I get on the 1 train at 103rd Street, slathered in a New York late-spring night’s interpretation of climate change, i.e. 50 degrees and crapping drizzle on the city. The mold and Popeye’s-smelling car on the downtown car is more or less occupied with the 7pm post- and pre-work dregs, crashed eyes, a few tremors of iPod hope, Kindle beepery and the ubiquitous tired old folks. One glimpses haunting Broadway’s weekday sidewalks when one’s idea of getting ready for work means heading out to a bagel place and back to the apartment at 2pm.
I settle down on the “reserved for persons with disabilities” bench and stare across the car at a young Hispanic girl, maybe 17 or 18, gorgeous, giggling at something on her phone and twisting her hair self-consciously, reminding me of a time when I was much more (though far from completely) innocent, when riding a Subway across from this girl – who I wouldn’t have looked at – would have elicited a much different range of emotions, when subterranean Manhattan wasn’t just a rickety ride to my crappy nightlife job in the West Village at the tail-end of a crappy mid-winter’s day. She looks up from her phone and meets my stare. I close my eyes.
Sometimes I have this fantasy where I’m resting my eyes on the Subway and suddenly I feel something digging in my duffel bag. I open my eyes and there’s this kid, maybe 10 years old riffling through the contents of the bag on my lap, a grinning devil in training. I realize what’s happening and shove him away and clutch the bag to my chest as the train lurches into a station and the kid sort of falls forward, towards me, and his head lands on my lap and he bites down, hard. As choice sections of my delicate regions are now being skewered in a mouth vice, I do the only sensible thing and deliver a crushing right sideswipe to the kid’s temple, denting the pulpy part of his smallish noggin. He opens his mouth to shriek in surprise at my uncanny reaction time, but before any sound escapes I slam him with such force that he careens and sort of twists in an ugly motion into the bench across the car smashing his head into the plexiglass window, his knees cracking against the hard plastic seats. He collapses silently onto the Skittles-and-Dr. Pepper-covered floor.
I don’t think this is some kind of sadomasochist subconscious Freudian penis-party; it’s not some deep-seeded Patrick Bateman-esque need to enact violence on helpless children. It’s simply the freedom to expel the pure ether of rage and get away with an act that, out of context, would seem heinous to a moderately oblivious onlooker with a middle-of-the-road moral compass. I can imagine the grimaces of shock from my fellow passengers, the whirring of camera phones, the digital proof of my outburst and innocence. The adrenaline rush as I explain the event to the mildly interested policemen on the Times Square platform amidst the post-work rush, the policemen ultimately agreeing with me, the key witnesses – a pair of Swede tourists and a reluctantly compliant soccer mom from Lincoln Center – corroborating every detail, as various cave creatures from the other end of the car who’d only seen the tail end of the beatdown crow for my arrest, recording with their phones the vein pulsing across my forehead, the kid being wheeled off the platform, handcuffed to a stretcher. Then the court case, where I’m sued by the kid’s mother, a bitter, incredulous banshee of post-recession give-up who I’ll later counter-sue and win but decline to collect any damages because of how sorry I feel about her son. Because, you know, compassion goes a long way. The Post and Daily News will revile and exonerate me in the same afternoon. Verdict: a reasonable use of force, of fighting back.
We New Yorkers get regularly assaulted, both physically and psychologically. Avoiding the claw of an abusive pigeon, trying to find work in an environment where work is not a thing to simply find, relinquishing any semblance of trust in a political-corporate oligarchy bent on engulfing – Galactus-style – the system of free markets and free people it is doing so well to destroy, jostling in hardcore bagel lines at 2pm. These are very real attacks. I’m not equating the kid in the fantasy with a crudely described global order with the power of the Dark Side of the Force. I’m only speculating that there are these constant intrusions to one’s wellbeing – mental, financial, physical or otherwise – and that it seems far more exhilarating and probably beneficial to face these intruders, to fight regardless of the possibility for devastation. Maybe the kid is my version of a twisted pep talk. I will bludgeon the intruder.
The scratch-weary conductor’s voice announces that we’re approaching Christopher Street, second-to-last stop. I open my eyes and the teenage girl is gone, replaced by an elderly couple dressed in enough earth tones and moth-munched polyester to qualify as dumpy yet pleasantly eccentric extras in an early-season episode of All in the Family. The woman, her auburn hair fading to silver, is glancing nervously at the wall to right, trying to discern something on the Subway map that’s caught in the crossfire of two tweens in crotch-hugging denim making out roughly with their earbuds intact. The old woman finally finds what she’s looking for, or stops trying and slumps into her seat, sighs dejectedly. Her companion’s not in any better shape. From beneath his newsboy cap his jowls sag, his glazed eyes transfixed on the contents of a manila folder splayed across his khakied lap, official-looking stationery. An unforeseen (or expected) diagnosis? One last desperate effort at refinancing gone wrong?
As the train pulls up to Houston Street and I start to exit, the woman wraps her arm around the man’s sunken shoulders and nuzzles her lips against his cheek. The vacant sadness in their eyes makes me want to reach over and say something, anything comforting, but this is my stop and this is a sadness built on accumulation, on years of loss and disappoint that I, even as a self-abusive underachiever in his late 20s slogging his recently asexual carcass and its inflated liver to a crappy nightlife job – can’t possibly comprehend. What I’m seeing is a preview of coming attractions.
A recognizable anxiety begins to churn at the bottom of my stomach, building to unbearable as I mind the gap and step onto the platform and through the turnstyle. Just to the left of the MetroCard machines and the exit stairs, a familiar homeless guy who I haven’t seen since the warm months is writhing around in what appears to be a tea-colored puddle of self-made sludge, his pale, cheesegrated face scrunched into an insane witch cackle while his hands wriggle under the front of his pants, a meager attempt at self-love or just trying to stay warm. I shuffle past him to get to the stairs and he rips his hands out of his pants, tries to grab my leg and gargles something that sounds like “ArtGarfunkelLexusHybrid!” and I’m kicking the air near his face and he slouches in fright back into the filth and whatever’s sliding up the skin of my stomach doesn’t have much space to go because I’m coming to grips, on this rainy late-spring night, with the reality that my choices are limited to two: continue to battle, to sack it up and absorb the piling daily pressures, the slicing, constant sensory barrage, the hammer strikes of unmerciful truth that New York doles out, artful in its cruelty, until the years’ weight leaves me like the elderly couple, crippled and shrunken in a world I no longer understand or want to care about. Or, give up and embrace utter lunacy and a freedom that can only be maintained by slugs from a cheap bottle, slightly less sad peoples’ refuse and a slow rotting death alone underneath the boughs of a storm-crippled Central Park oak on a night colder than this.
Tears staining my jacket, I climb up from the Subway onto 7th Avenue and everything is glass. Then there’s the Empire State Building, its massive blue and white syringe injecting its girth into the light-polluted sky. I’m hyperventilating, frozen to the sidewalk until a woman in probably her mid-thirties – dark hair in a tight ponytail, nice makeup, heels and red stockings, huge leather satchel, iPhone ablaze – plows into me, knocking my duffel bag off my shoulder and onto my pavement. Without stopping, she twists her neck, makes an ugly face, says, “Ugh! Watch out idiot,” and then to the person she’s talking to on her phone, “Ohmygod did you hear what he said to her last week when they were skiing in Vail, I couldn’t believe that…” as she chugs along, ignoring oncoming traffic as she swerves onto the busy avenue to cross it and I bend over to pick up the bag. Sometimes I want to bludgeon New York until it bleeds.