It was a Saturday night, I think, some years ago, on one of those hated expeditions to the Upper East Side (my wife says it actually happened on the Upper West), where women carry lapdogs and wear high heels with their work out gear, and fashion still lives in an eternal Prep-land that brings back flashbacks of 1980s Connecticut. Anyway, there we were, long after midnight, making our way home to Brooklyn from a friend's party, the soles of our shoes sticky from spilt Red Bull, hoping against hope to make the connection at Broadway Lafayette without too much trauma, when we witnessed one of New York's prouder moments. Going down the stairs from soupy September air into a denser olfactory fug, I heard a voice say, "I'm taking a shit!" We turned the corner, and there she was: a woman in a skirt - probably under 30 - her face blurred with drunkenness and mirth, crouching on the stairs. The moment we saw her, a voice off-stage shouted:"where the hell are you?" And she replied, shouting louder, with gusto, as she stretched out the syllables: "I'm - TAKE-ing a SHITTTT!!!"
(Thursday, 3rd April 2014) It was the middle of the morning rush hour. My wife and I were on the F train, holding onto a steel pole, warmed and clammied by prior hands. We didn’t see her at first, sitting in her corner seat in the old-fashioned subway car, but once the voice began to spool, and would not stop: oh, we noticed her. Everyone did.
Watch out for the Sicilian connection, the pizza connection. If Hispanic, they like little blonde girls, but they like blond boys too. Watch for Sicilian forkover. This train goes to Forest Hills. Forest Hills is unbelievable. Because of them. Al Dente. That’s the name of a restaurant there too. Watch out for bits of glass in the pizza. Roach. Rat poison if they don’t like you. Watch out for Captain Luis T. Minetti. Even though they’re retired, they can still be active. They’re at the post office too. Sicilian forkover. Watch out. Supposedly, they went to Stella Maris High School. St. Joseph’s. Watch out for those innocent-sounding names. St. Joseph’s Secretarial School for Women, Brooklyn, Assumpta, automatically excommunicated Sicilian. If you see those last names, there’s the bower fret. Watch out for them on trains. They don’t have to be Sicilian. They hire. Watch out for him. He could ride this F train this very morning. He doesn’t deny it. He got on at the last stop. They like unshaven stuff. Watch out for Apple Bank. I may not work there, but I have an account there. A hood is a hood. Dark glasses. Why’s he wearing dark glasses? Have my ears cut off and real pigs’ ears put on. We’re Sicilian forkover. Don’t use Santini Moving and Storage. Supposedly the police told them, you’ve got too many get rid of them. I’ve a Jew from the Germany of identity theft. Emigrant Savings Bank. Some you may know the word Kow Tow. It’s really more than a bow. Don’t think that they’re OK because they read books. Things aren’t necessarily fresh. Some open at five. It’s tax time. My taxes are in. I’ve already complained to my congressman. I like my congressman. He has aides supposedly to help him. One of them wrote a biography of him without his birthday. My clever congressman. They use my stolen medicare card. They don’t pay attention to the announcements, “No electronic devices displayed. [She was commenting on people looking at their smart phones] Watch out for Mr. Click, there. [That was me, trying to record her.]
When I gave a sidelong glance (she was a cross-eyed old lady with white hair, in a long black dress and hooded black coat — noting that although cross-eyed, she saw the people around her with great sharpness, and inserted into her running commentary chillingly specific comments in quavering witch emphasis: "look at her. She’s reading. Look at him, looking at his electronic device.”—when I snatched a glance at her, she invariably noticed: “oh, he’s got a beard. And a plaid shirt, too, on his way to work. Obviously not making much money, is he?”), my wife would hiss, “stop looking at her!” But the sinkhole of paranoia she was generating was irresistible.
Get the fuck off the street! I hear, such beautifully-modulated single syllables, coming out the window of a black Lincoln car service (hackney cab). I look up and see an old Latin American man on a red "mobility scooter" with handle bars, kind of a 3-mile-an-hour motor bike, traveling against the flow of traffic down the side of 3rd avenue, which is one way.
The scooter-thingy reminded me of the time that a very obese man rode a similar one onto the subway, the explosive sound of him trying to, and then succeeding in ramping over the gap, drawing all our attention, and scattering a crowd of commuters who had to jump out of the way to avoid being rammed into. The stunt achieved, he sat there on his bizarre motorbike taking up the space of several people, blithely checking texts. I don't think the MTA subway authority thought to include this kind of vehicle in their rules.
Anyway, the second that the Latino dude heard the censure, he shouted, fuck you motherfucker! His swearing then descended into enraged mumbling, until I could hear no more as he proceeded to drive illegally down the avenue with cars honking to his right, with him, like many New Yorkers, believing that he was 100% in the right, but obviously and utterly not only wrong, but illegally so. New York had served up yet again one of its more perfect moments courtesy of one of its inexhaustible stock of crazies from central casting.
Finally, here is a mobility scooter jockey "taking it to the street" in rush hour Toronto: [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ct-7mHlwOmA]
It's strange to come out of the tunnel, and realise that I haven't exited New York in months. That isn't uncommon: to take a breath, and say to yourself: "shit, I need to leave the beast!" It's strange to come out of that tunnel, because for a city with majestic views, the teeming nature of it doesn't often allow the solitude to enjoy those moments - at least, not in public. The train comes out of the tunnel at 4th Avenue / 9th Street, it's evening, no one but lunatics are commuting to Manhattan 12 hours too late. I'm on the way to meet Adrienne. I can see a muted sunset, wrapped up in blue, the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines are overlapping, the Statue of Liberty, far off, is like something to pick up and put in your pocket. It's all of that, but more importantly: the carriage is empty, just me and 3 other people, each of us seated throughout the carriage. Rightly, we are taking the opportunity to spread out and settle into ourselves, and breathe slow in public again.
I let my breath out, sigh. I'd forgotten this: what it feels like to be allowed to sit in public without someone immediately impinging on you with any number of oblivious, neurotic, infinitely-annoying New York traits (someone singing to himself, a woman emptying and filling her bag and spreading the contents out beside you casts a cobra eye at you when you dig through your own bag for something, a dude sitting opposite you in mirror sunglasses, affecting oblivious cool and this is fucking with your head because of course you can't see his eyes and of course that's what it's all about, isn't it? Someone sits too close, their thigh almost breathing on your thigh, but not close enough to allow you to tell them to move away without you appearing to be the neurotic one).
The F train emerges going the opposite direction, from Carroll Street: the sun glitters over Carroll Gardens, and it is like waking from a mood state - not depression, less definite, though the way depression settles is anything but definite. It is the city's own mood state: what it does when you are on its canyon floors 100 storeys down, or underground, for how many commuting hours? Coming out of the tunnel and crossing the culvert across the scrapyard area of Gowanus (though the train slants like it's going to fall) is, in a small way, like coming up for air.
It's the same in a taxi going uptown, especially if you can only afford to take a taxi, say, once a week, and only when you have to. The driver's got the hang of the light sequence, and is barrelling towards East 105th street with no real allegiance to whatever staying in lane might mean: testing, trying his luck, one more microbe or a virus among all the other denizens of this grimy mainline vein. (The funny thing is that he seems to want to get there as quickly as you do: maybe with him it's a matter of pride?) Truckahead! You grab the oh-shit strap, he eases back into lane or, rather, forces in on top of another taxi, who of course, not showing guild solidarity, honks away at him.
What I'm getting at is the uptown taxi journey can grant perspective (the La Guardia-bound airplane dipping its wing crossing the Chrysler Building's plating made of light is a more extreme example of literalist perspective). "FDR Expressway?" he says. Crosstown indecision to get to it ("shit! $10 already to get from Union Square to 2nd avenue!"), but then the glide begins. Better if it's 1st avenue, or 3rd, when the lights are right. It's like jumping the vines in Tarzan, or a relay race where every runner in the 100-person team between 17th street and 101st is on form, and each green light is a bit of grace. The glide gives you an insulated sense of perspective, much like reading a great novel does: and, you're finally given the space to be able to love, and bless, humanity on an abstract scale.
Otherwise I take the train (MTA stands for mother fuckers touching my ass). I close the door of my flat like a pressure door. Blowing out my lips in a sigh, and smoothing out the stress-vein-bulge at the temples, I give the order: "Periscope down, bos'n! Dive to 50 leagues." "Aye, aye, sir," and my sanctuary disengages from the city for the night. Drifting down, going deeper, a tenuous equilibrium returns.
Yesterday morning I went to the Park Slope Food Co-op with my flat mate Charles. He is a member, as you have to be to shop there; and I had heard so much about it, from Charles and even from Irish people who had lived in New York at one point, that I had to experience it. Charles brought me as his guest. It was "intense". I was scrutinised by this weird old woman sitting at the security desk as you go in (organic + "security in tie-dyed vestments" = you know things are getting strange). I don't mean that she asked me to identify myself, I mean that she looked at me sidelong, then I looked at her sidelong, and it wasn't a particularly pleasant moment. The look meant: "spy in the house of organic love".
Charles shopped as I wandered, my guest sticker on my chest, scanning the "produce", occasionally putting a particularly unrefined and pure sesame oil in my bag for Chris to later buy on my behalf (guests can't purchase. To be a member, you must agree to do 2 and 3 quarter hours of work in the co-op per month. Charles said, "man, they have me with the grunts in the basement, away from all the sexy shopppers on their way from yoga"). My pace was too slow for the organic frenzy. I was pushed along within the psychic self-involved clouds of the shoppers (leading me to conclude that no matter where you are, the New Yorkness of inhabitants will still bleed through the surroundings). Intently scanning heirloom tomatoes with labelling above each bin identifying the idyllic upstate New York farms the products had come from, this was not idylls of the king, or even the prince. They moved around me with their annoying, high shopping trolleys with the typical hand basket on a kind of high balancing structure, bringing to mind - to my addled mind - the double decker bikes hipsters have taken to cycling around Greenpoint and Williamsburg, like a bearded, shaggy team out of an as-yet unmade film titled: Mad Max: Beyond the Williamsburg Bridge.
The contrast between the restfulness of the healthy products and the people - in their Strand Bookstore t-shirts, the older women in the dyed print trousers looking intently, and somewhat balefully, at organic radishes with earth still on them, the yoga mats all rolled up in a corner promising "a free session" upon purchase, the members doing their "3 hour minus 15 minutes" shift pushing trolley loads of produce through the shoppers, wearing low-slung jeans, side burns and mutton chop moustaches, yelling "coming through, people" - began to create a noxious run-off in the river of my psyche.
(In my mind, it almost ranks with IKEA hell, though thankfully it cannot compare, because of the sheer amount of time one is obliged to be lost in the IKEA labyrinth. The only difference between Minos and IKEA, apart from antiquity, is that there are more minotaurs / employees in IKEA, and in IKEA they run away from you. You find them having sneaky chats in the most obscure and niche areas of the shop - the screw section, for example. And when you ask them for help, they behave as if they've been insulted.)
At one point, I moved out of one aisle, because I was afraid that either the female couple with piercings, or the thin, healthy metrosexual man, or the woman in Birkenstocks would mow me down. And, when I got "there", a sanctuary which was no-where, just a staging post beside the tofu and the tempeh, as a child played with the hard little green mung beans in the bulk dispensers with the plastic spades for getting at such, and the mother told him to stop but he kept going in Park Slopian Spoilt Child fashion (cue 13 years, see him at blasé 18: "I'll have a latte, double shot of espresso, tall, 1% low fat" - thus is bred the most entitled New Yorkers), as I got "there", someone who'd been on his way there, too, moved in lizard-hipped, impersonal fashion to avoid me. It was like being an insect in an insect pit, and being crawled over. To express anger would serve no purpose.
Outside, the signage of the Tea Lounge cafe and the bike shop, all of which is casual, and broadcasts "pleasant" and "village feel" on most days, began to glow evilly, and askew. I noticed we were under a flight path. How had I not noticed the jets on their way to La Guardia, flying so low: so "New York low", in fact? I began to feel like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, in terms of paranoia, and sweat.
I said to Charles: "is it normally that busy?"
He said: "no, man. That was quiet."