By Pago Habitans *
The last time I saw my elusive friend Brother Ben was late spring in Washington Square. He was headed east on his skateboard and I was headed west on foot. I was curious to solve the mystery of his “home address,” which he had just given me in terms of latitude and longitude:
N 40 43.9708’ and W 74 0.6098’.
Ben, who enjoys a good riddle or conundrum, said I would find his “address” clearly displayed somewhere along Hudson River Park. He explained that, since he came from a long line of seafarers, conventional street addresses were just too landlocked and unimaginative.
That evening it didn’t take long for me to spot his “address” in navigational numeration on a sign for Drift In, the garden restaurant and bar across from the Christopher Street Pier. I’ve since found out that Drift In and sister restaurants are all on boats, next to water, or at least sport a nautical theme.
Anyone who has followed this diary column over the past nine months will know I only see Brother Ben occasionally when he seems to appear out of nowhere. He’s generous in sharing observations about life in the Village, both present and past, factual as well as imaginative.
As late spring became mid-summer I realized it had been far too long since I’d seen Brother Ben. I missed our chats and began to wonder what might have happened to him.
My first thought was to return to spots in the Village where I’d seen him before: Washington Square; Hudson Park Library; Barrow Street School of Music; the Garden at St. Luke in the Fields; West 4th Street from Sheridan Square northward to Westbeth and the Bus Stop Cafe, and the length of Hudson River Park. Brother Ben was nowhere to be found.
I had just about given up hope when one day recently I was sitting in Abingdon Square. A woman of robust appearance sat down on the next bench and began to whistle a tune I recognized. It was something I’d heard Brother Ben sing, and I began to remember the words:
Let us go down,
Down to the river
Where the poor folk drown.
Let us go up,
Up to the rooftop
Where the rich folk sup.
Asking the woman’s pardon, I inquired how she knew that tune. She answered, “We used to sing it when I was a child a few blocks from here on Gansevoort Street.” I explained that I had learned the song from a friend called Brother Ben, who seemed to have a long history in the neighborhood. Maybe she knew him?
Introducing ourselves, the woman gave her name as Mary Sullivan. Most of her childhood friends were long gone, she said, but she professed some curiosity about Ben. I described him as best I could: tall, of indeterminate age, youthful in spirit but also wise to the ways of the world. He usually wore a black cassock and camel-hair coat in the winter and dashikis in the summer.
Mary thought for a moment and then said, “Perhaps I can help you. I’ll contact my sources and see what I can find out.” With that she was gone before I could ask any more questions.
Out of curiosity I googled her. It turns out there was a prominent Mary Sullivan, one of the first female detectives in the New York Police Department. And she was born on Gansevoort Street in 1878. Now, there’s a conundrum Brother Ben would appreciate.
Needless to say, if any reader of this diary can offer clues to the whereabouts of Brother Ben, communication through the WestView News would be much appreciated.
“Village Resident” otherwise known as T. P. Miller.