Monday, April 10, 2006

A Particulate Essence of Eighth Avenue

Leaving L.A. was hard. Hard to leave so much behind. Once in the airport and free of my two checked bags, however, the familiar lightness of transit rinsed away most of the melancholy. I know it did, because I felt it happen as I rode the escalator up to my red-eye. For all its discomforts, travel is an anaesthetic.

Matters continued to improve on the airplane, where the center seat remained empty after the doors closed. I read the entire L.A. Times, draped my coat over my head, and fell asleep.

Upon arrival at Kennedy a few hours later, I gathered my bags and found the Train to the Plane. Back when I was a Fortune 500 middle manager, I rarely stooped to such ignominious means of transport, but the fact is that it works pretty seamlessly, it's impervious to traffic jams, and it deposits me just a couple blocks from where I need to be. And it's only $7.

On the other hand, it's still the subway. And sometimes you don't get a seat. That's fine when you're riding a couple of miles and have no luggage, but when you're looking at an hour on the hoof with a stack of suitcases after three hours of sleep, you seek options. And then you might see, through the grimy windows between the cars, that the very next one is nearly empty.

At the first stop, I seized my bags and hustled them down the platform to the promised car, hurrying to ensure I didn't get left behind. Just as I reached that car, however, three people stepped in, looked aghast, and ran past me to the car I'd just left.

Uh oh. No time to backtrack -- the luggage would slow me down. Criminy, how bad could it be? My stuff and I entered.

A powerful human stink shoved its fist deep up my nose. Three hobos had commandeered the front half of the car: A wild-eyed young black woman and a stubbly, round-cheeked white guy each huddled in a corner seat, swaddled in layers of shapeless, colorless fabric. Right before me, a lanky black man in raggedy sweats and coat and cap had a long bench to himself. All to himself. His mouth lay slack as he slept, revealing a few select teeth.

I had little choice but to sling my bags down and take the nearest seat, at least till the next stop. About a dozen conventional -- i.e., bathed -- people had distributed themselves from the middle to the rear of the car. How could they stand it?! There on the front lines, I was simultaneously trying not to get used to the smell (for fear of permanently deranging my nose) and to pretend it wasn't as bad as all that. But it was as bad as all that. It was worse. So, snapping back to the take-charge attitude that had once made me such an exemplary middle manager, I took charge after a minute or two and deployed a revolutionary technology.

Most subway cars "of a certain age" have long clerestory windows that fold inward on horizontal hinges. Once I'd snapped open all the nearby vents, that too, too human stench dissipated within minutes as comparatively fresh breezes flooded in from the dank tunnel. Someone at the other end of the car followed my lead, and soon, though no one could have mistaken that car for a flower shop, it became bearable -- perhaps only twice as offensive as the average subway car.

As we rolled through Queens, scooping up office workers, the seats began to fill. Each new passenger looked around in alarm as soon as the stink hit, but few backed out. Someone sat down to my left, closer to the trio even than I. A mousy blonde in a red coat materialized just opposite me, reading the Post. A sternly handsome Latino gentleman wearing a tie and a zippered leather jacket showed up on her left. And so on. Throughout the car's gentrification, the three homeless people remained inert, two of them still alone in their corners, alert, the third prone on his bench.

Eventually, he awoke, stood up, and walked to the front of the car, where he stepped through the door and onto the small platform between the cars. Visible through that same grimy glass, silhouetted against the light from the next car, he was clearly peeing. People looked, then looked away.

On the bench, his woven plastic sack lay loose, almost empty.

He came back in and sat down, then started producing a disturbing noise. It was deep and challenging and repeated, like a bull moose claiming territory. He was trying to clear his throat. Leaning forward, left hand on his thigh and elbow akimbo, he held the right hand up, wrist delicately curved and fingers at his diaphragm as he bellowed. The other two watched. We all watched.

Presently, after the hacking, he produced a battered paper coffee cup, stood again, and slowly walked the length of the car. It was as though he had just played "Misty" on his saxophone and was now collecting. The subway was all things to him: bed, bath -- well, not bath, but bathroom -- and bursar. Except that no one was disbursing. He stopped briefly to tower over each rider and shake the cup at eye level, paying special attention to black riders.

After shaking the cup unsuccessfully at eye level, he'd frown and raise it above the rider's head, then shake it twice more, violently, as if dispensing some of his own luck onto the person pretending to ignore him. Then he'd move on to the next one.

Thus entertained, we reached Manhattan far sooner than I'd expected. I think he got off in disgust at Fifth Avenue, swinging his sack behind him. I still had two stops to go.

Lugging my luggage up the endless stairs, I moved slowly to avoid a sciatic injury. At one point, as I exited the paid-fare zone, I became stuck in the cage of an unmanned turnstile, the narrow cylindrical variety. My bags and I filled the entire floor space, and I was forced to inch forward with mincing little steps, feet confined like a Chinese bride's by the duffel bag's bulk. Visions of immobilization lurched in my head until I emerged slowly, limb by limb, from my own private black comedy.

Two more flights of stairs, and I was back in town, standing on Eighth Avenue on a cold bright Sunday morning. The time was just past 7, and the street was almost empty, except for where I was. A family of motivated tourists surged toward and past me, bundled up and clutching brochures. Two tall tanned athletes in shorts bounded past the other way, toward Central Park. I was struck by their enormous calves and imagined they were soccer players in town for a game.

When I had the sidewalk to myself again, I noticed that someone had scraped off the top layer of Eighth Avenue while I was away. A few years ago, I watched city crews repave the street where I lived in L.A. Before the new road goes on, the old surface layer has to come off. Thus scored, the roadbed forms a strong bond with the glistening black asphalt that pours steaming from trucks and flattens into a roadway beneath the bulldozers.

As I rolled my bag past the Hampton Inn, where the motto "We love having you here" is woven into the dingy fabric of the entryway carpet, a brisk wind scoured dust from the street and blew a particulate essence of Eighth Avenue into my mouth.

1 comment: said...

Very interesting story!