I used to drive to work to Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans every morning at 7 a.m. I'd always speed past a billboard that read "Thou Shall Not Kill" in 7-foot-high white letters against a black background. Of course, the statement was quite literal down there. The reminder placed in any other city would be a general call for commuters to keep it together. Keep it together we must.
I'm in my sixth commuting pattern since I moved to New York nearly four years ago. This variation is particularly horrifying. It has given me pause to consider just what role commuting plays in my general happiness.
In every variation to date, I set out from my modest apartment into some area of the city. I consider this a penetrative act.
One commute, summer '98 I believe, took me through the morning crowds of the Chinatown fish markets on Canal St. I'd emerge from the J/M/Z station at Canal St. and Centre, often accompanied by my friend, who, much in the style of the time, struggled with a very upsetting dependency on heroin. Our destination of W. Broadway and Canal lay several blocks away, at the other end of a sea of people, whose native language resembled, to my morning ears, abbreviated yelps from stolen infants. We would struggle through the crowds, the stench of fish and the slippery sidewalks into a Chinese bakery for a particular sweet roll and heavily creamed coffee. The staff was abusive. The crowd was nearly impenetrable. It was in that Chinese bakery, surrounded by the citizenry, pulling wadded bills from my jeans, that the horror of commuting revealed itself in the quiet notion that, hey, I may not be all that special.
Apparently I'm not. I continued to commute. I found myself walking underground between the 6th Ave. L stop and the 7th Ave. 1/9. There'd be hundreds of us walking toward and away from one another. Often my body coursed with hangover. For weeks, I wore a camouflage NASCAR baseball cap pulled over my eyes. I felt it complemented my personal "darkness"?I used that word freely back then, as if it meant something. I began to racialize. Inadvertently, I'd kick other passengers' shoes or yawn in their face. Fights would nearly break out. It seemed to rain perpetually. When I would finally surface, it was to the screaming insanity of Varick St. a few blocks north of the Holland Tunnel. I never saw hatred so concentrated. I never felt so defiantly insignificant.
The sun came. I no longer commuted, unless you consider the walk to the local cafe a commute. I'd walk there sometime after 10 in a bright orange Carhartt hoody and my ugly white leather sandals. I didn't shave because I didn't work. As I walked through the quiet streets of my modest community, I'd watch the artists on their bikes or lingering on the corners. I wondered just what the hell these people could be doing. Did they work? Of course they didn't. Where'd the money come from? I couldn't figure it out. I'd sit in the local cafe, reading Flaubert, sipping my double espresso effeminately. It was spring. The sun still surprised us. I drifted around like a patient, my little heart fluttering like a bird. In a rather charming way, I found my purpose moving so purposelessly. Movement exercised my vanity, rather than my desperation.
Out on the broken docks with other jobless youth I found self beholding the other?the mighty city? defiantly drinking beer on a spring morning. The citizens were at work that day, but in the spring sun, on the waterfront, my patient little heart was at play. That can't last forever, as we know, and spring's showers came as my severance waned. Before I knew it I was back in it.
Each morning was a little easier now. I'd seen the light?that was one thing?but, more importantly, I came to understand the esthetics of commuting. The notion that I must introduce myself into the work day as cautiously as the zoologist introduces the ape into captivity became the operative principle. I woke early, ran several miles, always watching the skyline in the distance?reminding me of its otherness?showered, shaved and out the door. Often I'd meet a friend of mine on the platform. The train would amble over the bridge?the sun seemed to always shine. We'd discuss parts of speech, Proust, where we missed shaving that particular morning and, perhaps, that we'd meet for lunch. A stop or two later, we'd step out onto the Bowery, ignoring the men of the residential hotels and the overbearing bridge traffic, and walk down Spring St. to our little French cafe. Some people spoke French inside. I did not. I'd order a latte and eyeball the pastry invoice that was always in view. Hmmm, I'd think to myself, they only mark up the croissants 30 cents. How nice. We'd step outside and my friend would buy the Times from a blind Bangledeshi woman with the most benign, mangled face. The coffee was sweet, but the croissant was sweeter.
But the niceties of my morning commute turned quite sour again. My office moved elsewhere?Chelsea, in the absolute shit. It was fall, though there wasn't a tree around to tell you that. I only knew because life became more difficult in the hour between 8 and 9. Renewed racialism, abuse in the coffee line, interminable distances?had I not transcended all this? Apparently not. Again I joined the collective pull to the work machine. I attempted taking the F train one morning and experienced the raw alienation a child experiences when someone else's mother takes him to school. I swayed underground, my path not quite clear to me, trying to figure out how I had lost my direction, how I had lost my simple formula. A woman screamed at someone who attempted to bring a dolly onto the car. I stepped on someone's foot.
When I finally did surface my destination offered no consolation. I stopped in a Portugese cafe. Behind the counter a bitter gay gentleman took my order. I stood in line, received my abuse, and understood why, in all my travels, I had never gone to Portugal. The croissant dissolved into a sort of adhesive when I ate it at my lonely workstation.
It will continue for better and worse. The opposites will prevail upon each other, over my insignificant self?in a desperate, often not nice yet sometimes bathed in sunlight way?the way the playful heart of a patient little bird ticks up and down, one claw clutching the crust of the croissant that fell off the truck.
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