Tuesday, March 24, 2009
"A True Friend Stabs You in the Front" -Oscar Wilde
This morning, circa 8am, I found a seat on the F train. This usually is reason for celebration but today this wasn't the case for the moment I sat down, I realized that while three-quarters of the train was jam packed the end of the train that I entered was oddly deserted. Please remember that this was pre-caffeine . . .
There is nothing at all unique about a homeless man sleeping on a subway train as it moves from Brooklyn into Manhattan--the young urban adventurers that populate Thomas Pynchon's debut novel "V" call it "yo-yoing" through the boroughs-- and after a few years of living here in Gotham, it becomes commonplace to see homeless, or inebriated people doubled over in subterranean repose. You just leave them be.
Indeed, the patina of grime that covered this particular bum's hand and wrist, the only parts of his body discernible from beneath the vastly over sized hooded sweatshirt that rendered his form imperceptible, even the hospital bracelet he wore, gave me no reason for pause yet there was something oddly magnetic about him. I should mention that it wasn't his cologne of sweat, urine and Thunderbird either. It was, I believe now, a leaden sense of foreboding that pinned me down.
Jay St/Borough Hall
As is the case every morning, about a quarter of the train jumped off at Jay St. in order to transfer to the A/C line, leaving a few seats open further away from the nearby derelict. Yet I didn't move. Not because I was so attached to sitting in that particular seat but I had begun reading the latest issue of The New Yorker (James Woods' review of the new John Wray novel about paranoid schizophrenia,"Lowboy") and was just about to find my happy place behind my Ray Ban Wayfarers that delivers me to 42nd St unbothered. But as soon as every available seat had been occupied, the cold sensation of being gazed upon came over me.
York St.--last stop in Brooklyn
This man, who with his hood up over his head reminded me of a Jawa, had shifted and had lifted his head just enough to show me his alcohol rouged eyes. There was a confidence in this action that unnerved me. Under normal circumstances, homeless people do not look one straight in the eye unless they want something (even then rarely). Yet he just kept his eyes on me and I feigned reading as we burrowed beneath the East River. Unable to take it any longer, I looked up from my magazine and asked firmly but without barb, "Can I help you?"
"Nobody can, man. Nobody."
This is the stop that sees the majority of the Asian people who had been on the train in Brooklyn detrain while a new contingent jumps on. As these two rivers of people flowed in opposite directions, a pair high school kids, white boys with massive backpacks, fashionable shaggy hair and skinny jeans, spoke in a hushed, polite tone about biology class and I started reading Atwul Gawande's piece on solitary confinement. Gawande posits that extended periods of solitary confinement is tantamount to the most extreme forms of torture, but on this packed train, heading for my job hawking ad pages, having a homeless guy siphon away any joy that may have been latent within me, I had to agree with Sartre's famous line--"Hell is other people."
Here come the Hasids and the hipsters. The Lower East Side. There was a rush and a push accompanied by the sharp crack of metal on metal as an art school drop out dropped his laptop and proceeded to softly sob. His effeminate shoulders heaved as he simultaneously dealt with the uncaring crowd and the jagged pieces of his Macbook Pro. I felt bad for him but worse for the two lobsters in Woody Allen's Shouts and Murmurs column. That Woody Allen is a funny guy . . .
Where was the homeless man who piqued my interest about 15 minutes earlier? While I couldn't see him his scent remained in the air like gnats under bright lights. Or did he leave it behind, a gift to protect the art school kid, and slink off towards the few remaining nooks of the Bowery left ungentrified?
The remainder of the commute- Broadway/Lafayette, West 4th, 14th, 23rd, 34th Sts- was spent scanning the rest of the New Yorker and thinking about my disdain for advertising. As we left the 34th St station I spotted him again. He was sprawled out face down on the floor of the train as we hit 42nd St., arms akimbo and stains on the seat of his weathered camouflage pants.
Nobody seemed to think much of it so I went off to work . . .