It was afternoon in February not too cold but cold nevertheless, and I was out of work early feeling extra happy for some strange reason -- probably because the sun had sliced through the clouds and was gently toasting my hair. It was actually a rather pleasant day here in Manhattan, one of those days when the skyscrapers resemble trees in my perspective and all the street sounds kind of drown out into a gentle orchestra. In fact, as I walked east on 34th Street toward the N train I almost forgot there was injustice in the world.
I was walking tall that day. My troubles were locked miles away in some cubicle downtown. It was one of those moments when you have forgotten about troubles. I was reading old James Joyce short stories and as I walked by the enormous Macys I imagined it like a bazaar. It was rather comical to me and the sounds of people bargaining were filling my ears. I began to think how this day would seem to people a hundred years from now. I began to feel how slow time really is. And in my mind I saw the hands of an enormous clock and like a horizon in the desert it just sat opaque and purple, dull and enormous, crawling in the sky behind a series of oasis and hallucinations. Time was the only constant; it seemed to me and no matter how things changed the basics stayed the same. It was a simple equation, rich + poor = class system. It dawned on me that even without currency there is class -- you know, like old Darwin discovered for us, and there is me and you against them and they see it the same way just opposite.
I wondered if everyone was as happy with it as I was. Class defines my person I thought. I have it tough, I thought, but if I didnt I wouldnt be me.
And as I walked and stared at the store windows, at the clever window decorations that made no sense and cost more than my apartment, I laughed. I looked at people as they rushed past me bumping my shoulders. Little black girls bumping my bony shoulders in pink puffy winter coats so big their arms wouldn't fall to their sides but dangled out in space defying gravity. There I see half crooked old men with gray stubbled beards and black trench coats in brown wool hats chewing their gums and talking to themselves. Behind them tall, skinny, ostrich looking women with their cheeks held in, as if they were trying to filter out the common air, walk impatiently waving their arms and talking on phones in a rush to some place that will be there no matter how long it takes to get there.
And there I was walking east and my pace was considerably slower than most. A country boy in the big city, or so I say to myself. And while I walk I am singing something to myself and it is hard to decipher if they are my lyrics or if they are someone elses but they feel like mine and they feel good. So I am walking and singing and the day is fantastic and as I begin to descend to the subterranean subway New York and those grimy tunnels crisp and cold enough to make the nose run, they are calling to me. A bum asks me for some change, I dig in my pocket through cash and keys and find him some quarters. He looks up at me from his rag seat makeshift box home and says, "Thank you very much sir, God Bless You!"
Now this isnt much of a story, but I think of time and class and the way that I might have it better than others and worse than others. It drives me crazy and I wonder who has it the worst and maybe it was what I saw next and maybe not, but I cannot imagine much worse than what I am about explain. My eyes had felt like explorers of new worlds before that moment and afterwards they felt like canteens full of tears just bursting.
Now New York has been known for its public displays of art, specifically statues. Now as I rolled my eyes away from the grateful bum, the one with the missing bottom teeth and the loud and prideless voice that in its self sounded like a sad piece of music. As my eyes peered down at first I didnt want to believe what I saw, as if it were a statue of a National Geographic picture. A second glance after the initial disbelief and I began to comprehend what my eyes couldnt help but stare at.
There at the bottom of the stairs was a black woman, an adult, with no top, large molasses breasts drooping and dripping to her knees, which were pulled up to them. I stopped for a moment, right there in the middle of the stairs, in the middle of rush hour and stared, my glance surveying the top to bottoms. The whites of her eyes yellow and melancholy, the way I always feel when I think of Charlie Parker, the way I feel after watching a movie about another artist dying from heroin. And there she squatted with no pants either, like an aborigine in the brush, stark naked at rush hour right beside the toll collectors booth, peeing. A stream of urine that was following the cracks and slopes toward the turnstiles that she undoubtedly couldnt enter. Only yards from the Burger King where she was undoubtedly turned away from and now naked like the day she was born was trying to defecate in front of thousands of people. Oh the sadness, like a blanket of shame across us all.
And with a nudge, from an angry women in a business suit and tennis shoes, I was pushed down the stairs, past the Christian lady with the acoustic guitar singing for money for her Jesus. All dolled up and pretty watching everyone but the poor lady shitting in public. But my eyes and head are turned behind me and I watch the women from behind, atrocious and raw, her skin ashy and white, her ass wide and the skin peeling back and crawling through my eyes. She looking over her shoulder at me staring as if I should know some other etiquette.
I am crying right now, as I think about it, I am, and I couldnt stop watching her, memorizing her features, wishing my painter friend Jon were with me, wishing I could plug him into my mind so he could paint my image. Shes there, just squatting like a drunken girl in a crowded party. Like a woman in the woods, like a woman who doesnt care. And I recall it being one of those things, one of those things that had nothing to do with any emotion I had ever felt before, just something primal, something I wished would go away but it had become an instinct to watch. And the fat from her sides poured over her hipbones and she didnt wobble or move from her position. I watched as I moved through the turnstile, speechless, looking at her through the black gates of the subway, and then I placed my head down, chin to chest and walked down the stairs to the N train. There I ran instinctively into the train that was closing its doors.
As I rolled back to my apartment in the quiet air-conditioned car I felt the circuits of time floating around us and I wondered if the lady was crazy. My father would tell me that 20 years ago New York State closed down the mental hospitals, that the homeless were a result, that New York needs to get them off the street. He does well for himself and he is always quick to give a bum some money to sleep on the Bowery. I like him when he does that.
But I disagree; New York is only part to blame. I think it is our fault somewhat, but I wonder why I didnt or why someone else didnt walk over to that woman and help her out.
It makes you feel good to know there is class in the world; it gives you a way to measure how low you can go until you are at the bottom. After all in America it is all about competition isnt it. I bet that bum on the stairs felt a bit better about himself knowing he wasnt as low as the lady at the bottom of the stairs. I hear people tell me that such in such is better than such in such or that he makes a better living and I see no mental image when they speak. I see sadness; I see a world of people trying to prove something to no one. I never wanted to be on top, never wanted to show off my expensive cars, I just wanted to be happy, happiness isnt something you can compare.
And there in my mind I have an image of the bottom and I dont want any part of being on the bottom, not from the first hand, but I wish someone could tell me a creative way to dissolve the bottom.
But there in New York City as people scamper to look rich and live in concrete closets for $2,000 per month I wander through words and dreams of trips through an impoverished prideful America, one that works to survive and to dream, not one that tries to fulfill each and every dream. I walked to my apartment and escaped into my books and into the past, into an effort toward an improbable solution, a solution I call hope, or something I call a belief in truth, a belief in the rewards of inspiration. It doesnt take money to be a hope or a dream.
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