September 4, 2017
I saw him by chance. He was lying on one of the granite benches near the TKTS booths. It was Monday night at the beginning of September and the Square was full of people but there was a free spot next to him. I went over and sat beside him. I did not talk to him and he was unaware I was there. He was busy, looking around like if he was searching for something specific. I started to look around too, trying to guess what it was that held his attention. I did not see anything strange or even interesting, just tourists walking, tourists resting, tourists taking pictures. Although it was nothing out of the ordinary, his outfit caught my eye:
He was wearing a bowler hat too small for his head, a white t-shirt and an open blue and white check shirt, black pants and impeccable white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers. I recognized those Nikes because I was wearing the same kind of shoes but in black. On the ground there was a yellow tote bag from M&M’s World, a store located two blocks far from us, which completed his attire.
That was it. That was all. There is nothing else to say about him. He was an old black man wearing a too small hat, looking for something I could not identify. In the end, he was just another person in crowded Times Square. In a place like this, where many things are happening simultaneously, after spending more than six hours a day watching and walking around, everything tends to become part of a mobile landscape.
I forgot that man for almost 40 minutes and started to look other things. Apart from the usual stream of pedestrians, a woman spent 28 minutes taking a photo of her drink. Located in the middle of the sidewalk, she tried many, many, times to capture the perfect angle with her cold Starbucks coffee but the ice melted and she abandoned her plan. Meanwhile, the man at my side finally found what he was searching for: a circular metallic red table.
The table in question was one of a number of items of free-to-use public furniture which were made available for locals and tourists after the pedestrianization of the square. Usually, the tables are accompanied by two foldable red metal chairs. As with almost all of the furniture in Times Square, both the table and chairs are mobile. Chairs can be added or removed depending on necessity and availability. The table the old man obtained was accompanied by a single chair.
He took a seat and cleaned the table. He grabbed the yellow bag on the ground between his sneakers and produced from it a plastic chess board composed of white and green squares. He unrolled the board and took a wooden box from the same bag, which he placed beside the plastic board. The box contained 32 chess pieces, 16 black pieces and 16 white pieces. Before organizing the pieces for battle he flattened the board, paying particular attention to the corners.
After some minutes the plastic board seemed flat enough and he organized the pieces one by one. He started with the black pieces, which were at his side of the board. Then he put all the whites pieces in front of him. After completing this task, he grabbed two black clocks from the yellow bag that he positioned at either side of the wooden box. The man took his time. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. No rush at all. The table was ready and he started to look around again. I realized he was looking for another chair.
All the chairs around were occupied. That part of Times Square was full of people that night. Close to the particular space the old man had created, other tables were occupied by loud groups of people chatting and eating. I had the impression nobody wanted to leave and this was something the man wearing the bowler hat was largely indifferent to. He seemed so calm, silently waiting for an empty chair. Finally it happened. Three tables away, a group of five people moved. Taking all the time in the world, the old man slowly got up from his chair and walked to the other table where he obtained an unoccupied chair before returning to his station with it.
According to Chess NYC (chessnyc.com), the best and most popular public places for playing chess in the city are Bryant Park, Washington Square Park, Central Park, and Union Square. In this last location, one Thursday morning around 10 a.m. I spent 25 minutes watching the most exciting chess game I have ever seen. A Rastafarian was playing against a Hasidic Jew. The game was divided by the color of the clothes of each player. The Rastafarian, wearing a huge white t-shirt, played with the white pieces while the ultra-orthodox Jew, in traditional black attire, played with the black pieces.
95% of the game happened off the board. The way they looked at each other, their gestures and movements, the way they hit the clock all made that game look like a —friendly— confrontation. The tension in each action was evident. The viewers gathered around suffered with them. Some of the audience commented in hushed voices on possible moves, tracing the players’ strategies. A woman holding a child took pictures. Excitement was in the air. Finally, with just a couple of pieces left on the board, black won. The white king was trapped in a corner and the Hasidic Jew resigned.
Returning to Times Square, all the infrastructure for the game was in place: table, done; chairs, done; board, flattened; pieces, positioned; clocks, settled. The only issue was that there was nobody there to play with him. Despite his efforts and despite almost all of the necessary elements being in place, the whole produced space was still just a potential, a potential game zone or potential failure. It was just a matter of waiting. I felt as if I were a Beckett play, a contemporary and silent production of Waiting for Godot (1949), an absurd situation one does not expect to see in Times Square where things are happening all the time.
Time was passing and the black man remained alone. Godot had still not made an appearance. He stood up and tucked his white t-shirt inside his pants as it was a necessity. He looked around, glancing at everyone and no one. His glance was lost in the plaza and his expression was unchanging, as was the situation around him. I guessed that his calm demeanour, his patience and lack of desperation, must have helped him a lot when playing chess. What was he thinking about? I speculated that now that the table and board were ready, he rehearsing chess moves in his head. That is my only explanation for his passivity.
He sat down and, for a couple of minutes, he started to play with his hands before standing up again. This time he reorganized the whole chess set. He moved the table a little bit, alienating it from the pattern on the ground. He moved the board and then he did the same thing with the clocks. He continued to stand, looking around with the firm intention of being seen, trying to connect with someone. It was not working. The situation became sad and I was just there, observing and taking pictures of his loneliness. Times Square was full of people but it was as if nobody was able to see him.
Street chess is a common activity in New York City. It is also a way some people make a few extra dollars. On a daily basis there are dozens of New Yorkers ready to play a $3 or $5 match —the amount is sometimes negotiable—in the parks and public plazas of the city. Times Square is no exception. Although there are not as many players as in other parts of the city, it is possible to find two, three, or even four professional street chess players around its pedestrian area. “Like basketball, chess hustling is a city game — fast and gritty and played on street corners and in parks with the throb of street life as a backdrop.” (McClain, 2007, September 17).
Time was ticking away and despite everything around him flowing, the man in the hat was still alone. The board was ready, the empty chair in front of him was also ready but he just waited looking at nothing in particular. The old man stood up again. He went to the next table —now empty— and took two chairs. Despite equipping his table with a full compliment of chairs there was still nobody to play with. The contrast between the continuous mobility of the pedestrian plaza and that small space created by him was huge. As the outside circulated in many directions simultaneously, his little universe was suspended and he just waited with a passivity that was hard to explain.
The expression on his face was an uncomfortable mix of serenity and melancholy. No smile, no sad gesture, no sign that could be interpreted as either a happy or a painful sensation and not a single attempt to invite someone to play chess with him, not even a curse. Although I am terrible at playing chess, I was tempted twice to go to his table and play with him. In the end, I decided not to participate. I wanted to see what the outcome of this temporal entanglement would be. Would the old man form a relationship that would allow him to play chess that night? It was hard to believe that in New York City, in Times Square, and after more than an hour of waiting, nobody was remotely interested in playing with him.
Finally, after some time, I have no idea how long, three women went to his table: a grandmother, a mother and her daughter. The youngest took a seat in front of him and the game started. I took a last photo of them and left. I was not interested in the game. For me, it was enough to know that the old man was now a chess player and that his playing-chess space was not virtual anymore. I continued walking around Times Square, watching other random things, following other minimal and unnoticed associations.
One hour later, as I was about to leave Times Square, I saw him again. He was sitting in the same chair playing chess but this time against a man watched by six of his relatives. Some curious people were gathered around the game. In the end, regardless of who won, it was not a wasted evening.