By Pago Habitans *
I was sitting in Washington Square one evening when a string of skateboarders whizzed by. They were mostly young people, but at the tail end was an unlikely older figure doing his best to keep up with the pack. It was, of course, my elusive friend Brother Ben.
He recognized me, executed an impressive U-turn, and came to a stop in front of me. Using one foot to flip the board up into his hands, he then sat down, heaved a sigh, and said, “I don’t know how they do it.” I asked him how long he’d been practicing skateboarding. “Oh, just since this morning,” he replied.
There’s nothing much about Brother Ben that surprises me. I never know when or where or in what circumstances he’s going to turn up. He’s a free spirit, an engaging personality, and he always has something intriguing to say about Village life. At the same time, I don’t really know very much about him.
Now, however, as evening was fading into twilight, and I entertained thoughts of heading home, I found myself asking a question I’d been meaning to ask for some time: “Ben, where do you actually live?”
He thought for a moment and then said, “I could give you any number of addresses where I hang my hat from time to time, and I have had fixed abodes on occasion, but the reality is that I think of the whole Village as my home. If I had to pick one spot that might serve as a “home address,” that would be designated best in terms of latitude and longitude.”
My quizzical look prompted him to continue.
“I come from a long line of seafarers. Street addresses are serviceable, but they’re a bit limiting and land-locked. You see, the surface of the earth is plotted out in a network of longitude and latitude measured in degrees, minutes, and seconds. Not everyone in the world has an address, let alone a home, but everyone on the planet can claim a latitudinal and longitudinal “address” for where they live, or, for that matter, wherever they are at any given time. For instance, I can tell you where you generally abide.”
“Roughly 40 degrees North of the Equator and 74 degrees West of the Prime Meridian—more or less the stretch between Jefferson Market and Sheridan Square, just to keep it simple.”
“Where do you call home, then, and please be more specific,” I pleaded.
“I claim my home address as N 40° 43.9708’ and W 74° 0.6098’.” “And where is that on the Village map?” I asked.
“I will leave that for you to discover. You can find it clearly displayed along a prominent West Village promenade,” he teased, and then offered the following hint: “If I had been there 400 years ago, I might have gotten to know the Leni Lenape people, our Village forebears, and I could have waved to Henry Hudson on his way upstream. It’s also the spot where Robert Fulton launched the Clermont, the first commercial steamboat that led to advances in commerce and travel on rivers and oceans. And it’s the place where transatlantic passenger ships and ferries to and from continental America, by which I mean New Jersey, connected Manhattan Island to the wider world.”
With that pronouncement Brother Ben leapt to his feet and sailed away on his skateboard. At the same time, I headed west to look for Brother Ben’s “address” somewhere in Hudson River Park.
* ”Village Resident,” otherwise known as T. P. Miller.