A New York Minute

11 Sep

A man listens to a song on a Walkman as he goes to work. He found the Walkman in a box of junk in his closet and it reminded him of days gone by, the past, his family, old friends, childhood, the certain smell of a girl he once had a crush on, the taste of cheap beer, the morning dew on the last day of summer, the last day in his home town before he moved to college, now more than half a lifetime past. He looks at the pretty woman sitting across from him in the subway and longs for her even though he does not – and will never – know her name. And he has to suppress a chuckle as the song warbles out, There was nothing in the world that I ever wanted more…

Sticking out of the woman’s purse is a book whose title is just barely visible. She is not reading, rather is knitting a scarf, and is just finishing a row before her stop, which is next. It is a scarf for her boyfriend, a guy she is just realizing is scarf-worthy. She learned to knit from her Nana when she was only twelve. She has knit several scarves and one sweater. She has mixed feelings about the act of knitting: on the one hand it makes her think of the clichéd dutiful housewife, a woman she promised herself she would never turn into; and yet, she enjoys the making of something for someone she cares for, loves the idea of arts & crafts. And she adores the sound of the needles clicking together. She promises to finish the scarf in time for her boyfriend’s birthday a couple of weeks away.

Following the line of this train through the longitude of Manhattan and then veering East we come to an apartment in Queens where said boyfriend is trying not to think of his pretty girlfriend. It is not that he doesn’t like her. It is that he does not believe he will ever like her more than he does at this very moment in time. His fondness for her, he believes, has plateaued somewhere between “really really liking” and “in love.” He is torn between maintaining a relationship which he knows will not go where he wants it to, and breaking someone’s heart. He watches the Yankee game and tries not to think of her, but cannot not think of her as his ears catch the pitter patter of small feet from above.

Upstairs the woman cannot catch up with the boy. He doesn’t like the babysitter, doesn’t think he needs a babysitter now that he is eleven, or eleven and a half as he likes to always point out. The mother needs to catch him, put him in front of the TV and tell the sitter where she and her husband will be for the rest of the night. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the boy’s conception, and the parents like to go out and celebrate the night before and then the next day take the boy to the movies or whatever he may want to do. Each year it is something different. Someday he will not want to do anything with them, but the mother does not dwell on this inevitability.

The husband sits at the bar of the Midtown restaurant where he and his wife have reservations. He drinks a gimlet very very slowly. He is older now, and married and can no longer drink like he used to, like the night the boy was conceived. Man, were they shitfaced that night. Well, of course they were. They had gone down to a little bar in Astoria and drank with everyone else, and then they got home and fucked the night away. Angry loving fucking, sweaty and animalistic. He closes his eyes and breathes in deeply and then finishes his drink in one gulp, and is just about to raise his hand to beckon the bartender over for another.

The bartender knows that this man will order yet another drink, probably two if his math is correct, which it usually is. He has a reservation for eight-fifteen which gives him time for two maybe even three more. The bartender is a professional who has no aspirations of doing anything but tending bar for the rest of his existence. In his spare time he is developing a formula to calculate the rate of alcohol consumption. At this bar he needs to wear a white shirt and a tie, and he loves the tightness of the tie at the base of his neck. It keeps him steady. While waiting for the man to order another gimlet, the bartender goes over to the finely put together lady at the other end who is downing martinis with no sign of ill effect.

She is actually quite intoxicated, but has a way of not showing it. She convinces herself that she can hold it together. It is a test of her own will power. Everything must be in order. Everything must hew to a specific course, a straight arrow from Point A to B and onward. Years ago she made a list of all the things she would accomplish in her life. Then she incorporated this list into a spreadsheet. Some completed tasks are: make over $250,000 a year. Live in the city, above 14th Street. Have 15% or less body fat. Run the New York City Marathon. Have her name listed as a donor to a theater or other artistic-type venue. Have at least fifteen people work for her whose employment she can terminate. Up until three-thirty this afternoon she had eighteen. Now seventeen.

The woman she fired is twenty-three and it was her first job out of college. She went to The New School and majored in Philosophy no matter how many people told her that this was a bad way to waste the loans she would one day have to pay back. She did not care because she was an Idealist. She still is one, but this mentality has been tempered by the harsh reality of getting her ass chewed out in front of the entire department by that high cheekboned bitch who could never once look a person in the eye. The Idealist is wandering around lower Manhattan, not wanting to go home and be with her two roommates who both have jobs – and boys – and whose brief consolations will be a bit better than her mother’s. After getting reamed out by her now former boss, she thought maybe, just maybe, her mother would be understanding. Instead the words What did you do this time? came from the phone. She quickly walked them back. But words, like fire, once unleashed, grow and conquer indiscriminate of post-facto good intentions. The Idealist begins to figure out how long she can be unemployed before she has to call mom for rent, and ponders whether she should begin studying for the GMAT or the LSAT.

The two roommates are sitting on the sofa in the small apartment in Brooklyn. They eat cereal for dinner. Cap’n Crunch. One of them eats the Crunch with chopsticks. The other cannot stop thinking about the inanity of chopsticks for the consumption of any food, from cereal to Pad Thai. The two roommates are in their pajamas already even though it is still early in the night. They had a long weekend of imbibing, toking, snorting, and all-around wondrousness, and just want to sit on the needs-to-be-reupholstered couch and watch gay men criticize the abominable fashion sense of would-be designers. It’s a live broadcast of the season finale where the final three contestants square off.

Contestant No. 2 does not really care if she wins or not because she’s got to go to the bathroom like real bad. She is standing there under abhorrently hot lights that just douse her like a giant slab of awful. She must’ve eaten something bad, that’s probably what happened. Sushi for lunch. Never again. No more fucking eel or octopus. By three she was sweating, and she knew it wasn’t just the nerves about tonight’s finale – a finale she has no idea how she even got into, as she perfectly understands herself not to be that good of a fashionista – but whatever bacterially-infected seafood she had consumed. By four she was making three runs an hour to the toilet. Of course, one time she was in a stall and making a hell of a racket and Judge No. 1 was in a different stall, and godhelpher if she told anybody, which she probably did because Judge No. 1 is a fucking busybody. Now she just stands under the lights and in front of the cameras and can feel the sweat bead and drip and her skin is like a total fucking oil slick.

Camera #3 is trying to figure out what’s wrong with Contestant No. 2. Either she can’t handle the lights, or the lights are too hot, or someone in makeup didn’t pancake her face properly. Whatever, not his problem. He just pans when they tell him to pan, zooms when they say so, and behaves himself like he has for the past thirty-five years of solid AFTRA work. He truly has seen it all, the late night shows, that time whatshername flashed her titties live, the few remaining shows that tape in NYC and not out West, shook hands with basically anyone who’s won an Emmy in the past three decades. And except for a couple of ‘em, most are down-to-earth types. Good people who respect the hard work of the blue collar man who makes sure they look all pretty or handsome. Yeah, he thinks, I did good by them. At least by them. And his mind dislodges and maneuvers over to the man he is to meet at the diner after the show breaks.

Two blocks away a man sits in a diner. He waits for his father who works for the evil known as Entertainment. The son has a list of many things that are evil. Entertainment is in the middle of the pack. America is near the top, even though he still lives there and still actually votes, something he just did not an hour ago, but not one single of his candidates has won anything in the past eight years, a fact he is proud of more than any other. Money is also evil. Also, Religion, Copyright Laws, Banks, Hollywood (an eviler subcategory of Entertainment), and Acceptance. That last one the most. People who just say, Sure, what we’ve got is good enough. Cowards who fight for nothing, the man believes. Like his parents, but mostly his father, a man who shills for the Entertainers, who is part of the Numbing of Mankind. If there is one thing he hates even more than Acceptance it is Supporting the Troops. Looking two booths down he sees a man in uniform and another man comes up and shakes his hand, and it makes this man waiting for his father so angry and hateful of everything in this godforsaken world.

He hates it when people come up to shake his hand or buy him a drink or buy him his entire goddamned meal. Airports are the worst. All he wants to do is sit at a TGIFridays, have some potato skins and a couple of beers and watch whatever game is on. And then the bartender comes over and says that someone picked up his entire check. It’s always anonymous, and it always makes him sick. I go over there and kill for you and you appease your fucking guilt by buying me a Bud Light. Then there are those assholes who come up and say, Thank you for your service, we’re all so grateful. Idiots, all of them. Service! Like he works at a goddamned soup kitchen or maybe was a medic over there. Nope. He killed people. Put bullets in heads. Stole lives. Doesn’t matter if they were trying to steal his. The waitress brings his tuna melt, and says Here you go, honey, and that one simple phrase makes him so happy to be home, this first stop before taking the train back to the Bronx to see his family for the first time in over a year.

None of them know that he is coming except for his little brother, who is only eight, and is playing with his Legos in his room while his Pops watches the Yankees-O’s game in the other room. The boy can hear the familiar sounds of bats cracking and the ebb and flow of the crowd’s cheers. He only knows that his brother is coming because his brother e-mailed him a week before, but made him promise not to tell the rest of the family, wanting it to be a surprise. The boy almost asked his brother why he told only him, but then realized that his brother was giving him the Responsibility of Keeping a Secret. And he kept it. With the Legos he is fashioning a helicopter. His brother was in a helicopter that crashed. Some died, but his brother lived. After this he will take out his crayons to maybe draw another picture.

A man looks at a picture drawn by a boy. The man lives just over the river in Inwood and thinks of the boy in his class and wonders if he should tell the boy’s parents about his concerns. He is a smart child, advanced for his age, but has emotional problems. It’s not like he is AD/HD or is throwing tantrums or punching classmates in the face. Rather, during any arts-related activity, the boy draws images of death and destruction, horrible pictures of things he could never know except through movies that he should definitely not be viewing. In the pictures, there are men who are bleeding from their heads and chests. In some cases their heads are exploding. In one there is a man being run over by what looks like a car. In another, men fall from the sky in a fiery explosion. The teacher is unsure as to how he should proceed. He does not want to get the boy in trouble, because he likes the boy and thinks he is smart and good and totally harmless. But still he worries, as is his job. He picks up the phone to call the only person he knows he can talk to about this. He is not another teacher, but his A.A. sponsor. They’ve known each other for over a decade and have become quite close and rarely discuss anything related to the Disease anymore.

The phone rings in an apartment that is as far away from Inwood as possible while still being in New York – Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. The man looks at the number and sees it is his friend, the teacher. He no longer thinks of the teacher as the man he helped get clean so many years ago. Now they are just friends. They see each other at least once a week, go to dinner, talk of their lives. He puts down his salami sandwich to pick up the phone. He chews and swallows and is about to say hello when the scent from 3B finally comes wafting in. The woman in 3B is beautiful, the type that is totally out of this man’s league. Besides he is way too old for her. Three or four times a week the aroma of perfectly spiced food floats from her apartment all the way over to 3J, his little hovel in the world. The rye and mustard and salami looks so lonely in comparison to whatever feast she is cooking up.

To be honest, it’s probably overcooked. It’s supposed to be a leg of lamb, but it has more of a brisket-like consistency to it. She makes a few notations in the Moleskin that she uses for her recipe experiments. She will carve it up and take some for lunch tomorrow and wrap the rest up and give it to the homeless man who is always on the corner near her office.

He is not there now. Tonight he wanders the R-Train leaving Brooklyn for Manhattan, and only remembering right at this very moment that the R-Train no longer goes into Manhattan, that they are stopping it for some reason. No matter, he can yo-yo from one end of the borough to the next, a good waste of time. Then the girl smiles at him.

She smiles at the man with the bags and the coats and wonders why he wears so many coats in the end of the summer. The hand gripping hers pulls her along and they sit away from the man with the coats.

He does not want to be anywhere near the fucking smelly homeless guy, and does not want his daughter near him either. He sits her down and then sits next to her and holds her hand. She is so precious to him, and since she has been in the world – just four years – all the worries that he kept down have bubbled up – money and health and the future. He questions for the umpteenth time if he should even be a father and whether a good father would have his daughter on a subway car with a homeless man. He turns away from that filthy creature and follows the legs of the woman slipping out the doors.

Right after the woman slips out the doors and vanishes forever from his life, and soon from his memory, the man closes his eyes. In a city so vast he wonders if he will ever see her again. She was, in some way perfect for him. But aren’t they all? Don’t they all fall into some niche or type? She had bangs that in his youth he never liked, but now that he is older does. A copy of The House of the Spirits stuck out of her purse. He loves that book. And for a small moment he loves the woman holding it. Then he turns as she vanishes out the doors and his eyes settle on the little blonde girl holding the big hands of the man who is sweating like he is scared or worried of something or everything. The song ends and he pushes the rewind button on his Walkman to cue it up again so he can listen to it one more time before he has to work the night shift in the tunnel at the end of the line.

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