New York Vignettes


****– Last Months in New York –

In the morning on the downtown Two between 72nd and Times Square. The car is halfway empty, rare at this hour, but the culprit is an elderly Jamaican man, standing straight and solid, with a charcoal gray beard and thinning curls atop his noble dome, preaching. His cadence is different than the Harlem preachers. Instead of the rising crescendos and cooing lulls, his style is a rhythmic, accented monotone. Each stanza is no more than 5-7 words, like a long drawn out Rasta haiku:

The time of judgment is now.

  • Revelation Chapter Two Verse Six Tru Ten*
  • The churches will face a great tribulation*
  • the lord calls those who believe to repent*
  • in this time of tribulation*
  • those in the church will face two realities*
  • the path of life*
  • and the path of death*
  • Mathew chapter two verse seventeen*
  • and those outside of the church*
  • who are in sin*
  • who do not repent*
  • no ifs*
  • not buts*
  • no maybes*
  • will be damned to hell*

This time of year the Bodega is always choked with harvested plant life: pumpkins and corn and squash, later Christmas trees and wreaths, and of course the thrilling spread of flowers of all types, pastels in a bed of ice, beneath a blunt green awning and the wall of stone. Regulars swarm with quick steps and move through shoppers and mothers bedecked with bags, piled and hanging from designer strollers and pigtailed munchkins. And weaving through it all, eyes ahead – a tall man, graying beard and Yankees cap. A thin blazer, jeans, old Nikes. Perched on his head, perfectly – a kitten – her tiny claws embedded in his hat. She stares out at the world from the same vantage, and they sway together as they walk the streets, her tiny gray tail twitching in time.

The rush hour crowds flow around him like an old boulder in white water. He holds a placard out before him, a large white plyboard sign printed with red letters, English and Spanish. “My name is Felix. I am 20 year.” But you won’t read any further, or can’t, because you notice he is holding the sign with just the stumps of his arms, the ends hewn off and folded over at the elbow like brown melted wax. He wears a blue Fidel Castro hat and has a short fashionable beard. He’s actually quite handsome, and his chocolate skin tells of warm Hispanic nights, perhaps dancing and young love. He smiles and stares a foot above the swarming others and his sign mentions more, but you try to not to stare and only catch the hints of “Help” and “American Dream.”

Late afternoon, early rush hour. Shuttle train to Times Square, a stocky set of cars choked with commuters, the seats themselves plastered in marketing campaigns. I time the crowd and the chiming doors and get a seat. Across from me sits a well dressed man, European by the looks of his facial features and brands. His shoes are fine leather with strong stitching and hand-shaped soles. His jeans have the odd black flecks that are fashionable (and only look good) on French or German men. He’s flipping through a thin book lacking a flashy cover – probably some independent or university press of philosophy or literary criticism. When the train slides out and the drone overcomes the squeal of metal, a timid voice picks up, a young girl stating her plight. “I’m a single mother of two, I just lost my job, I wish I could be working but I’m desperate. Please help.” I’ve seen her before, working these trains. She’s young, mid twenties, with a big red Jansport backpack and a new t-shirt and jeans. She could practically pass as a homely, fashion-naive Columbia grad student. The German turns slightly, watching the girl. She’s still halfway down the car. He places a finger in the book to save his spot, reaches into his leather jacket for a minimalist billfold, flips through the greenbacks to select a single. When he withdraws it he crumples it into his fist, as though to hide the value. The girl extends a greasy paper sack, continues to extol her plight to the unhearing train. The European drops his gift, watches her a moment more, and resumes reading.

Bodega in December, filled with evergreens. Rows of sixty dollar Christmas trees clogging the sidewalk. A little Mexican man, gloves and hat and bulky blue coat, holding a buzzing chainsaw. The trunk of the tree propped under his knee on a milk crate, the chainsaw ripping through, arcing sawdust into the gutter. The scent of pine wood and sap. And then half an hour later, he lugs the tree after an older woman swathed in an enormous maroon overcoat. Gray hair styled in oversized ringlets; brooches and necklaces and rings with expensive stones dangling from her person. And behind her, marching like a vassal – the Mexican – the stump of the tree grasped behind his head, the fluffy green boughs all down his back, the entire bundle larger than he is, trudging as the wind down the side street grows.

A hard rain in the cold. In midtown as the sun fades, all the artificial light blurs and bleeds in the streets. The wind whips down the short blocks and funnels beneath Grand Central at Park Avenue and the rain comes sideways beneath the umbrella to leave khakis soaked and frigid. There is a mist in the air, the very moisture of the sullen downpour intermingling with the misty breaths of the ten thousand weary marchers. Two gray suited businessmen, crew cuts and thick necks and tiny cheap umbrellas, dash and hail a cab. Another woman in a sheath of downy black from hooded head to booted heel, under an enormous umbrella, weaving through the moaning tourists, the maintenance vehicles and scaffolding on fifty first. A manhole vents stream through an orange and white steeple, ten feet high. The white mist belches in great gouts and the rain cuts through it and the headlights of cabs are scattered and dispersed through the cloud like summer heat lightning.

Further west – Avenue of the Americas – the vertical icon of Radio City glowing nearly purple in the blowing mist, a traffic cop with his hand out, the brim of his hat dripping thick drops. The fountain still flows but the once glass surface is chopped to froth in the downpour and the foam collects at the marble corners and intricacies. Enormous replicas of Nutcrackers stand solemn and grinning in the rain.

Further still, in Hells Kitchen, an East Asian delivery guy balancing a hot meal on the handle bars of his old silver bike. He pedals slow and coasts through the puddles, and his poncho is spread out to cover his entire frame, from handles to the back of his seat, the hood pulled low to reveal no more than the lids of his eyes, squinting into the traffic and the wet road and the night yet to come.

In the morning the herd vacates the train and disperses, some escaping a double set of stairs, others filtering down a narrow decline to the station proper. The hall is dirty white tile and the ceiling leaks and there are large squares populated with advertisements that rotate every month like clockwork. Three thick pillars support the aging roofwork and set up in the central column, where a small ledge affords a seat, is Ms. Theresa Louise Birmingham. She has a shopping cart billowing over with old garbage bags and rotting magazines. She is rotund and wears a black sweatsuit and coke bottle glasses that bug out her eyes. But she sits every morning, the headphones of an old Discman plugged into her ears, watches the crowd advance – and sings her heart out. Big bellowing soul numbers in the vein of Aretha Franklin, a cappella, guided only by whatever’s playing in that old Discman. Every morning, from 8 to 9, her lone voice rising in throaty crescendos, echoing like Doppler almost all the way to the screaming trains. Then the clomp of the footfalls on the tiles bring the crowd to the warren proper, and her tenor merges with the chaotic remainder.

Through the nest of pillars, the organ red of that mechanical womb, through the turnstiles and out, there is a twisting stair, the glow of light filtering down infused with blue. Up the steps, each dirty stair accompanied by a unique smell: newspaper, mildew, rotten chicken, dead rodents, old urine, even gasping sewer pipes. Then a few feet higher and the line of sight beaks, and there are gaps of sky and painted metal and expanses of bone white stone.

Then – oh – the noise. With skinny arms a dingy man extends a thin rolled paper, painted blue with headlines and celebrity photos. “Morning, morning, morning,” he calls in rapid fire; a triplet for all who ascend the stair, free Metro for all. A pallet of wrapped papers slump behind him on the edge of the curb, inches from the Halal food stand, a hot dog cart, a linebacker of a man selling bundles of incense. Beyond them all a sea of yellow cabs and black Lincolns, swimming along with the delivery trucks, the white exteriors done up in ugly red and green gang-sign graffiti.

Extend your gaze eastward to the rising sun, which is blotted out by a behemoth. Even with a painfully craned neck the top is barely visible, receding in cartoonish foreshortening, the monolith gargoyles staring down like jealous beasts.

Cross the street, look down the valley. All the other herded pedestrians, marching in a long line in the crosswalk, nothing between them and the roaring engines of the Pakistani armored division but striped white lines and a systematic arrangement of colored lights. Out from the shadow of Chrysler the sun’s low morning angle now fully revealed in blinding, yellow light – boring a file in the glass facades that fail to usurp their stone sibling – instead rippling and bouncing back a shimmering, ethereal reflection.

And then east, everything washed out, black and golden, but never ceasing, always marching.

Early afternoon, mid December. Twenty second floor midtown tower. Looking east, over the old rooftops. Trump’s black phallus and the East River, gray skies so thick they look static, unmoving. And then a burst, like the shredding of a down pillow. Thick billowing clumps of snow, some bigger than a fist, lingering next to the window. And out across the rooftops, the updrafts of the angular architecture, steaming HVAC ventilation ducts, the natural wind itself, twist the cotton into a dance of patterns and flow.

And then they grow strong, heavy, as through their playful floating was merely a flirt, a taste, and it snows hard and slanted to the earth, each thick flake synchronized with its brother.

And New York goes from black and evergray to white.

Wander down to the third floor cafeteria. They are closing up shop, a couple of tech aids shutting down laptop computers and camera equipment, all lined up on a row of red-ruffled tables, the big white umbrella to aid in the Santa pictures.

It’s family day and the CEO stopped by to shake hands and hand out eggnog and hot apple cider and cookies,

“Why would you want to shake his hand?” they ponder. “Right after he lays off a bunch of people, takes his 200 million…”

The cafeteria sits alongside Third Avenue and faces west, Chrysler looming out of the gray dim like a monument of some forgotten civilization. The air is thick with snowflakes and they shift and fall in thick clusters along the avenue – patrolled by yellow cabs like angry sharks. Their golden backs now frosted with the first of the fallen snow. The shops along the street are becoming adorned as well, the navy blue awning of a news shop proclaiming its prime sponsor – New York (magazine) – iced in dimming white, the same letters dispersing into the cold covering like some distortion effect. The black coat pedestrians on the street squint into it, leaning forward and staggering, but behind the glass we are beaming.

“A romantic evening in the snow,” one of the tech peons intones, sipping hot cider, and we both crane our necks up at the spires, the twinkling reflection of the Christmas tree gifting the visual scene a double dose of yuletide cheer.

After the preacher finishes, there is a long silence.

A few feet away, a businessman murmurs “no” or “terrible”, fixing the Jamaican with a look halfway between disgust and amazement.

Perhaps he stands in awe of the radical notions of the man, who otherwise appears to be well dressed, adjusted and polite. In awe of the fact such fire and brimstone and hate could fester and seethe in our modern world.

But perhaps he is convicted, and even if the words are couched in archaic language, they still land an imprint on his soul.

When the train slows and stops and the doors ding, there is momentary chaos. Then all go our separate ways, dispersed into those tunnels. Marching.