There were more than four of them, really - many more than four, more than four thousand, even. But four of them told me exactly what I needed to know. When they had finished speaking, I stubbed out my cigarette and left.
I was leaning on the thick granite balustrade looking at the people walking by a few feet below me, their heads level with my knees. I would have been sitting on the thick stone railing, but the library guards had already yelled at me once. The blue and white badge hanging from my neck cut no ice with them - if anything I was setting a bad example for the itinerant wanderers who loitered around Bryant Park on sunny spring days, made them think they owned the joint, could get away with...well, with anything. They all thought the ID was a fake, anyway - my staff ID number was 123456. Random luck, even in things as cool as that, is good at making life difficult.
I had arrived back from lunch a half hour ago, and here I was back outside. I had spent the first four hours of that day getting royally stressed out in BPSE, pronounced Bip-See, an invented word I was determined to steal if I ever started a see-saw manufacturing company. BPSE is the Bryant Park Stack Extension, the library stacks that stretch out under the park. If there were ever a fire and I was stuck down there I was instructed to take one of the emergency exits that, after a long series of tunnels and cobwebs, would pop me out of a manhole by the fountain at the park's western edge. I consider dropping a lit match into one of the microfiche drawers and making a run for it.
So now, here I am, outside. I can't go back under there. It's partially because of claustrophobia, a fear I didn't know I had had until the I started on this phase of the project I was working on, and partially because it's lonely work, but mostly I can't stop thinking about the people relaxing in the sun some 30 feet above my head. I know they're there. They think the ground they're lying on is solid all the way down to the bedrock.
I thought once about bringing in my little portable radio some day and cranking it up to 11 to see if anybody noticed, but I doubted I'd get reception down here.
So I leave a note for my boss, say I'm feeling antsy and leave. But when I get outside I discover that I can't quite manage to pull myself away from the crowd. I'm watching them, and I realize that they have absolutely no idea what they're walking on top of, and if they DID, they probably wouldn't care.
- - -
I stood there for four hours trying to clear the over-clean air from my lungs. As I stood there, watching the traffic lights change and the sunlight cast interesting shadows, four people in their inherent humanity summed up everything I know about loneliness, about job dissatisfaction and about attempting to retain one's sanity on a bright, too bright after the hours of florescence, Friday afternoon.
The first was a businessman of the anonymous Madison Avenue sort. Probably has an office with a window, and is looking forward to the day his office gets a door. He imagines his boss will hand him a key in a little velvet box as workers come in with a huge, oak portal adorned with a bright red bow.
This day, however, he was being an idiot. He was talking loudly on his cellphone as he walks down the street. I thought he was handing out stock figures until I heard, quite clearly "...5...3...3...7. Yeah, it's a mastercard."
Second was a Hare Krishna. He was overjoyed to be repeatedly ignored (not unkindly) by everyone he approached. He was one with the...whatever. It always cracked me up to see them hanging around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, approaching weary travelers with their enormously cheerful eyebrows and silly haircuts as if La Guardia or JFK were too much of a hassle to get to.
This guy locked his eyes on me, grinned like a maniac and took a step towards me. I looked him square in the eyes and slowly shook my head. Not unappreciated, but not today. He seemed torn between his teachings and his manners. He had started to speak and I had turned to tell him to bug off, when I realized he'd approached somebody else. I felt foolish and unnecessarily riled.
The third was a stunningly assembled male-to-female transexual. She was hot, and she caught me smiling, and she caught me blushing. She smiled back, slow and broad, winked one of the hugest grey eyes I'd ever seen, and kept walking.
And the fourth was a guy who looked absolutely horrible. Not homeless or dirty or anything like that, just...destroyed. His shoulders were sagging, his eyes were bloodshot and his hair was a mess. He looked like he had had the worst day of his life, like his sanity was puddling in his shoes and getting his toes soggy. He was pale, nervous and, while not actually staring at his shoelaces, looked like he wanted to be. He was fidgety and out-of-place looking. He caught my gaze, and we both shook our heads a little in precisely the same way, because he was me, after all, a reflection in a glass pane secured to the side of a glazier's van. I didn't recognize myself.
The van pulled away after a few seconds, taking my reflection with it, and I smiled at the thought of all the new friends I had made that I would probably never see again.