E.B. White owns the New York City essay the way Judy Garland owns “Over the Rainbow.” Daunted but undeterred, I offer my version of the subject.
Near the subway turnstiles, a uniformed employee of the Metropolitan Transit Authority sits behind Post-Office-thick, cloudy, graffiti-etched glass in MTA Booth R166. Thirteen MTA rules are posted on a wall nearby. They include “No lying down.” That seems harsh to me. In the waiting area, the benches are designed with raised seat separators so that “lying down” — if it can be called that — looks dreadfully uncomfortable. And inside the cars, the long rows of plastic seats have ridges at intervals the width of a small butt (of which the city has far too few). If someone is so sleepy or ill that they would lie down in either place, maybe they should be allowed to.
Another rule forbids entering the tracks. That one seems unnecessary. Violating it carries about the same lethal risk as an injection of ricin, and everyone knows it. Anyway, purposely jumping down into that electrified filth to pick up something or to cross the tracks would probably be a positive contribution to human evolution.
Booth R166 measures about 6 x 6 feet. One talks to the attendant — tries to — through a sort of speakeasy hole in the thick glass. Even when no train is passing, it’s difficult to hear much of what the attendant says. When trains are passing, communication depends entirely on lip reading, a tactic made more challenging by the person outside the booth speaking Tolaki or Dzongkha or some other rarely encountered tongue and the person inside, a variety of English known only to her immediate family and a handful of neighbors. So the attendant spends a good deal of the day shouting. Perhaps an audition is required for appointment to the position. It should be. I wonder if there has yet been a worker’s comp claim for vocal strain.
I’m an outgoing person. I made friends right off with Pierre, the illegal immigrant from West Africa who sells newspapers by the subway entrance. But I’ve never had the least contact with the person inside Metropolitan Transit Authority Booth R166. A nod or a wave may have emanated from there on some occasion. There have been numerous opportunities; I pass by almost every day but Saturday. I doubt it, though. But it’s possible I just didn’t see it through the murky glass.
I think if it was possible to hear the human voice in that clamor and the agent could speak English passably and could find a person who understands it, he or she would be glad of a chance to talk with someone. Even me. An hour or so into the shift, the giddy thrill of wearing the uniform probably wears off, and the confinement and boredom must push that poor person to the edge of insanity. So far as I can tell, the job consists of little other than yelling into the speak-easy hole and selling a new pass or refilling an old one now and then, an act accomplished increasingly more often by a machine at the top of the stairs.
I wonder how life in the cube compares to being punished in the Scientology “hole.” Since Scientology is more secretive than the Cosa Nostra (and no less scary), it’s impossible to know. Personally, I’d rather work the graveyard shift in one of the city’s all-night car washes. If you’ve ever used one at 2:00 in the morning in winter with wind howling through the concrete canyons and funneling into the car-wash entrance, you’ll appreciate what a strong statement that is.
Life is predictable on the packed No.1 subway at 7:30 in the morning. Every car has a few sleepers — people with one too many jobs or a colicky baby or a hangover. For them, to sit is to nod off. And there are zombies who take their inner selves to another place courtesy of iPod. Bored-looking young people play mindless games on smartphones or other dehumanizing gadgets. Worn-out, almost used-up minority women clutch children on their laps and against their sides. Women, not so burdened, apply mascara and eye liner. I’m grateful that they don’t perform acts that cry out even louder for privacy, since they are clearly unaware that they are not in their own bathrooms. School kids in uniforms go after their homework diligently but with little discernible anxiety. I get the impression that the subway is where they always do their homework. I suppose some of them have long commutes. A handful of men in suits carry briefcases and read folded Wall Street Journals. I imagine them aching to be so successful one day that they will ride to work in one of those black Lincolns.
Hardly anyone talks. I sometimes make my whole five-stop journey without hearing anyone say anything, and that’s good. That’s how the first couple of hours after waking up are supposed to be.
I get off at Fiftieth St. and Broadway and walk the few blocks to St. Thomas Church.
Along the way, the cook fires are hard at it frying animal parts. The air is thick with the smell of bacon, sausage, and ham, with a filigree of toast and coffee. I wonder how many hogs have to die to feed one day’s breakfast to, say, zip code 10019, which extends from the Hudson River to Fifth Avenue and from Forty-ninth to Fifty-ninth. How much cleaner would America’s water be without the factory farms that supply all that pork? Probably a lot. How much less costly would the national medical bill for obesity and atherosclerosis be without such habits? Probably a lot.
On the long block of Fifty-second between Seventh and Sixth Avenues, the frying smell gives way to diesel fumes and an impressive show of truck-driving artistry. Some day I’m going early and admire it at length.
The office tower along the south side of the street has several loading bays that look like cave entrances. Uniformed handlers with flags stop pedestrians and wave box trucks as large as 26 feet in length into these pods. Backup alarms fill the air. With no hesitation and seldom the need for a second try, drivers peer into side mirrors and wheel the trucks in as if they were cruising in sports cars — a clearance of only a few inches on each side. They stop just shy of the dock, and release the air brakes, making the great swooshing sound that is the signature expression of big trucks settling down for a rest like mammoth, phantasmagoric animals.
Other trucks are backed into minimal spaces and park parallel along the curb. It would be impressive in any circumstances, but especially so in New York, a city in which drivers of ordinary passenger cars are remarkably unable to do this. Ann and I have thought of opening a post-grad driving school in which we teach the maneuver. The final exam would consist of getting into a space in no more than two attempts and without the aid of another person standing behind the car waving arms and hopping back and forth and shouting “now turn!”.
A relatively new building at the Sixth Avenue end of the block is surrounded by outsized sidewalks with benches, raised flower beds, and a couple of 20-foot-tall sculptures. Janitors scrape up chewing gum blots and apply detergent with stiff brushes and spray it all down with high pressure hoses, deftly avoiding pedestrians. I find it all too new and sanitary and well-planned. It’s unnatural. Authentic urban space should be at least a little worn and unkempt and shaped by hard use – a look the northwest corner of 52nd and Sixth Avenue may not realize before in the guise of progress it is torn down and a newer, cleaner structure erected in its place.
A human feel returns on the Sixth Avenue approach to the Hilton on Fifty-third Street. There a taxi queue stretches for two blocks. It inches forward slowly, picking up a seemingly endless succession of hotel guests. In fact, the picking up lasts only a couple of hours, a result, I guess, of hotel guests’ preference for morning flights.
Occasionally, a driver waves the line past and gets out to buy coffee at the little shop on wheels that’s on the corner. It’s even smaller than MTA Booth R166. Much more hospitable, though. Cabbies have to work long hours to make a living, so they need the coffee. Still, to me it seems a bad idea, given how few public toilets there are in the city. It’s a point well made now and then, when a driver in the line opens his door and pours into the gutter a substance that looks suspiciously like urine, the paper coffee cup having served nicely both full and empty.
Across from the Museum of Modern Art, “The Baccarat,” a building very wide and many stories tall, is under construction. The activity dominates life along the block, threatening for the moment — perhaps for years to come — to suck the life out of one of the world’s great museums. Traffic is restricted to one lane to accommodate cranes and the constant delivery of concrete by shiny, overgrown Tonka toys, quivering and crying out under the strain of their loads. Men in hard hats stand smoking near the MOMA entrance, waiting for their shift to start.
A large sign identifies “The Baccarat” as “Hotel and Residences. New York.” The “New York” part seems superfluous to me. Don’t people who read the sign know what city they’re in? More superfluous information follows. The building under construction is to be a “limited collection of exclusive residences.” Limited? The collection couldn’t be unlimited could it? And with a name like “The Baccarat,” “exclusive” would not seem to need pointing out. If it did, the prices on the project’s website – $10 million for three bedrooms — make the “exclusive” part as clear as Baccarat crystal.
The sign-off line promises that the building is also going to be part “inspiring hotel.” It’s possible, I guess. I imagine the opulent grandeur of L’Hermitage (the one in Russia, not any of the boutiques, restaurants, or other commercial enterprises by that name) may have inspired in part the Bolshevik revolution. From the looks of the website, The Baccarat is no Hermitage, of course. It’s far too nouveau riche for that. But like L’Hermitage, it does inspire reflection on how wealth is distributed.
Having swum upstream like a mating salmon through a current of turbulent urban life, I arrive finally at my destination, St. Thomas Church. The big ceremonial door closes behind me, and except for the occasional siren and the muffled rattling of the subway, secular New York, everyday-business New York remains outside.
At Christmas and Easter, some 1200 people crowd into the church. On weekdays, six to ten gather in a side chapel for Morning Prayer and Holy Communion. Unlike the country-club whiteness of much of the Episcopal Church in America, this group is diverse. An Indian-American, a Jamaican-American, one or two African-Americans, a couple of Hispanics, and two or three Caucasians implore the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, confess our sins, welcome absolution and reconciliation, read and mark holy scripture, attend to a three-minute homily that is by God’s grace almost always more instructive than exhortational, pray for the whole state of Christ’s church and the world, and receive the central mystery of the church, the body and blood of Christ — all as if ethnic and class divisions were not of central importance in American life.
Afterward, I sweat and puff through an hour or so of exercise at my gym.
Around 10:30, I sit down at my desk, renewed and ready to face a day of writing and quotidian chores. The Fresh Direct operation on the street below continues unchanged.