Monday night on the train this young girl asks me how to get to 103rd Street. So I tell her. She is well dressed and attractive, and it is 3 AM and I am feeling a little protective, so I put out that maternal vibe, and she hooks right in. Tells me she is from New Orleans, how her parents’ house was in one of the better neighborhoods (her accessories are expensive), how she is here looking for a job, 22 years old, etc. But starts the ‘wind-up’. Other tourists in the subway car, heading up to their family-style hotels and hostels on the Upper West, hear the buzzwords—New Orleans, Katrina, FEMA…start to listen…
And the girl is not just winding up but smoking now—standing in car-center, using her hands and arms… suddenly her parents are devastated. I am exhausted from five sets of music, but I could swear she’d assured me her house was spared, that some strange hurricane phenomenon occurs whereby one house is untouched, the next one is flattened. And so on. And the accent—that lovely warm southern thing—has suddenly been cast aside—and a little bit of Long Island is creeping in. Now it is maybe New Jersey I am hearing, because she is on ten and eleven and these tourists- French-Canadians—are giving her questions, and she is answering with this quasi-hysteria vibe now, on fire--her face grimacing and frowning and eyebrows wild. She is preaching, losing her track now—all kinds of mis-information coming out of her mouth. The shady characters who ride the train late-nights-- the ones who ignore straight people-- are starting to take interest. Even the meth-girl who walks up and down asking for donations through gritted teeth.. she decides to pass on our car, realizes center stage is occupied.
We are generally a tough crowd, we late-night passengers. We have seen it all. Some of us have done it, too. Vaccinated by scrapes and near misses, by knowledge of things we wish we hadn’t seen, we have acquired a certain immunity. We are maybe the true New Yorkers, the ones whose apartments were NOT smashed up by Carl Lidle’s plane, who have been scammed and mugged in a non-newsworthy way, the ones who will not ever win more than $1 with a Lotto ticket, who maybe had a brief and painful bout with cancer or depression or hepatitis but are still here, on our way back from work, hanging in, courtesy of fading rent-control, the unlimited 30-day Metrocard which allows us our money’s worth, KeyFood discounts.
We are grateful for the air-conditioned cars because some of us have to return home to steamy apartments, to the permanent ghost of garbage smell which permeates our inside-air all summer, no matter what we do. We are grateful for the all-night service, no matter how infrequent. We mind our own business, sometimes enjoy a sandwich on the way home, read our newspapers, nap.
For the most part, this city feels safe to the rank-and-file. If you don’t fuck with it, it doesn’t fuck with you. If you have not much to lose and you don’t wave it around, chances are they’ll let you alone. Am I nostalgic for the good old days? When New York felt just a little edgy and haunted? When racism was closer to the surface, violence and unemployment were not as medicated and whitewashed? I was young and cute, once. Guys used to follow me home, write suicide notes. But I was one of the lucky ones. What’s the worst thing that ever happened to me? I was mugged by two women on the street who pretended to have fallen down. My place was robbed by some junkies who took not only my grandmother’s bracelets but my underwear, sheets, vitamins, old photos, shoes and sewing machine. They needed it, I finally decided as I installed iron bars on my window. One night while I played at a club called 8BC, a punk rocker yelled out “I WANT TO FUCK YOU” and drove a nail through his palm into the stagefloor. I was covered with spurting blood. In in a way I was flattered. He was a fan.
But I am older now. I am someone’s mother. Fewer fans, just audience. My enemies are in the ether-network. Silent terrorism. Our government which manipulates and cooks our books to convince us we are better off just going about our business and leaving world affairs up to them. Because we haven’t a clue what they are doing behind closed doors. The simple criminals in jails are puppies. These guys are in packs. These guys have power. Another column.
I get out and look upward to the latest series of mostly-glass Disney buildings going up in poor neighborhoods. Rich schmucks will be duped into paying millions for apartments that do not even exist—they are just marketed air-space. Billionaires forced to live right next to poor schmucks like me, because all of the best space is taken. And how did the new builders get this kind of money? Doing Enron-math? It all seems impossible when I am sorting through my crumpled bills which add up to exactly the $100 I earned playing music for 6 hours. I worked for this money. I actually enjoyed the work.
I notice my Katrina survivor-girl didn’t take my directions seriously. She followed the tourists out at 72nd Street. I can’t afford to worry about these things, even though I do.
I worry about all the kids out there, all the poor old folks who maybe couldn’t make it to the corner today to get their loaf of bread. I still talk to people. And I still, in that edgy New York City way, feel safe. I am proud to be of the dwindling rank and file, we the heroes who know the bus drivers by name, who sleep through the night or the day with all the traffic noise, without doctor’s prescriptions, without an overpriced nightcap, without a million-dollar view. We who return to our little piece of real estate which smells of our neighbors’ dinners and the perpetual New York Soup outside, and are glad that our little TV works, glad to be home, glad to be somewhat invisible. I missed the 4 AM news recap but am just in time for Sports. Baseball season again. I'm washing the sinkful of dishes my teenagers left, and I turn off the water just in time to hear the announcer yell out: 'SAFE!'