ripped out—mounds of earth piled haphazardly in the sacred circle. As if by phantom decree, the lamps still miraculously receive a flow of electrons: somber punctuation marks that glow deep orange. Scattered all around are cables, pipes, rotting chunks of foundation, ancient concrete, black earth, and strewn all through this violence, the new sections of pipe and stacks of tile that will be utilized in this great desecration.

Deep into the Lantern Night: I am pulled along a glowing path into the perimeter of the circle, drawn towards the magnetic Load Stone buried deep in the exact center of that charged quadrant. Voices past and present ring out: “Hey, chess player! Chess player! Over here!” Ghosts move through flagstone and turf as re-routed meridians spark and flicker. Crepuscular games of chance are played out under the memorial globes, figures huddled over the filthy squares—drunken threats and boasts echo all through the blasted circle—ancient games played out to their conclusion. Conflagrations flare up spontaneously—ever threatening to escalate into outright violence: boasts, threats, war-whoops, and pure jive, as shadowy figures move around the edge of the ring of lights. “What-choo lookin’ at? Get the fuck outta here! You’re throwing off my game! Get the fuck outta here!”

The oblique diagonal entrance at the southwest corner of WSQ offering a dramatic entrance and exit: a runway for tourists, drug-dealers, crazies, and actual residents of Greenwich Village, as they made their way in and out of the park. Potentates hold court—barkers endlessly repeating and recycling the call: “Hey, chess player! Chess player! Over here!”, trying to assign an identity to passing phantoms disguised as tourists. Menace grows as blackness blossoms like ink-stains under the orange glow—not quite enough light to illuminate the fractious battle plans.

Historical Matches Enter the Chess Books

Certain mad and luminous nights spent in that charged circle swell up in my wavering mind: A celestial vendor of spirits materializes from out of the darkness beyond the low cement retaining wall—with a cache of bottles that are available at very reasonable prices which are eagerly scooped up by thirsty clients as deals are struck under the pulsing orange globes. A shopping bag filled with bottles of wine, whiskey, and beer—clinking and clattering, circles the table—a voice hawking the stolen (?) wares. Deals are struck: $5.00 for the wine, $6.00 for the whiskey. The spirits are uncorked and flow—a paper cup filled with rum is knocked over by a drunken hand and a tidal-wash spreads over the filth-laden squares, mixing with bits of discarded food, crumbs, burnt matches, cigarette butts, perhaps a few stray noodles from a Chinese take-out, and nameless substances coating the pebbled surface—the whole wishing for the cleansing rains to wash the tables and urine-soaked concrete beneath it. “Hey, chess player! Chess player!" Another hand hastily pours beer into a paper cup which fulminates and foams over onto the checkered squares, mixing and commingling with the rum. A thin film of booze coats the board as a Rook is loosened from its moorings and is observed floating diagonally in violation of its strictly prescribed powers of forward or lateral movement! Marijuana joints, smoked down to a nib, fall into the eighth of an inch of booze on the board’s surface, and extinguish themselves with a hiss.

Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles

Filthy, chipped and broken chess pieces—mismatched queens, scarred bishops, wounded knights, and pawns replaced by pennies, or bottle-caps, are marshaled amid drunken shouts and rasping coughs. And all around us the roiling ocean of crazed hustlers and psychos keep up a steady cacophony of threats, insults, and propositions. "Smoke? smoke?". Grizzled prophets in wild, flowing garb, who look as if they had stepped right out of the Old Testament, pass by our table, preaching at the top of their lungs, to everyone and no one. Sometimes it may have been the influence of a full moon, or perhaps some peculiar planetary configuration—or maybe it was nothing at all that had set them off on their mad tirades and speeches and squabbles—who knew? And no one was at all concerned—it was just another evening in the wild old chess quadrant in Washington Square Park.

Pungent smoke originates from obscure points around the charmed circle as the spirits are ingested—the whole is lifted into a cacophony—a pageant, as costumed actors play their parts—all building to a frenzy. “Hey, chess player! Chess player! Over here!”. Where are the cops? They have seemingly abandoned the absurd bacchanal—a revolving theater, a spinning top.

As night would descend on the circle, the level of danger and criminality would increase—black ink-stain patches of darkness would swell all around this criminal outpost. Minor disputes over infinitesimal quantities of drugs or money would escalate into beastly rage—99% of the time it was harmless posturing and braggadocio, but you were never quite sure when the posing might lead to spilled blood. Deep into the ink-black void, the hustlers played on, with hardly enough light to play.

And where do they all go when they leave the circle? To what obscure haunts and hovels?

Brotherhood of the Circle

Driven out of my home across town, I naturally gravitated to WSQ and particularly to the chess circle. The concentration required to play a game of chess had the wonderful effect of driving all thoughts of homelessness and poverty out of my head: I was free in this circle! The fiery world within the circle represented hearth, home, and a piratical sense of fraternity. When it was at its absolute zenith, and was really cranking, the circle was the very center of the world, complete with its own hierarchy of potentates, warlords, overseers, and court clowns, jesters, musicians, and entertainers. In my perilous circumstances, it was the world outside the circle that held the true terrors. While inside the boundaries of that modern day Tortuga, that pirates cove, I felt a sense of gravity, of brotherhood, it was a privilege to be a part of this rogue’s gathering. Thieves, hustlers, escaped mental patients, angels, devils, friends, wonderful people, and men of great learning have all assembled over the decades in that electric quadrant. There were perhaps a half dozen personalities that would reappear year after year—but aside from these stalwarts, an ever-changing cast of characters would appear mysteriously in the early Spring, solidly establishing themselves for a season, taking up residence at a particular table, creating their own fiefdoms, and holding court in a most conspicuous and ceremonious manner, as if they had been there all their lives, then departing in the late Fall when the weather got too cold, never to reappear again. No one knew or cared what had happened to them—maybe they were in jail, shot dead, or perhaps just moved on, or maybe they simply disappeared off the face of the earth, never to be seen again. Where they all went in the winter was a great mystery, and I gave up asking.

Destruction of the Circle, and Banishment to the North West Quadrant

A few of the old regulars, now transplanted to the North-West Quadrant, appear almost ridiculous among the new polished-stone tables and antiseptic environs of the new WSQ. Vague echoes and crackling flashbacks of the old buccaneer zone haunt the park—a great New York institution now in limbo—gutted, transplanted, and uncertain of its future—the only certainty being that nothing will ever be the same. The Old Park swirls around me and through me—“Hey, chess player! Chess player! Over here!”

1 comment:

  1. Brain,
    there is a great documentary of film director Stanley Kubrick where archival footage of WSQ chess games is run as Kubrick expounds in quite some detail about his time among the chess masters .... I really admire your writing style & your music since your daze w/ The Fleshtones - (David Billig)