Iris Smyles



Some say New York in summer is a wonderful town and cite the many free activities available all season. Film festivals in Bryant Park! Opera on the Great Lawn!

“There’s also a truck in the East Village that gives free food to the homeless every Sunday. Maybe we should go there for brunch,” Lex said over the hum of the air conditioner.

“What about Tuesday? They’re showing La Traviata in Central Park,” I said, looking up from The Voice.

“If I want to see the opera, I’ll buy a ticket. Summer Stage is for poor people. It’s the rich man’s concession to the worker who can’t afford to leave town. They think if they distract us with free shit, we’re less likely to rob them while they’re away. Direct the poor man’s attention toward the stage, so he doesn’t notice the darkened windows of the apartments lining Central Park. Give us opera so we don’t go mad, throw a brick through the window, and haul off with their tea settings. It’s insulting.”

“But it’s fun to picnic in Bryant Park. They’re showing His Girl Friday next week!”

“You know who else picnics? Homeless people. They love picnics. During the Depression, people picnicked in the park all year round; they called it Tent City.”

“Fine,” I sighed. “What do you want to do then?”


It was June of 1999, the summer before my senior year. Classes had ended in late May and within a week all my friends disappeared, leaving the city suddenly quiet. Quiet in that noisy way, when you look around and see crowds of people talking, just none of them to you.

Iris Has Free Time

Up until then, I’d enjoyed a full schedule of dates and parties; college was turning out to be an education more sentimental than academic. Lectures and seminars were few and far between, leaving plenty of time to go out. And I did, constantly, working at my social life the way others worked at their résumés. To leave Manhattan then, to trade in my hard-won glamour for over a month in the suburbs, was out of the question.

You Can’t Go Home Again,” I’d said, during my father’s birthday dinner weeks earlier. We were at our favorite Red Lobster in Long Island, where I’m from. My parents looked at me quizzically. “It’s a novel by Thomas Wolfe,” I explained, as a means of broaching the subject.

And so, with my parents’ permission, instead of returning home that June, I signed up for drawing classes at the School of Visual Arts. Since my classes only met once a week, however, I had little to do.

I took a lot of walks in the beginning. I lingered in bookstores, read novels in the park, and went frequently to the movies. I’d walk to Lincoln Center, which wasn’t far from my apartment, or else, if it were a Saturday, I’d walk the fifty or so blocks down to Angelika on Houston. On the street again after, alone in the warm summer night, I’d stroll the whole way back up to my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, past lively restaurants and bars with crowds of young people spilling out, hoping that by the time I got home I’d be tired enough to sleep.

I looked forward to the free film every Monday in Bryant Park. I’d spend the whole afternoon flipping through magazines in the Mid Manhattan Library and then at dusk, wander over. Though the park always filled up hours ahead of time—people would come early and spread blankets to reserve space for friends—I went just at the last minute. The great thing about going alone, I considered, watching Psycho between groups of screaming friends, was how easy it was to find a single seat.

Iris Has Free Time is published by Soft Skull Press, and is available for purchase here.

Background illustration by Marcela Gutiérrez