Freshly baked for Memorial Day
in New York City
, with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
as a destination, my girlfriend and I descend into the 23rd 6 train
station. We hear the train. Feel it coming. I take the steps sideways, three at a time: an urban gazelle
takes them straight: bip-bip-bip-bip. A swipe for me. A swipe for she.
A 4 train rumbles in. Normally an express, but this is 23rd local, so I assume it is running as such for the holiday. We are going to get in, regardless, even if it wants to turn into an express at 14th, but as the train stops with conductor's window open, right in front of me, his head sticking out, and the sudden silence, I figure no harm in asking.
"Is this stopping at Bleecker?"
He is a small, very white man wearing big yellow ear-muffs; huge cup-like noise-protectors that jut far out and, to my stoned mind, look suspiciously like oversized knobs that I want to turn or squeeze or poke or bop. He is also wearing thick black framed glasses and over these, protective eye goggles. Through all this I see his beady dark eyes following something on the ground to my right, behind me, then to my left. I look.
A legless black man planting his arms in front, lifting, swinging, landing; planting, lifting, swinging, with a jingling change tin duct-taped to his chest. He swings himself into the car. The conductor looks at me. I am staring at his well-trimmed black mustache. "Is this stopping at Bleecker?" "Yes. Get in." He says in a raspy high-pitched voice.
We do. The doors close. No seats, but decent elbow room. Did the conductor actually hear me? Could he have? With those muff-knobs? Or did he read my lips? He can probably read lips. Or maybe he didn't hear me, didn't lip-read me, didn't understand me, didn’t care.
Pluton is claustrophobic. She doesn't like subways. In her eyes I can see that she regrets having come, that she no longer believes what I told her about buses not going to Brooklyn. I smile at her. She doesn’t smile back. I remind her that we’re going to stop at Pierre’s house before the Botanic Gardens to check out his new kittens, Bob and Steve. Her eyes light up a bit, but still no smile.
Across from us is a young man in a wheel-chair. Latino. Muscular. Wearing a red running suit. I want to point out to Pluton how cool this is. Check that out! New York subways are the best and now they’re finally becoming wheel-chair accessible. I want to say this because I think my subways are better than her subways in Buenos Aires. I want to say this because now that I’ve brought her with me to live in New York I want her to like the subways. But no matter how superior the NYC subway system, nothing, in her eyes, could beat the open windows and unlocked doors of Buenos Aires’s Sub-T. I suppose I also want to say something like, Look at this man. He’s in here, underground, all the windows closed, doors locked, riding through a tunnel, and he’s in a wheel-chair. Does he look nervous? If he can breathe easy, shouldn’t you?
But phobias are immune to reason, so I hold my tongue.
I also hold my tongue because the man in the wheelchair is clearly Latino and so if he heard me, he would understand. We’ve only been back in NYC for a week, but I’ve already made that error a few times – speaking Spanish in public with Pluton as if it were our own secret language, only to offend someone who lashes back at me in a Spanish accent my gringo-ass can’t understand, reminding me not only that I still not entirely fluent, but that I am also an unslick idiot.
But what would he care? He’d surely agree with me on the importance of wheelchair accessibility. Then again, he might freak out about how inaccessible the subways really are. As if this were my fault.
But this is just me presuming he’s angry and sensitive about the whole wheelchair subject, that he has barely suppressed issues ready to ignite at the slightest provocation, which, if this were true, would be understandable, of course; yet, it might not be true, he might be completely comfortable talking about it. Probably is. Why not? In fact, now that I think about it, who could be more comfortable about the subject than someone who fully knows it? Maybe consciously not talking about it is the real issue, the thing that really pisses him off, could lead him think I pity him, that I am afraid to acknowledge his life as it is, that I am denying an aspect of his life that he surely can’t deny. The arrogance of me trying to protect this man from his feelings, as if he were a child. How can I think I know his feelings any better than the feelings of the blond little girl sitting to his right?
I feel like an asshole.
I think of Nobel, a friend I made in Central America. Both legs and his right arm were blown off in war. Perhaps the single-most amazing human I have yet to meet, and not just because he had adapted to life so well – a world-class chef, avid camper, raising two kids, building his own cars, driving them, etc - but because of who he was, fundamentally: a witty, intelligent man with a limitless heart. Hanging out with Nobel had been awkward for about the first ten seconds. I thought I had learned so much from Noble, yet here I find myself preoccupied by the social dynamics of it, about what who is thinking and why. Worse, isn’t just thinking about Nobel like me saying “I have a black friend” – the truth of such a statement doesn’t make it taste any better.
Pluton tugs on my arm. She looks up at me and there is genuine fear in her eyes. This was a mistake. The subway. I give her a hug. I tell her we’ll be switching to the F train at Bleecker Street in a few more stops, and that the F train will go above ground at some point in Brooklyn.
We stop at 14th street. A few people leave. Pluton sticks her head out, takes a big breath before going back under. The doors close and suddenly there’s an empty seat. Miraculously nobody’s claiming it yet. So I do. With my body, but I don’t sit. I offer it to Pluton. She shakes her head No. If she is going to drown, she’d rather do it standing up.
No pregnant women in sight.
I figure I’ll claim the seat.
On the seat is a little plastic bottle of Visine.
“Is that yours?” I ask the man with the dreadlocks sitting next to the empty seat, as I’m putting it together in my mind: Rasta with Visine? This must be the stoner section.
He pauses, lowers his book, looks over at the seat.
“Yes.” A look of surprise. “Must’ve fallen out of my pocket.” He is not a Rasta, or at least not Jamaican. He has no accent. But still. Dreadlocks and Visine? He pockets the Visine, says:
“I could probably use some of that myself.”
I drop this innuendo with a giggle, because I am smiley-in-flight stoned at this point and can only assume my eyes are too.
“The minute I stepped outside, it just came over me – boom – all at once.”
He brought his hand in front of his face, wiggling his long fingers about, trickling them downward, as though impersonating the rain.
“The nose. The eyes. Allergies.”
“Me too. Couple good tokes, step outside. Allergies.”
“Not at all.”
“All at once. Boom.” I sprinkle my fingers over my face. “Allergies.”
“You got it wrong.”
“OK. Then I’m sorry. I don’t know…. It’s just … Memorial Day … feeling a little loose ... projecting, I s’pose. Thought this was the Visine section. You know what I mean?”
“I know what you mean, but I got allergies.”
“I understand. My girlfriend has claustrophobia.”
He turns his attention back to his book. The door between the cars slides open. I hear the jingling of the tin cup. Though I can’t quite see him, I know it’s the legless man. Instinctively, I want to stop him, want to get up and block his route. Because I don’t want my friend in the wheelchair to see him. Too late. He sees him.
“EXCUSE ME! My name is Jake Sampson. Down here.” His voice deep and booming. “I don’t like having to ask you for money. I want a job. If you have a job to offer me - or know somebody who does - I’ll take it.” He took a moment to scan the car with a face full of mock expectation. “If you don’t have a job to offer, that’s OK. You could still help me out. With some food or with some change. Loose change or any change. Or bills. I accept bills.” He turned his head to the man in the wheelchair and, in a normal talking-voice, “Saving up to get me a nice set of wheels like that” – then back to the entertainer voice, taking up where he had left of. “Bills or checks. That’s right. I now accept checks. Out-of-state is not a problem. Repeat. Out-of-state checks is not a problem. Name’s Jake Sampson – spelled like it sounds. Or credit cards. Visa. Mastercard. American Express. I don’t discriminate. I’m an equal opportunity beggar. I’m asking you to help me out if you can? I appreciate your time. God bless.”
He stands up on his arms and shakes his torso left to right, right to left, jangling the change can taped to his chest, making his way down the car. The man in the wheelchair isn’t looking at him. Nobody’s looking at him, but the man in the wheelchair is not looking even more than the rest of us.
The train is quiet except for the train noises and the jumping coins in his change can. It is tense and sad. Are we being “good Germans,” trying not to see, when we should really do something? But what is there to do? Maybe coughing up a buck and pitying this man’s situation is all we can do? Is that what we’re doing? Pitying him? If not, what is it we feel? Fortunate?
Does the short man feel taller as the dwarf passes?
Does the old man feel younger as the drooling octogenarian canes by?
Does the balding man feel hairy upon seeing the gleam off a shiny head?
What does the main in the wheelchair feel? Maybe he got mashed in a car accident? Maybe he could’ve lost his legs too? Maybe his legs, strapped lifeless there, are just as useless? Could even be prosthetics? And if so, surely the man with the toupee must fear the honesty of the naked dome. Or maybe he’s just temporarily on wheels, on his way to physical therapy? That’s what I always want to believe, because I can’t imagine myself there, can’t imagine the strength needed to carry that with you through everything cold and brutal, to say nothing of through all of life’s normal ups and downs.
Why do I even guess? Presume, one way or the other? The stoned Rasta was neither. What do I know?
Does the man in the wheelchair seeing the legless beggar somehow feel guiltily lucky in comparison, as I do? Does he feel more compassion for him than I do? Or both? Can you feel both lucky and compassionate simultaneously? Is it compassion or is it pity? The man in the wheelchair might even feel empathy, but I can’t – fortunately. So I’m stuck with compassion. Concern, sympathy, feeling bad for. That’s pity? Nobody wants to feel pitied. I’m not doing it intentionally. Do you need to act for it to be compassion? Does merely wanting to help upgrade my feeling to compassion? Then is pity free, whereas we can buy our compassion for eighty five cents into the tin can? Can’t be. It’s really just pity.
Is there a hierarchy to pity?
Is there a hierarchy to crippledom?
I imagine a limbless man pulling himself through the subway by his tongue.
I am a monster.
We pull into Astor Place.
Pluton sticks her head out for a few breaths. The doors close, but the train does not move. The raspy voice of the conductor comes over the intercom system:
“There is a man begging for money on the train. Do not give him any money. It is illegal to ask for money on the New York City subways. There are places he can go. He is not going to use the money on food. He will only use it to buy crack. Do not give him any money.”
A little static squelch.
Did I just hear what I heard? Did anybody else hear that?
Pluton sees my expression of disbelief and asks me what he said. I am translating it for her when the static kicks in again:
“The man begging for money is a crack addict. Do not give him any money. He will only use it to buy crack. This is illegal. We are sorry for the inconvenience.”
And the train starts moving.
I have heard conductors use sarcasm. I have heard them scream at people holding the doors. I have heard them curse. I have never heard one be a judgmental asshole.
How does he know this man is crack addict?
And if he is, so fucking what?
I want to go rap on the little metal closet up there in the front of the car. He’s in there: hiding. I want to smash in his little door. It’s not like this is the front of the train. It’s not like he’s actually driving this one. Kick in his little metal door. Pull out his little metal heart. Fucking Nazi!
Pluton asks me to explain and I do. Her expression tells me she thinks it’s a little strange, but nothing too outrageous. Or maybe it’s that this whole city, this whole country, is so odd to her. Another New Yorker speaking his mind. And …? She doesn’t see how this is entirely different from the drunk Yuppies who shriek out of limousine sunroofs, from the bike messengers shouting obscenities, or from the crazy lady on our corner who imitates every passerby. She doesn’t see why this is unacceptable. Her eyes seem to be saying, “Whatever;” because it’s her new favorite English vocabulary word and because surely there are other things to worry about: such as the train getting stuck and all of us suffocating to death.
I ask the dreaded man if he heard what the conductor said. He shakes his head No, but it is a disbelieving No, indicating he had heard but that he couldn’t believe it either.
“How does he know he buys crack?” I ask.
“You think they have the same dealer?”
He wagged his dreads again, smiling slightly into his book.
We pull into the Bleecker Street station. Pluton is happy to be the first out the door. I am right behind her. A man with a skateboard in his hand is running toward us. We step out of his way, but he slows down as he passes. He is tall, black, with graying hair, though he can’t be older than forty. With one long outstretched arm, he hold the skate board against the edge of the subway door, preventing it from closing. With his other hand he bangs on the side of the train, near the conductor’s window. The window slides open. The big yellow muff-knobs come through the window. He turns his head quickly, fixing his beady little dark eyes on the tall black man.
“In or out?”
“You are way out of line.”
“Let go of the door.”
“You don’t know that man. You don’t know what he does with his money. You’re way out line talking like that. It’s none of your damn business.”
I stepped toward them.
“I absolutely agree.”
Neither of them acknowledges my presence.
They stare at each with contempt.
“I’ll say whatever I want.” The yellow knobbed man.
“Not on my train you won’t.”
“Yes. My train. His train. The taxpayers’ train.”
“In or out. You’re holding the train.”
“Keep your opinions to yourself.”
“Yeah,” I croak, like a toad floating by a brawl between snapping turtles.
“Let go of the door.”
“Keep your mouth shut.”
With that the man enters the train. The doors close.
I am looking at the conductor. He is looking at me. I give him the finger. A big, strong power finger. Full arm-extension. The other fingers tightly tucked back. The finger itself, erect and perfectly vertical. I aim it precisely, just above his Hitler mustache, through his protective eye wear, through his black-framed glasses, through his dark bird eyes, directly into the center of his brain. We bvth know this is a last second, lame-assed substitute for the words or fists or spit I hadn’t been able to throw at him.
He smiles at me as the train begins to pull out.
I watch the train until it is out of sight.
Pluton asks if I feel better, having given him the finger. I say “Not really.” I ask her how she feels, now that we’re out of the train. She says “Much better.”
We follow signs for the “F” train transfer, while also following a kid with bright blue hair. To the right – past the turnstiles on the left, the people entering and leaving – the space opens up. A big sign for the Downtown F points down a staircase. We hear a train pulling in. In fact, what we really hear are the brakes of a train stopping. I take the steps sideways, three at a time. Pluton takes them bip-bip-bip-bip.
People are leaving the train. I want to just jump in, but there are two track options and I am unfamiliar with the F train at this station. I didn’t see which way this train came in. Then I see that it is not an F train at all. It says it’s an S train. What the fuck is an S train doing down here?
When the people stop coming out, I poke my head into the train. There are about fifteen Chinese people in the car.
“Is this running as an F train?”
Everybody looks at me, nobody answers.
“It says S, but is this an F train?”
I pick out the nearest two women, look directly at them:
“Is this going to Brooklyn? Is this an S or an F?”
In unison the two women say something in Chinese and point to the ceiling.