StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Subway Car of Souls (Crossing 40: Part I)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on May 13, 2014

By Kyle Thomas Smith

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I turned 40 on Sunday.

It’s My New Decade resolution to blog more.

We’ll see how I do.

The other day, I was transferring from the 2 to the 1 at Times Square when a little white man, in his forties (like I am as of this past Sunday—40, that is, not little), shoved his way in front of me as the train pulled up. The crunching tumult of the opening subway doors served as his battle hymn as he blitzed through the throngs attempting to exit. The conductor must have witnessed this scene because, right as the little man embarked on his rampage, you heard over the P.A.: “Let ’em out first, let ’em out first! Hey. Leddem owww-tah!” He attracted a score of leers, not the least being mine as I trundled in after him.

The little man was wearing a featureless orange baseball cap, a stuffed-up black backpack and a green coat that I think I once saw on sale at Urban Outfitters in the early 2000s. He dove at a couple stomped-on gatefolds from the Times that lay at the feet of a young African-American college student, in thick bifocals, clutching her chemistry textbook, and a squat old man with a musty tweed coat, a yarmulke and a feral Einstein mane.

“Is this yours?” the little man asked them as he bunched up the gatefolds like they were the books of an unfaithful lover, who always took up too much shelf space and now was about to find their books airborne out the apartment window.

“No,” they both answered, shaking their heads in tremors like he was grazing the edge of a trash-pick across their throats.

The little man took a deep breath, the newspaper pages bundled at his side, and walked over to wait by the door for the next stop, 50th St, casting back a glance that read, Yeah, well, they better not be. But did the man even look to see how many footprints were on the pages? They were like a low-rent version of the Gauman’s Chinese Theatre walkway. They’d probably been on the ground since Wall Street. He should’ve looked miles back for scapegoats. Now, I’m all for reducing our carbon footprint, but this guy was acting like an Earth Day capo. Plus, good as it is to put litter in its place (and I do, at least my own), the MTA does have a clean-up crew at 242nd St even if our green avenger hadn’t arrived on the scene.

The Scandinavian bombshell, sitting near where the man was now standing, removed her earphones and said in a Swedish Chef voice, “Thanks for vat you’re doing.” She must have been an off-duty model, cheekbones high as the white cliffs of Dover and sapphire blue eyes with eyebrows that a cosmetologist has to train for years to arc to such an apex, yet she was decked out in granola grubbies with a thick white fisherman’s knit sweater and hiking boots. Clearly, he’d scored a better find than dirty newspaper pages just now. The fire tearing through the man’s veins guttered to a slow, flickering burn as his face and voice ebbed from Charles Bronson to Potsie Weber, “Oh, well, thank you. Yeah, um, y’know…” He fumbled for a talking point and damned if he didn’t find one: “Recycle, Reuse, Restore, Replenish.” He sniggered, only to brace back up after an ill-timed snort obviated his cool.

The eco-conscious model smiled, though, and a ray of hope began to shine once more in the man’s eyes. The model, however, went back to staring into space as she reinserted her earplugs. Lest he blow his last chance with her like our greed-and-turbine-driven society has with the planet, the man piped up again, “It’s better than being pissed off.”

The enchantress removed her earplugs, “Excuse me?”

“It’s better than being pissed off.”

“You’re pissed off?”

“No. Well, yes. But no. I mean, it’s better than being pissed off.”

“What is?”

“Helping.”

“Helping?”

“Yeah, helping is better than being pissed off.”

“Oh, yes. Yes. I agree. I agree. Helping…better than being pissed off. Any day. Yes.”

“Yeah.”

She smiled and nodded, and he smiled and nodded, and she put her earplugs back in. He jumped in again, “The earth, right—”

She took her earplugs back out, “I’m sorry?”

“No, it’s just…important. You know. They say it’s too late but…you know…it’s important…the earth.”

“Yeah,” she said, “Important.” She held up her canvas bag. She nodded. She smiled. She reapplied her earplugs and turned back to oblivion.

“Thank you,” he said.

She took her earplugs out, “Excuse me?”

“Thank you,” he said.

“For what?”

“For your bag.”

“My bag?”

“Your bag,” he said, and he pointed to the green recycling arrows that decorated the exterior.

“Oh, yes,” she smiled and nodded.

“It’s important.”

“It is. It’s important,” she nodded, returning her earplugs to her ears.

Never before had 50th Street seemed so far away to anyone observing this exchange, much less to the two participating in it. When the subway finally pulled up to his destination, the man who’d stormed the car like the cavalry now mooned around by the doors until they opened, his spirits slung lower than the rats scrambling beneath the tracks.

“Have a good day,” he told the model as he took his first step out.

“You too,” she smiled and nodded, earplugs wedged in her ears.

I still had two more stops to go. I was on my way to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. It’s where I go when I want to write a book. I’ve only published one book so far and I started it there. I started it as a short story but it became a novel, got published and won lots of awards. I sometimes go back to the library thinking I’ll get lucky again.

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What got me to go there the day I started the-story-that-became-a-novel was the movie Wings of Desire, which I first saw at The Music Box Theater in Chicago in 1990, when I was 16 years old. The Music Box Theater is hands-down my favorite venue in all Chicago, possibly in all the world. We’ve got nothing like it in New York. I mean, we have great theaters for art movies but none as majestic as the Music Box, whose main theater is a veritable cathedral with vaulted ceilings and gilded walls, ornate cornices and niches harboring vined putti. At prime time, they even have a guy playing the pipe organ in a Tuxedo. It was my Cinema Paradiso growing up—where I came of age, where I witnessed cultures and vistas worlds away from the Midwest.

For me, Wings of Desire remains the crowning cinematic achievement. Two angels, dressed like those chain-smoking existentialists I so adored in my youth, roam Berlin and listen in on people’s thoughts. The mindscape the angels inhabit is rendered in austere black and white. Every now and then, director Wim Wender splices in color sequences to portray the sentient world of mortals, whose hearts ache but who also have the capacity to fall in love and to experience the groundedness and earthiness of ordinary life. One of the angels longs to have this capacity himself, even with all the trouble it causes, and so he must choose: does he stay in his exalted but colorless sanctum or does he cross over and endure the strife of being human, just so he can meet and fall in love with the woman he’s been watching over throughout the film?

This is also where I first discovered both Nick Cave and Crime & The City Solution, both of whom perform in a Berlin nightclub during various sequences of this neo-expressionist masterpiece. Both acts also figure prominently on Wings of Desire’s soundtrack, which also contains a haunting operatic score called “Cathedral of Books.”—But…thing is…someone once told me the song’s called “Library of Souls”…and it isn’t…but…I like that title better and think it comports better with the scene I’m about to describe, so…let’s just call the song “Library of Souls” anyway, okay? So, this track, “The Library Souls” (really, “Cathedral of Books,” but remember our deal) comes in when the angels go to a library in Berlin to audit the thoughts of the young and the spry, the old and the weary. The orgasmic crescendos that come and go throughout this number are enough to spirit you away, no matter how much reality might beg your attention, and all the while the library denizens are simply reading or sifting through the stacks for books.

The Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center attracts a similar mélange of old and young, spry and weary, so it seemed a good enough substitute for the Library of Souls the day I began writing what became my first published novel, and I remember hoping an angel would be standing over me to ensure that the piece would come to fruition. It did, so maybe an angel had been standing over me and maybe one would again if I went back.

Still seated on the subway, I began to wonder how it would be if I were one of those angels. I don’t mean angel as in someone who behaves well, but a Wings of Desire angel who can drop in and hear people’s thoughts. I looked around the subway car. It was a model of diversity, a motley, laid-back panoply, pretty much all world cultures represented sheerly by dint of each of us having places to go, people to see in this crazy, mixed-up town. How the hell should I know what any of my fellow passengers is thinking? I could make assumptions but we all know what happens when you do that. I’d end up yet another white guy, saying I know what’s going on in other people’s heads, when I don’t. Would I end up portraying the babushka-capped matron in the bulky man’s frock coat as someone wringing her hands over whether gay marriage will win the day in Arkansas even though the attorney general  has vowed to appeal the case, even though in principle he supports marriages such as mine with Julius? Will the Nigerian man in the fez and tunic puzzle over what wine to pair with paella (a seafood paella, say, like the delicious one my friend in Clinton Hill served at the dinner party we went to the other night)? Would whole passages from D.H. Lawrence drift in and out of the young Japanese student’s consciousness, even though she’s carrying a textbook called Let’s Learn English, Level 2?

If I were one of those angels, I’d never get my wings. In our debriefing meetings, God would say, “You’re just making shit up.” Even more damning, he’d say I lack imagination. And here I was, on my way to the Library of Souls…or the Lincoln Center library anyway.

As soon as I got to the library, I sat at a long table with sundry other souls. I opened my notebook. I looked up and down the table. Some people looked at me, like, what the hell you starin’ at, asshole? Others sat as lost in their earphones as the Scandinavian model had hoped to get in hers.

Just as an exercise, I started scribbling out a scenario in which the Scandinavian model had leapt out of her seat and, in slow motion, run after her prince in reusable rags. My first shot at their exchange didn’t yield much. I couldn’t leave it at a movie ending where they’d just fall into each other’s arms at the turnstile and smooch. We all saw Into the Woods. (Or maybe we all didn’t. It’s a Sondheim musical, after all, and not all the world goes to those, nor does all the world have access to the TKTS booth at Times Square if they can’t pay full-price.) We all know there’s much more to a story than the happily-ever-after kiss. (That much is something, I can safely say, anyone with any sense knows.)

So, I had to put the Green Avenger and the Scandinavian model on a date. What restaurant can I send them to? What’s around Lincoln Center? Then I remembered that Jean Georges (Julius took me there a couple times, eight years ago, when we started dating) is right across from Central Park in the Trump International Hotel—and never mind that the Green Avenger would sooner die than enter an establishment paying rent to Donald Trump and that the maître d’ would never allow him in, what with all the dirty newspaper pages sticking out of his backpack—this was only a first draft, and this would be where the Green Avenger and the Scandinavian model would walk in hand in hand and say in unison, “Table for two.” The maître d’ would guide them to a corner table, beneath a sparkling chandelier. The enchantress would find the environmentalist’s social conscience so enchanting, she’d toss her headphones away like so much salt over her shoulder and he’d be so enchanted by her, he’d say nothing about how she just littered. Besides, Trump had it coming. Inevitably, their eyes and then their lips would meet over candlelight. Before leaving Jean Georges, the man would open his backpack and they’d both surreptitiously toss in their cloth napkins, which the Green Avenger would launder himself in eco-friendly detergent before returning them to their rightful owner.

The story was a no-go from the get-go. I kept looking over my shoulder, shrugging, turning my palms perturbedly to the ceiling, as if to call my Wings Of Desire angel over to the long table where I sat in my Library of Souls. I would tell the angel, “You can take my order any time, you know,” but it seemed the angel—the muse—doesn’t work at that library anymore—the angel, whom I’d somehow conflated with the waiter in my washed-up story, in the Library of Souls, which I’d somehow conflated with Jean Georges. Worse still, there was nothing on the menu and all I was left with was a series of bad metaphors that would find no other home than this blog post.

I packed up and walked all the way down to Rockefeller Center to clear my head. The crowded streets were exactly that, a series of crowds, multifarious but somehow indistinguishable from all the other crowds crowding all the rest of the Midtown streets. I caught the F train back to Brooklyn.

The week before, Julius and I had taken the F train all the way to Jackson Heights. My friend Mike, who was the best man at my wedding, is getting married in Barbados next month to Padma. Julius and I are going. Padma had come to our wedding in a scarlet sari with gold trimmings that put my black-velvet jacket, ruby Tibetan shirt and striped pants to shame, and Julius, for the first time in his life, didn’t wear a tie to a semi-formal occasion. Now it was Padma’s turn to be sorry as both Julius and I were going to go get fitted for the best Sherwanis we could find. Our stomachs were growling for lack of breakfast, though, so we went on a mission to find a good Indian buffet before we’d go looking for a good Sherwani merchant. We stopped in a sari shop for advice. The bejeweled owner told us to go to Jackson Diner. She looked like a Bollywood grand dame but her voice was pure Queens, “I know, I know, it’s an American name, but trust me, hun, it’s Indian. I order from their awl the time.” As luck would have it, she said she also sold the best Sherwanis in the neighborhood, right across the street from Jackson Diner, at her other store, Aura.

Both places were magnificent stumble-upons. Only, I kind of felt like Adela Quested in A Passage to India, eating at Jackson Diner. Remember that classic scene in the book? She expresses her desire to see “the real India” and someone tells her, “Try seeing real Indians.” The crowds on 74th Street were mostly Indian and Southeast Asian. Aside from the staff, however, almost everyone in Jackson Diner was as white as we were and gobbling up Tandooris and Samosas with a wolfish relish, just like we were—and it was hard to make the case that all those other white people were ruining our cross-town exotic escapade without also feeling we should have the word Hypocrite tattooed across our foreheads; moreover, it seemed that everyone was thinking the same thing about us, so we all just seemed to pretend that we all weren’t there, kind of like how you look right through any other American you might see coming your way when you’re in Paris. They remind you too much of you.

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Anyway, here’s a picture of the Sherwanis we ended up buying. Mine is the royal purple. With my Irish pallor, it’s Jagger ’67 meets Bowie ’69 (no pun intended). Julius has the powder blue (“Butterfield 8, Hi…It’s Gloria…”). This time, if the two grooms don’t outdo the bride and groom, there’s gonna be some serious silk piles littering the white-sand beaches of Barbados.

Sherwanis in the bag, we took the F home to Brooklyn…

Before I say any more, I want to qualify that I’m agnostic on the issue of panhandling. I’ve worked for homeless organizations and used to volunteer in soup kitchens and my heart goes out to anyone in that situation, so I still give to panhandlers unless I see an obvious con or I’m somewhere where it’s too dangerous for me to take out my wallet. I’ve heard both the pro-homeless and the anti-homeless speak out against panhandling. The anti-homeless are clearly assholes who’d eat their words if they ever wound up destitute and, as far as I’m concerned, any talk that comes out of their mouths amounts to a talisman they’re waving in front of their cravenly faces to ward off their own gnawing fears of personal vulnerability. However, I do respect advocates for the homeless who make the case that giving to social-service organizations is a far better way to go, and Julius and I do give to such organizations. Because Julius only gives to established charities, he won’t dole out cash to panhandlers but I at least try to think it over. While I don’t think anyone should feel bad about being more fortunate, I think we’d all do well to practice gratitude and generosity in some way, every day, when we are more fortunate. Also, and maybe it’s only a superstition born of being raised Catholic, I do think the universe—maybe even one of those angels—is watching whether or not I follow through on any intuition that it might give me to offer the person money or a silent prayer or even just a kind word, so I’m vigilant about following through.

That said, from Roosevelt Avenue all the way down to Brooklyn, the subway car was overrun with beggars. One had lost an ear and had third degree burns on both sides on his face. Maybe he’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan and sustained the wounds in combat. I don’t know. He didn’t have a pitch. He just stumbled through the standing-room-only car with a ragged paper cup, a walking billboard of need. I wanted to fish out a couple dollars but he disappeared into a gallery of standers. Another was a gypsy-looking woman with a baby in a front pack, hitting up everybody one-by-one, her spiel spelled out repletely in marker on a cardboard sign that hung just-so over the infant. She didn’t strike me as sincere. She marched too straight-backed and had her lines down too pat. By then, I had the feeling I should hold off on giving money. It’d lead to a big debate with Julius about where and when and how to give, and we’d just go around in circles, so I kept my money in my pocket. It didn’t help my side of the argument that there were at least three announcements coming over the speakers saying, “It is illegal to solicit money on the MTA. Please do not give to panhandlers.” And it really didn’t help that the next guy who walked through, only paces away from the baby mascot, announced, “I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, people. I’m hungry,” but Julius whispered to me, “Look at his coat pocket,” and I saw he had a fat roll of bills.

The train back from Jackson Heights kept getting more and more crowded when this 20-something busker got on at W4th. Now, for me, musicians are another matter. I’m fine with them playing for change on the platforms and on the street, but I consider it rude when they step on to a subway car and make everyone listen to them. Nobody asked them to play. A lot of times you’ve had a hard day, and then one of these interlopers trudges in, stands their ground and starts letting their guitar or accordion or tambourine or violin rip. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re not, but the point is: they were never asked; they just decide, you’re there to listen to them and that’s all there is to it.

That was this kid’s disposition. He had chin-length, dirty blond hair, a fuck-with-their-minds edge to his chestnut-brown eyes and an amp strapped to his back. He adjusted his microphone, harmonica and acoustic guitar and proceeded squeal on the harmonica for half a stop, strumming waywardly on his guitar, before crooning Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” Dylan-style, which a better busker might’ve been able to pull off but he just didn’t. He was out of key, missing critical lyrics and then covering his tracks by chicken-heading the harmonica.

He stopped playing come 2nd Avenue, missing most of the last verse, when overcrowding made it impossible for him to keep going. With that, he pulled a cap out of his army jacket, which he probably picked up at Uncle Dan’s, turned it upside-down and wedged through the jammed-up, body-to-body subway car for change. Whether on account of being apathetic or cleaned-out by other bindles or just plain unimpressed, nobody put anything in his hat. He swanked back down to our side of the car, where he thought he might’ve landed a sale in a swarthy old man with dyed-black hair who wore a three-piece, blue pinstriped suit and a chunky ruby ring. The man had dug deep into his pocket. The kid waited but the man merely withdrew nail-clippers and clipped off a hangnail. The kid stood and fumed. He turned his amp up to top volume and said, “Thank you so fucking much, everybody. No shortage of assholes in the world,” before slouching off at Delancey Street.

A week or so later, as I took the F train back home after my stint in the Library of Souls, I thought about us first-worlders with our Sherwanis and the subway mendicants and the busker with the bad attitude, and it seemed to me these elements add up to impressions, disjointed anecdotes, a pastiche maybe, but not to something epic. They’re fragments I see or experience on a daily experience but they don’t always crystallize into masterworks.

As I sat musing on this with ever-growing diffidence, on a train that had mostly cleared out by Jay Street-Borough Hall, a vagrant with a head of patchy, clumped hair stood with his pants hanging off his no-undies ass. He leaned forward, spit on the empty floor in front of him and stood back up. Again, he lean forward, spit on the floor and stood up. He repeated this act over and over again. The F train moved out of the tunnel at Carroll Street and I just kept looking out the window at the Williamsburg Bank building and at all the new developments going up from Gowanus to Boerum Hill to Fort Greene. By 4th Avenue, I recalled that there had been a case of Bubonic Plague reported in New York last year, and it occurred to me that the spitting vagrant might be giving it to me now. I’d be getting off at the next stop anyway, though. I was sure he wouldn’t be offended if I got up a little early and walked over to the other door till we reached my stop.

Another down-and-out stood next to me by those doors, though, stinking of too much whiskey and too few showers. 7th Avenue arrived. He got off first and turned around and looked dead at me, spaced-out and wild-eyed. I looked back at him, deadpan, and without moving my lips, sent him a telepathic message, “It’s been a hell of a day. Could you just not piss on me, please?”

When I reached the 8th Avenue staircase, I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the man had respected my wishes. He was only now taking out his penis and pissing on the white tiles on the side of the 7th Avenue staircase.

Kyle Thomas Smith is author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his husband Julius and his cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

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