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New York #9

*This is the last piece I’ll post of my writing on New York. Back into blog silence for a while. Until next time, happy surfing.

The subway fascinates me. I like how everyone moves in unison without meaning to, in response to the bumps of the car they’re riding. We all get jolted and jerked about in precisely the same manner. We couldn’t perform it better if we’d rehearsed for weeks.

Standing inside the speeding cars, it’s like I’m surfing a long, metal wave. I have to anticipate the movements before they arrive: forward from a sharp brake, or backward from a quick acceleration; side to side; even up and down if it gets really wild. I’ve noticed it’s much easier to keep my balance if I wiggle my hips and bounce from my knees. Keeping still, I’m almost sure to wipeout. No matter how well I surf, though, even if I wiggle, wiping out seems inevitable.

It struck me the other day that the subway system isn’t unlike my mind. There are tons of train lines running this way and that all over the city. These are my thoughts, or different ways of being: joy, paranoia, faith, fear, love, rage. Each train takes me somewhere else. Each train rides differently. I’ve learned which trains get rough at which sections of track, those spots where I’m almost sure to wipe out no matter what. Some trains are slow and gentle. Some are fast, even violent. This one stops at the platform infrequently, and that one comes every five minutes. I’ve learned which trains to avoid altogether, and I’ve learned how to surf the treacherous ones successfully – no wipeouts, that is. It’s a matter of knowing what’s coming when, of executing a timely, prescriptive response. It’s a matter of planting my feet and just dancing through the bumpy ride. And if I can’t keep my balance, it’s a matter of surrendering to the fall. Of letting go. And then, of catching myself and trying again.

I love this metaphor.

Maybe I’m a train line myself. The A train, for Andrew. The A is the 8th Avenue Express. I just looked it up. It runs from the Bronx all the way down the western length of Manhattan, through Brooklyn, out to Queens, and then down to Far Rockaway – the beach and the ocean. Looking at the MTA’s website, I see that the A train crosses almost every other train at some point, some of them several times over: the 1, 2, 3; the J, M, Z; the C and the E; the 4 and the 5; the S shuttle and the airport shuttle; the L; the 7; the B; the D; the F; and the N, Q, R. It even hits the G at one point. Damn. I like the A train.

Everyday, I’m traveling all over the city of New York, intersecting countless other trains filled with countless other humans. As I see them, they’re all rushing to go do whatever it is they do, however it is they do it – the living of their lives and the dying of their deaths. I see them for just a few moments, or sometimes a single snapshot instant, and then they’re gone from me, and I’ll never see them again, and I continue onward, all the way to Far Rockaway and then back up to the Bronx, and then back again, rolling and rolling, surfing and surfing, forever and ever amen.

New York #8

I’ve been in New York for two months and I’m still new here. How could I ever get old on these streets? I will always be new, even if I stay forever, and I hardly have forever. It’s August now, and hot, and the parks are a good place to sit out the heat. A good place to listen, too. How much can I hear? The jazz quartets in Washington Square Park, for instance: I can never hear the double bass. I can see it plain as day, the man thumping away on the fat strings, but I can never hear the sound. The trumpet isn’t a problem, nor is the sax. I can always hear the trumpet and the sax, and the drums, too. But never the double bass. That double bass makes me wonder: What else am I missing?

There’s a conversation in the air. I am on one side of it, but I’m not sure who’s on the other, or what. I don’t think it matters, because whatever it is, it’s happening. I’m seeing it and hearing it everywhere.

Like the jazz. I sit a lot in Washington Square Park and listen.

Today, there’s a man sleeping in a seated position two benches to my left. His head is lolling against his chest and hanging backward. His is mouth agape. He’s wearing sweatpants rolled up past his knees, and his legs are streaked with scabs where he’s been scratching them. He scratches himself in his half-stupor sleep: his legs, his belly, his chest, his genitals. People stare at him as they pass. They’d probably look away if he were awake, but he’s asleep, so they stare. I, too, am staring.

A man walks by me, looks me in the eyes, and raises his eyebrows. “Smoke?” he says. Another man passes by with a naked blow-up doll cradled under his arm like a bag of groceries. Two Korean women approach me. “Hey, guy,” one says, and hands me a pamphlet on Christianity. “God bless you,” she says, “God bless you.” The pamphlet’s full of evangelical parables, and on the back there’s a long list of trite jokes under the title, “Smiles!” A sampling:

1. Consciousness: That annoying time between naps.

3. Give me ambiguity or give me something else.

6. I let my mind wander but it never came back.

12. If a turtle doesn’t have a shell, is it naked or homeless?

29. Corduroy pillows: They’re making headlines!

I’m actually not sure they’re jokes, come to think of it. I wouldn’t always call consciousness annoying, but it doesn’t seem to be much more than the time between naps, as far as I can tell. That and 29 seem to be quite true. 12 makes me think of hiding under a bridge, and that’s not funny at all. 6 is describing consciousness again. 3 is the dead end of my search for The Answer: contradiction, paradox, futility. I don’t smile reading this list, as its title suggests I should. Actually, I do. That’s what 29 is for. Smiles!

The man sleeping two benches to my left could use a corduroy pillow. Any kind of pillow, really. He’s so itchy. Imagine what that pillow would feel like for him. Or a shower. In his sleep, he’s scratching his crotch, hands under his sweatpants, just going at it. It’s the kind of itching I do whenever I get poison ivy. There always comes a moment when I just can’t take it anymore. When this moment arrives, I rush into a scalding hot shower and tear at my skin, itching like a mad dog. The feeling is orgasmic. I wonder if the sleeping man is experiencing such a feeling now. I doubt it. He just looks miserable.

Feral pigeons fly around us. They’re all flocking to a longhaired man with birdseed. He’s the pigeon messiah and they are his disciples. The birds sit on his lap. They patrol his shoulders and arms, which are spread wide. They crown his head, flapping for balance. The man is generous with his birdseed, dropping handfuls on the ground in front of him where the birds swarm. Some aren’t aggressive enough to get anything. The man sees these meeker birds and brushes the dominant pigeons away to let them eat, and then he gathers up these chosen pigeons, one at a time, and holds them close to his face, kissing them quite aggressively. It is at once beautiful and repulsive, tender and violent.

A male pigeon has hunted down a female right in front of me. His gullet is puffed, shining violet and teal. He drops his head low and parades in front of her. She wants none of it, attempting a quickstep escape, but he cuts her off. He pumps his neck and struts. It looks frantic to me. Desperate. She pitter-patters away again. He follows, pitifully, but he can’t catch her, and then she flies off. His gullet deflates. He raises his head and looks around, perplexed. Then, he, too, flies away – a staccato clapping of wings that sounds like applause. This futile ritual happens several times right in front of me. Once, it seemed like it might actually come to fruition, but then a guy with a ponytail walked right into the middle of it and ruined everything. He had no idea.

Something has stirred the disciples of the pigeon messiah. They all fly away in a ruckus, dozens of bodies adjusting to each other in perfect choreography. They soar right over me, and then circle back, and land at my feet. For a moment they’re all looking at me expectantly, as if I’ve called them or promised them something. I’m a little embarrassed by the attention. People are watching. Soon, though, the birds lose interest. They strut off into a dozen different directions, clucking.

The sleeping man is now itching his left arm. It’s raised in the air, as if he has the answer to the teacher’s question, and he’s running his fingers up and down, up and down. When I was little, I used to hold my arm up like that before bed, and Mom would gently stroke it until I fell asleep. I got too old for her to do this one day, and so I began stroking my arms myself. I would even do it in my sleep, just like the man is doing now. I wonder about his mother. I wonder if she ever used to stroke his arms.

New York #7

Union Square is my classroom. It’s where I’m learning to let go. This happens in lots of different ways. Sometimes it’s dancing, and sometimes it’s crushing a volleyball high into the night sky without caring what happens.

The volleyball happens four or five nights a week in the plaza alongside 14th Street, camouflaged in plain sight. Some people walk right through the game without ever seeing it. Others see it, though, the ones who are paying attention. And they join, all kinds of people: business men and business women; vagrants and addicts; police officers; NYU students; dancers; lovebirds; tourists. The goal is simple: Keep the ball in the air. Break the record. The record was 111 volleys for a long time, but I heard they just broke it. Now it’s 145. I wasn’t there for it. The highest I’ve ever seen is 83, and that was just about a miracle. I have no idea how they managed 145. It must have absolutely glorious.

They know me by name there, now, or Steven does at least. Steven’s the founder. He has lots of tattoos on his chest (he always takes his shirt off at some point). Then there’s Roy. He yells a lot. There’s Dre, and that little boy who always shows up with his abuela (“We’re not babysitters!” Steven will shout). There’s Mohammed, who gets really cranky when people aren’t playing well, and Speedy, a curly-haired redhead who chases the ball down whenever one of the drunks crushes it. Antonio always crushes the ball, but he’s not one of the drunks. He just loves to crush it. He said it himself once after sending one into the stratosphere: “I love it, man. I love it.” People always get mad when Antonio does that, but he laughs it off. “Man, I’m the manager here,” he’ll say.

We all just want to keep the ball up in the air. As the volleys increase in number, from ten to 20 to 30 and higher, the ball becomes more than just a ball. It’s something else, something much more important. I can hear it in the way everyone counts off the volleys. There’s an escalation, a rising in tone and volume. It says, “If only we can just keep this ball in the air…If only we can just…If only…”

It’s much harder than you might think. Inevitably, someone mishits the ball. Or neighbors miscommunicate. Or Antonio screams, “Mine! Mine! Mine!” and crushes it, as he so loves to do. And so the average round is less than a dozen volleys. But somehow we all stay hopeful. We do what we must in order to keep the morale up. Sometimes that means letting go and just crushing the volleyball, Antonio-style.

I’ve only done it once. It was floating toward me, a perfect pass, but for whatever reason I didn’t care anymore, about the record, about where the ball would end up. I just wanted to hit it as high as I possibly could. So I did, a double-handed upswing blast. It soared, and the circle let out a chorus of shouts – a mix of dismay and delight – and Speedy started running after it. The trajectory wasn’t good; it was sailing toward 14th Street. I’d only ever seen the death of one volleyball before. A taxi. Speedy snags most of the runaways, and sometimes passing strangers help, too. We always cheer when a stranger gets in a volley.

My volleyball reached the apex of its flight and began to fall. It wasn’t going to land in the road. Worse, it was going to land in a crowd of people sitting on the plaza steps. I held my breath, watching the ball gain speed. A direct headshot to an unsuspecting bystander would be really bad, especially from that high up. The ball was zeroing in on a blonde woman in her 30s. She’d already been hit in the back earlier by an errant volley, and she wasn’t happy about it. She’d grabbed the ball and chucked it into 14th Street. That hardly ever happens.

My volleyball crashed into the cement like a meteorite, missing the blonde by inches but destroying a Styrofoam box full of her dinner leftovers. Could’ve been worse. It always seems to work out like this. Nobody gets hurt. The volleyball survives. The game goes on.

New York #6

It may be the real reason I’m in New York, to learn how to dance. Loosen up. Easy peasy lemon squeezy, loosey goosey apple juicey. It’s getting easier. What’s the big deal anyway? Why the hell not? Union Square is the place to do it. It’s my classroom. I am learning.

I was taking the N train back to Sunset Park one night, and I got off at the Union Square stop, hoping Larry and Sonya would be there drumming on their buckets. They weren’t. I didn’t get back on the train, though. It wasn’t even 8:00 yet, so I figured I’d check out the action in the plaza. On my way up, I heard music. A DJ. He was stationed at one of the intersections of human traffic, the same place I saw Malang Jobarteh and the old woman with the bulging eyeball. I sat down to listen, but this time it was different. This time I couldn’t just sit. I would hate myself if I didn’t at least try to dance. So I stood up. I walked over to the DJ, five paces away from him, and I started moving. It just about killed me, the self-consciousness. But slowly, and with great psychological pain, the moving became dancing. I’m not sure when it became dancing, or how, but it did, and the more I danced the less I cared. Finally.

Crowds glommed on around me to watch the DJ, and then they dissipated, and then they formed again. At one point a toddler jumped right in front of the DJ and started jiving like only toddlers can. Free dancing. Catharsis dancing. The toddler’s mother and aunt stood across from me, watching the little boy. They were both beautiful, especially the aunt. She had long black braids that fell to her hips and tattoos all over her body. “THUG” and “LIFE” were inked on the backs of her left and right thighs, respectively. Her name was Lana, she told me later.

I was still dancing when the toddler’s mother came over to me and said quietly, so quietly I had to ask her to say it again, “She wants to dance with you.” She pointed to her sister as she said this, the woman with the THUG LIFE thighs. I was shocked, having assumed they’d both written me off as a complete fool, and that everyone had. Who would want to dance with a fool?

Before I could convince myself not to, I went out into the empty space between the crowd and the DJ. Lana came out, too, and she shook her head as if to say, “I can’t believe this is about to happen,” and then we both started dancing. She busted a move (a challenge, an invitation) and then I busted a move (a paroxysm, a seizure), and then both of us were rolling our shoulders and bellies in these parallel, elliptical curves, snapping every muscle in unison whenever the bass hit. I realized quickly that we couldn’t just keep doing this. There had to be a narrative arc to this dance, a climax. Something had to happen.

So. Before I quite knew what was happening I turned around, bent over, and grinded butt-up into her groin – sort of because it’s funny when the guy does it and sort of because it just felt right. There was a smattering of applause and a few hoots.

And then it was over. We laughed, Lana and I, and we hugged, kind of, and then we faded back to our respective sides of the crowd. I stayed there for almost an hour, dancing the whole time, a silly, sweaty fool. But a happy fool, and free.

New York #5

About halfway through the summer I notice a pattern: I feel the urge to dance whenever I see a street musician, but I never do. It’s like I’ve buckled myself into a straightjacket. Why?

Case in point: I’m in Union Square at dusk on a Friday, and it’s utter madness: The Hare Krishnas moan and drum and spin like they’re possessed; protestors wave Palestinian flags, hollering; tourists pass by in open-top buses, hooting; bottle collectors push grocery carts full of their glass and aluminum treasure; an extremely flexible woman dances on the shoulders of an extremely strong man who tosses her up and down and all around; and in the center of it all there’s the wildman.

He’s a white guy in his 30s, bearded and longhaired, and he’s wearing a lime green speedo, nothing more. He’s covered in mud. It seems he’s putting on an extemporaneous show of some kind. The show is nothing more than the guy just being himself, a wildman. There are no tricks. No real talent. It’s just antics, but the people love it. They’ve surrounded the wildman in a circle. At one point a guy jumps in and grabs a collapsible plastic sawhorse which he begins snapping like the jaws of a monster. The wildman screams, “Eeeeeeek!” and puts his hands to his mouth in mock fright and starts daintily running away from the monster. The monster gives chase and the people go crazy. They absolutely love it. The wildman finally finds an escape: a big plastic ramrod thing (I have no idea what it actually is) and he holds it between his legs and the monster runs right into it, open-mouthed. The people cheer.

Throughout all of this, I keep a comfortable distance from the wildman. This is where I begin to feel the trepidation, the straightjacket reluctance to join in and dance.

A djembe player gets in the middle of the circle and starts bumping out a beat. The wildman is now dancing. He drops to the ground, convulsing in a fit of ecstasy, and then he’s up again, wearing a massive mariachi hat and wagging his finger at us like we’ve all been very naughty. Then, he’s scooching around on a toddler-sized train engine squealing, “Weeee!” and the people are in hysterics. One woman in particular, a big Latina auntie. She’s laughing and laughing, and I’m laughing, too, scribbling it all down from a distance.

I look up from my notes at one point, and the wildman is staring straight at me. An invitation to join? An accusation that I haven’t? I don’t move a muscle. I’ve been seen. Caught. Snatched from the safety of my anonymity. Then, the wildman looks away and he’s dancing again, waltzing with a filthy snowman lawn ornament.

“It’s a life of love,” I hear someone say next to me. It’s an old black man with blue eyes. His name is Peter. He’s come from out of nowhere, and he has said this completely unprompted. Maybe he saw me taking notes. He says it again: “It’s a life of love,” and he spreads his arms wide at the crowds, like Moses parting the sea. “But you have to verify it. I come here to verify it. And you,” he looks at me, “you have to explore it.”

Why did he say this to me? How does he know? I should explore it. I should dance. But now I have to go meet a friend. It feels like I’ve failed a very important test.

But underground at the L platform I get another chance. A man and a woman are drumming out a masterpiece of rhythm on a set of PVC buckets. Larry and Sonya. Husband and wife. They drum from 11:00 to 11:00 some days, Larry tells me later. Now, Sonya’s eyes are closed and she keeps the beat – a simple boom-boom-boom-boom – and Larry is thumping out a rapid-fire river of rat-a-tat genius, and it’s all echoing off the tiles, magnifying, and people have begun to gather around them, irresistibly attracted. A little boy is dancing. His name is Jeremiah. He is the son of the drummers.

It’s too much – the beat, Jeremiah’s groove. I take my hands out of my pockets. I move a little. It’s not dancing, really, but it’s something. It’s a start.

New York #4

How to make sense of these little moments? How to read them when they come?

Walking north from Chinatown, I see a page torn from a book, just a solitary page lying on the sidewalk. It’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, pages 167 and 168, front and back. The chapter is entitled “Unfortunate Conclusions.” I begin reading. Humbug, Tock, and Milo find themselves mysteriously transported to an island where they’ve met a bizarre man named Canby.

“I’m as smart as can be,” he remarked in twelve different languages, “and I’m as stupid as can be,” he admitted, putting both feet in one shoe. “I’m as graceful as can be,” he hummed, balancing on one toe, “and I’m as clumsy as can be,” he cried, sticking his thumb in his eye. “I’m as fast as can be,” he announced, running around the island twice in no time at all, “and I’m as slow as can be,” he complained, waving good-by to a snail. “Is that any help to you?”

Is that any help to me? It’s information, I suppose, and how I read it is more information, information about how I see and what I see, which is a big sliver of who I am. So this moment, like any other, is an introduction, a handshake, and it’s myself I’m meeting, the myself of right now. Am I Canby, flummoxed by my own contradictions, a unity of opposites? Am I Humbug, Tock, and Milo, a trio lost on their journey? I don’t know. So maybe that’s who I am: I don’t know.

I read on. Canby informs Humbug, Tock, and Milo that they’re on the Island of Conclusions, and that they should make themselves comfortable because they’ll likely be there for some time.

“But how did we get here?” asked Milo, who was still a bit puzzled by being there at all.

I must be Milo. Milo is the one asking the questions. And the Island of Conclusions is New York. Or America. Or life itself. There are so many ways to read it.

“You jumped, of course,” explained Canby. “That’s the way most everyone gets here. It’s really quite simple: every time you decide something without having a good reason, you jump to Conclusions whether you like it or not. It’s such an easy trip to make that I’ve been here hundreds of times.”

I’ve jumped, and I didn’t even know it.

“But this is such an unpleasant-looking place,” Milo remarked.

“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Canby; “it does look much better from a distance.”

I read on. Humbug tries to escape, “leaping as far as he could,” but it’s to no avail. He lands in a heap just two feet away.

“That won’t do at all,” scolded Canby, helping him to his feet. “You can never jump away from Conclusions. Getting back is not so easy. That’s why we’re so terribly crowded here.”

This is the end. I stand there for a second, wondering about who I’ve just met in this moment on the street with The Phantom Tollbooth. I’m tempted to go down a thousand different tributaries of interpretation. And then I let it go, and start walking again, but I take the page with me - a reminder to keep reading.

New York #3

There’s this señora who runs an empanada stand on 47th and 5th in Sunset Park. Best empanadas I’ve ever had, no question. She calls all her female customers mami, as in, “¿Qué quieres, mami?” She says this with such warmth that I kind of want her to call me mami, too, even though it wouldn’t make any sense in Spanish or English. We don’t talk much, but somehow she makes me feel at home in this neighborhood that isn’t mine. I wish I was her nephew or something. Her assistant. I want to stir the horchata, slice the avocados, do whatever she needs me to do. I want this because for the five minutes it takes her to prepare my empanada de queso completa, I feel I’m a part of something bigger, even it’s just her street food operation.

Her name is María. She’s been running the stand for twelve years. She doesn’t stop for the winter, only on the days when the snow is really bad.

The other day I greeted María in Spanish, and she humored me with some conversation. I understood maybe 30% of what she said, but that was enough to make me happy. “Gracias, señora,” I said as I was leaving. She responded in Spanish. I didn’t get any of it except the end, when she called me her caballero, as in, “Hasta pronto mi caballero.” I looked it up later. Apparently it translates to gentleman, knight, sir, or mister. So, María called me her gentleman. Her knight. I almost thanked her again, just for calling me this, but I wasn’t sure she’d understand, so I didn’t.

There’s also a great taco truck in Sunset Park – Tacos El Bronco, a buck fifty a pop. At nine or ten at night, I like to get a Coke and three tacos - pastor, cabeza, suadero. Then I go to the park on top of the hill and eat and drink and watch the Manhattan skyline. There’s always Chinese opera – old men playing flutes and erhus, a singing soprano. There are couples dancing to Chinese pop music, and barbeques, and kids on scooters. All the families are out walking their dogs, pushing their babies in strollers. The men play soccer on the Astroturf field.

I was sitting there the other night with my tacos and Coke, the skyline shining, when two little kids rushed by me. They were in pursuit of a firefly. The firefly would blink, its iridescence brilliant against the darkness, and then it would vanish. The kids would run to that spot, the spot of disappearance, and they’d wait for the next blink to come. The firefly was always just a few feet ahead, just barely out of reach. Blink. Chase. Wait. Blink. All the while, another little boy was shouting directions to them.

“¡Allí!”

“¡Aquí!”

“¡Allá!”

The firefly was elusive, uncatchable, yet the kids kept chasing it, giggling and hooting in delight. It didn’t matter that they never caught the firefly. That was beside the point.

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