The Long Jumper

All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk.


Dog collar mascara
Punkers sit on the steps in plumage envy
Of iridescent pigeons that fly over the square.
Perhaps it is the long jumper that stirred them to flight
Competing in his Olympiad of one.

He pretends the there, the sand pit and crowd
He pretends the sunshine glory and adrenalin.
He works so hard to imagine so much
While he longs only
For the flock's clean chorus
Of wriggling warm bodies
That harmonize as if a resonant thread of silk
Stretched between each tiny beating heart.

 

Sergels Torg as seen from atop Kulturhuset

When I worked in Stockholm, my desk in my office sat in front of a tall window that stared at Kulturhuset across the nominal center of the city -- Sergels Torg. I spent a lot of time looking out of that window (I wasn't working much) watching the city life below.

A torg is a square and this particular square is a circle formed by a collection of squat, ugly buildings that the city's residents endure like long bruises. In that filigreed city where entire rocky hillsides are terraced in careful increments to accommodate dainty human footsteps, these buildings are a dishumanity, dissonant and out of scale, a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Their loom weaves our stage.

Four stories below my eyrie and directly beneath humming busses and taxis bake delicious cinnamon rolls and apple cakes and strudel. In the mornings coffee wakes the sleepy while junkies pace outside and negotiate with their demons among the pigeon shit and passers-by. There is always a crowd here, for the bakery is next to the cobbler is next to the entrance to the central subway station where all lines meet. People pour into the never-netherland of the Tunnelbana, the thundering electric snake that squirts its passengers hither and yon to fertilize geographically distant eggs. That thunder is transmitted upstairs to our office: every few minutes the mugs in the kitchen rattle and a wave of chaos breaks up below while another forms from pairs and trios piling onto a new train to recommend themselves to other, better destinations.

Outside the subway, pigeons bob like wind-up toys scouring gummy ground for crumbs and dropped hot dogs. Occasionally they lift unbidden into a ragged arc — inexact, like an extension of the circular square's corrupt geometry. They swoop over the heads of the punk rockers sitting at the base of the broad stairs that lead up to the postcard-and-curio vendors on busy Drottninggatan. The punkers are resplendent in black leather and rainbow mohawks and shining spikes. The pigeons spend a good minute aloft only to land twenty steps away. Their flight looks choreographed and predictable, and is anything but. From my window I see each bird fly a wiggly question mark of a path, adjusting its course to preserve and confirm the flock.

On some days the pigeons share the square with rollerblade daredevils, demonstrators for Kurdish freedom, shoppers in the shoe stores beneath the fountain at the base of Sveavägen and, in times past, Maria Johansson playing her organ, now passed on to her reward. It is a busy place and in the middle of it all, existing only in that circular square, is the Long Jumper.

He spends many minutes lining up for a jump. In Levis, sneakered feet and an ordinary red jacket he paces off his course which angles slightly away from the stairs. He paces over and over and then he's ready, I think, rocking on the balls of his feet, testing his calves, but he's never ready when I think he is. There's always one more time that he paces off the distance to the line that only he sees. But eventually he'll jump. He is hatless and patient in the cold.

I don't know what goes on in his head, I can only guess. I imagine a percussive madness that drapes over him like a wool blanket. Or maybe his senses are as a kaleidescope is to the eyes and the world comes to him fractured and rearranged. All I know is that he has burnished habit to ritual. His concentration is so intense that it warps the very stones of the square. He works great magic to transform this ugly concrete basin into his personal stadium. For the torg is a pedestrian, egalitarian place, while a stadium is a lens focused on a single athlete, a sea of breaths suspended for just one. Sometimes he acknowledges his imagined fans with a wave and a smile, and his imagination always places them where there are no people — a careful choice in this crowded square. Not only has he flipped the torg on its head, he has depopulated it, killing us each and every one. He makes humanity anew, the one at hand clearly lacking. Small wonder, then, that he concentrates so fiercely.

I know you see us, Long Jumper, because you don't run over us. But how do you knit us into your fantasy? How do you conjure the wry scents of liniment and dust from sweet cinnamon and coffee?

Nervous referees and groundskeepers pass in front of you preparing the track surface, lavishing it with spit, snus and cigarette butts. The pigeons overhead are the Goodyear blimp, and I a distant Howard Cosell, jowly, serious, ridiculous and insignificant. The crowd's verdant expectation is a dull constant murmur that your heart hears and reciprocates. You are ready. A subway passes below and the hard concrete thrumming beneath your feet echoes your inner vibrato as string after string is plucked and responds. Your mouth tastes like battery acid and aluminum, and your hands, tangy with sweat, rub against your hips then you rock solemn as a honeyed baby one two three times and after seven quick steps you are aloft.

In midair all becomes a blur. Boots are on sale this week. A punker with seven silver rings in her left ear drags on her cigarette; birds coo and flutter. The #69 bus on Klarabergsgatan roars off to Djurgården leaving a methanol wake. You don't hear it or smell it. You are absolutely adrift; you have left this world for another. The outdoor tables of the steel-and-glass café next to the torg fill up with afternoon customers, faces turned to the westering sun like so many fleshy sunflowers. You're incandescent. The tourists on Drottninggatan buying plastic viking helmets and moose T-shirts see you. You are visible from the café atop Kulturhuset, you are visible from space.

The sun is brilliant but pulls you no closer, and your windmilling hands and feet find no purchase in the Swedish autumn air. You land and consummate your illusion. If I blink I miss it. You are already pumping your right elbow backward with fist clenched as if pulling a ripcord. Triumph.

How can each jump be such a victory if it permits you only to jump again? It is a confined and confining glory.

I don't know what you hear or smell or see, cinnamon or pigeons or the notes of a heavenly organ. I don't know what you see but it isn't us. You pretend the there, the sand pit and crowd; you pretend the sunshine glory and adrenalin. You work so hard to imagine so much, while you long only for the flock's clean chorus of wriggling warm bodies that harmonize as if a resonant thread of silk stretched between each tiny beating heart.