I always walk into Washington Square Park from the southwest corner, the chess quadrant, where big men in do-rags hock games like fruit vendors. “You sir! You look like a chess player. Yessir, you do. How ’bout a game?” Toward the center of the park, around the fountain casting off sunlight in a million droplets, the crowds are already thickening. I find a slab of marble dappled in shadows, and sit down to watch. A pair of boxers duck and jab for a small audience. A beard in a trucker hat holds a sign reading “Free Advice.” Next to me a tall man in a muted plaid shirt presses a pen hard into a notebook on his knee, leaving a line of black letters in microscopic capital. A woman in front of an easel holding an oil portrait is listening to a man with a bike. It takes me a minute to recognize that he’s homeless, and it isn’t because of his generally shambolic state of dress—the binder clip holding up my pants just now obliges me to look forgivingly on the sartorial foibles of others. Nor is it his increasingly earnest talk of UFOs. But the pages of the Daily News he’s turning through are so worn that they drape over his hands like a cloth.
A young man walks by, backwards, leading a blindfolded young woman by the sound of his voice. “Okay, stop here,” he commands, a few benches down from me. “Turn towards me. Now… Good… Back up about eight inches. Good… Bend your knees and you can sit down.” The woman lowers herself cautiously, and then takes off the blindfold and looks around, blinking and grinning. “Ohh, wow,” she says. “Wow. I had no idea!”
I look out across the square to see what she sees. And then, through the crowd, I see a glimpse of red, and white. A gaggle of tourists following a yellow flag passes by, and he’s gone, but then again I see a tufted hat. A familiar pair of round glasses. Then the crowd parts, and there he is.
We all love the Where’s Waldo? books, but then again, they’re strange things, aren’t they? A book without a story. You can turn the final page and still know nothing about the titular character. Why is he traveling? What’s the deal with his nemesis, Odlaw? And how did he crack the riddle of time travel?
I’ve never seen Waldo in person before. But looking at him now across the sunlit square, I’m struck by the strangest sense of recognition.
I dated a Waldo once, an international man of mystery. My Waldo was named Sebastian. They both wore their hobbies around their neck, in tinker-traveler style—where Waldo toted his camera, binoculars, spade, and walking cane, Sebastian displayed his conversational French, his market-tracking apps, his tattooed passport and faith in juice cleanses. We met in a series of picture-book locations: foggy London; snow-globe Montreal; shiny New York. I would arrive on the scene and scan the crowd—airport, pub, park—and when I spotted him he would smile and wave. He answered questions superficially and asked none, instead explaining things to me that I’d expressed no interest in: what he ate for breakfast in Istanbul; what a Bloomberg terminal was; the random password generator he used to ensure that even he couldn’t steal his own secrets.
I think the enigma must have faced both ways—the only question I remember him asking me was, “Do you have any idea how weird you are?”—a question which he immediately answered himself: “You know what—you probably do.” (His standards of weird were Marianas-low.) I don’t know why I trudged on through that emotional steppe for two months—he was always late, and sarcastic, and irritatingly observant of my lack of attention to matters of wardrobe. But I collected some new clue about him every place we went, something touching: he thought his mother was beautiful; he was the first to donate to our friends’ charities. Our relationship was like a game, just one that wasn’t that much fun. I have no idea why he was even playing. Passing the time, I suppose, like me in a pediatrician’s waiting room, or a chair in my mother’s office, searching for Waldo in the Coliseum.
Waldo smiles and poses for me while I snap his picture.
On my way out of the park I walk past an arrow on the ground that points to “HAPPINESS AHEAD,” and in a minute I come upon a blue-white circle chalked on the flagstones, “HAPPINESS HERE!” inscribed inside. Around it is a concentricity of men and women; one after another, they step inside the cartoon. First they grin hugely, and then they laugh. The picture of happiness.
This time, I keep walking.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.