Tides of skin and meat on Grafton Street. The rumbling crowd of on-foot commuters pulses, presses back at me. Putzing about the city as I, unemployed and unengaged, often do, I have no destination so am oft swept up in the peoples’ current. I like to play this game where I choose something—a color, a kind of object (fruit, keys, buttons), a letter—and follow the thread of it until it leads me to some tucked-away place.
Today my compass is red. I’ve spent the last three minutes following a red-bereted woman, but she’s dodged me, so I’m aiming instead for the red cafe sign. Upon reaching it, I’ll see what else I find.
At the corner, someone steps on my white sneakers, the scuff like a fingerprint on my heel. Examining it, I miss my chance to cross as the stoplight washes red. But then, like a switch has been flicked with an impatient hand, the pedestrians transfigure into a school of fish mouthing, o, o, caught in a sunlit wave-cap as it comes home to the sea, which now happens to be this ocean-washed neighborhood of Dublin. I blink and blink as if to get dirt out my eye, but sure enough there they are: sea-trout, oversize pollack and mackerels, dogfish, and flatfish squeezed into suits and streetwear. A carp wears a backpack. A bream, without his opposable thumbs, clutches his briefcase to his chest. The fish Dubliners swim down the familiar street. When I look at my own hands, I find fins. As I gasp, I feel my lungs have been replaced with gills. The cityscape has become a seascape. It is said a city depersonalizes the self, that a city melts faces into a fish-head stew. I always thought it was a metaphor. But here I am. The cars, now submarines, move as massive tankards resisting the pressure of the sea bearing down on them. I peek inside their portholes to see the drivers staring empty at their phones waiting for the future of a green light. I thought I always understood in a special kind of way, the memory of pavement, the secrets of park benches. Walking the city, I thought I’d found kinship with the overtread and thinning grass. I thought I saw through the green, empty beer bottles—detritus in the gutter—into the previous night’s city carousels and screaming matches outside the pubs, the mauve-lipsticked faces stumbling home alone each night. I’d watched silently taking in the tedious lessons and rules, I’d learned from the school of the city, how we circle each other and still move forward through the sea.
Then the light changed from red to green and Grafton Street drained. Each fish, one by one, flopped down on the pavement only to reform and regrow back into a man. The submarines creaked and groaned as their metal shifted and their tires sprouted. They drove on through the light.
That day, I gave up my little following game and applied for a job.