The Commute

February 15, 2009

               Boxers or briefs? Boxers or briefs? I weigh each option in my hands; the first decision of the day. I make my choice-briefs- and try to dress as quickly as possible. I’m running late. I don’t know how, but I am. I’m sure I set my alarm last night. I’m positive I did. Maybe lightening hit it and shorted a circuit. I’ll check on that when I get home.

Let’s see, if I leave now, and walk fast—normal fast, not marathon fast which would result in a stench and heavy pit stains on the light blue collar shirt I’m sporting today— I can make up for the three minutes. I can still make my regular train, the 6:02 toward Brooklyn.

Man, I hate the fucking subway. The germs, the noise, the fare hikes, the people clipping their fingernails right next to you as though it were actually a sanitary practice. And God forbid one stray clipping should hit you in the forehead or make its way inside your mouth as you yawn. You’d be the one at fault for not covering your mouth; shame on you.

 I could walk to work everyday; it would do wonders for my body. I would, however, have to leave Queens around 3:15 every morning to make it to Manhattan by nine and even if I did make it, I doubt I’d be in any state to actually work. I’d need a fucking nap to re-energize.

A car service wouldn’t be so bad; a nice, warm ride to work every morning, alone, with no one elbowing me or coughing in my face. But the cost is just too high. I’d have to return to my old part time job- male stripper at Jongo’s. Yeah, that’s right.

Biking is another alternative. It would satisfy all those “green” people out there. And who knows? It might even score me some environmentalist pussy. Those all-natural chicks would spot me lugging my bike out of the building, strapping on my reflective sticker helmet, easing onto my banana seat. I’ll ring the bell if you take your top off, ladies.

I walk briskly down the hill toward the main street. It’s still dark out. I know “they”- the ever-accurate weather people- said it would be a warm day today; however, this morning is anything but. I button the top button of my jacket. I can always take it off and wrap it around my waist if it gets warm later on.

I dodge those walking in front of me, obstructing my way. Bob to the left and weave on the right; side shuffle past the old woman passing out Jesus flyers and hurry around the group of school kids debating who has better tits- Kardashian or Simpson.

 I have to make this train. What else can I do? Jump on the tracks and hoof it to work? Battling giant fucking rats? No. I’ll wait, but it’ll throw my whole day off. I’ll be late getting into work, late starting my work, late to lunch and ultimately late to leave. It’s all downhill if I don’t make this train. All day long I’ll have to say “I missed my train this morning” when something goes wrong. Break the copy machine… again? “Sorry, missed my train this morning.” Knock over a cubicle divider while trying to break my record for number of chair spins in a minute? “Huff, I missed my train this morning.” Staple Amanda’s thumb to the “Work Together!” board? “It’s because I missed my train this morning!” No. Not me, not today. I will make this train. Mind over matter, left in front of right.

I finally make it to the station and just as I’m walking up the steps, I hear it approach. The signal goes off, “BEEP BEEP BEEP.” It warns the people on the platform to step back; the people sitting on the benches to step forward; and the people almost there to move their asses. I’m a member of the latter group. That high-pitched signal can be the beginning of a great day or a shitty one. I burst into an all-out run up the stairway that leads to the platform. Usually I don’t do this, to avoid looking stupid if I miss the train, but today is different. I still have a flight of steps and a few footsteps between me and the train doors. I swipe my card. “GO” appears on the tiny screen. Thank God.

My all-time record for Metrocard swiping is eight times. The day I broke my record, I stood there, at the rejecting turnstile, and swiped my card over and over again until it deemed me adequate to pass. I could hear the sucking teeth of the people behind me, but this was a record I was breaking. I’m sure they understood the situation.

I use my hand to push the metal bar of the turnstile as I walk through. I wonder how many people have touched this same bar today, yesterday, and years before me. I wonder how many people will touch it years after me. I wonder how many people picked their noses, scratched their asses or fingered their ear wax before touching this same exact bar. I repulse myself with the thought of how dirty the bar must be. Next time I’ll just push it with my leg. I try not to swallow in an effort to hold back my vomit. Dateline should do a special on this. I saw the expose’ they did with public telephones. They found fecal matter on random phones in New York City. Fecal matter, shit. They found shit on the fucking phones. What the hell are New Yorkers doing- talking out of their asses? Ha. That’s not half bad, pretty funny! That’s the reason I hold the phone far from my face. Sure it’s hard to hear, but I make sacrifices. Maybe Dateline already had a special on the bacteria that lies on MTA turnstiles. I’ll Google it when I get home. I make a mental note to shake Manager Matt’s hand but not to touch my face until I get the chance to wash my hands.

 I take the stairs two at a time and reach the train doors just as they’re closing. I stick my hand through to stop them from closing. Luckily, the train operator sees me and opens the doors for me to step through.

 I used to think the doors were motion-operated, but they’re not. The doors are operator-controlled. I once saw a woman stick a baby carriage with a baby in it in the door of the train. The doors closed and the carriage became wedged in. The doors, despite the woman’s screams, the baby’s cries and my laughter, did not open. She was forced to yank the kid and carriage from between the door and wait for the next train. All the while, a voice over the loudspeaker robotically repeated, “Please release the train door.” Fucked-up, right? Funny-yes, but fucked-up too.

Since I wasn’t standing at my usual spot on the platform I am unable to sit on the first seat to my right, where I usually sit. Instead, I am forced to find a seat while the train is moving, which I hate to do. You can never plant your ass in the right spot when the train is in motion. You always end up halfway on top of a person when choosing a seat this way. There are a few seats available as it is only the second stop. I find a spot between two women. Now, unlike others who would choose this seat based solely on its proximity to women, I, on the other hand, choose it because it is closest to my usual exit door, which shaves precious seconds off my travel time.

The woman to my right is a blond, but obviously not a natural one. Her roots are showing in her sideburns, which are unusually bushy. The sweat-beads building up under this woman’s second chin gently slide down her three chin hairs. She wears a white-collar shirt and khaki-colored slacks- probably heading off to work as well. Her foot fat is pushing over the top of her heels, like a muffin bursting out of its pan, and there is a run in the slimming stockings she wears to hide her two spare tires. She smells faintly of perfume that alone would smell good if it wasn’t mixed with the Dunkin’ Donuts coffee she holds in her hand.

The woman on my left is quite the opposite from Large Marge. She has dark brown hair and eyebrows trimmed into high arches. The New York Times is neatly folded in her lap so the masthead shows. She stares straight ahead. Why isn’t she reading it? Maybe I should ask her if I could read it. I mean, she’s obviously not using it. Her hands are folded across her chest and she blinks once every three seconds, like clockwork. Maybe it’s an image thing- looking smart holding The New York Times. You’d be smarter if you actually read it, I try to express in my glare.

 As she feels me looking, she brings her arms closer to her chest. She probably thinks I am going to hit on her but that’s the last thing I would do, especially here, on the subway. To hit on a woman on the subway seems so slimy, so stalker-like. I’m slimy, yes, but no stalker. I mean, to where can these women escape? It’s illegal now to walk through train cars and if they wanted to change cars, they would have to exit the train but then they run the risk of being shut out altogether. They would have to give up their seat on a crowded train if they wanted to move further down the car and would then have to stand for the duration of their trip. No. Hitting on women who have no possibility of escape is just wrong. Plus, everyone would hear if I got rejected.

My stop arrives and I wait until everyone exits even though I’m pressed for time. I end up being the last to leave the train. I can’t stand to be casually touched. I’ll do it occasionally- shake a hand or two, give my Aunt a hug once in a while, slap a high five at a game, but in a subway it’s obviously inevitable that you’ll be pushed, brushed, nudged, pinched, squeezed, cupped and jostled by those around you. This is what I try to avoid it at all costs. It’s unsettling to think that another person, one to whom I have absolutely no relation, has touched me. I take extra precautions to avoid contact. I move away more space than is necessary. I constantly switch sides of the platform when walking; and I always carry a bag to create a buffer zone when I sit. It’s a matter of personal space.

I run down the stairs, careful not to touch the handrails. I find my spot on the platform and wait for the L train. The L comes equipped with a mechanical PA system. Instead of the muffled voices that are standard on the older subway cars, I am met with a clear and precise male or female voice calling out the stops and announcing that the doors are closing. I’ve become close to these voices. When I doze off, I hear them in my head. I hear the voices when I go to bed at night as well.

I take a seat and prepare for the ride. This is the longer ride of the journey. There are still several vacant seats left. In the two-seater across from me is a woman whom I see every day, but neither of us acknowledges that fact with a greeting. Her light brown hair is cut close to her head. Her clothing is usually loose fitting and it’s hard to tell what department she’s been shopping in- men’s or women’s. She always boards with a book to read. The brown book bag she carries every day rests on her lap. Her book is drawn close to her face. I can’t read the title; she’s folded the book so she can hold it with one hand. Extraordinarily thin and possessing a mousy face, I’ve given her the name Eileen. She looks like an Eileen. She looks as if she speaks like her name is Eileen, very nasal and high-pitched.

Midway through my ride, a teenage girl boards the train. She’s popping her gum. Great. The large gold hoop earrings her ears barely hold are the size of a bracelet. It’s a wonder her ears can sustain the weight. Her book bag sags on her back; probably empty. She taps her sneakers to the song on her iPod; a song that is loud, unreasonably loud. I feel badly for her ears again. She leans against the subway door with one foot flush against it and the other tapping on beat. There are available seats all around her so it makes me nervous that she doesn’t sit. Why is she standing right next to me? Right above me? Why would she lean on the door when the sign clearly states do not lean on the door? When she falls out when the doors accidentally open then she’ll sue the MTA, right?

 I can never fall right to sleep on the train. It takes me a while, but once I’m comfortable I begin to doze. I never go into a deep sleep though; more a half-sleep. I wake every stop to ensure I don’t miss mine. I wrap the strap of my messenger bag around my arm and lodge one fist under my chin. I don’t try to do the whole head- balancing thing like some people do. If I did, I’d look just as absurd as they, the Head-Bobbers, do. You know- the people who fight sleep on the train, who will themselves awake by keeping their head level and straight. They want to play it off as though they aren’t sleeping. What eventually happens is the head begins to fall forward and is jerked upright, creating a bobbing effect. However much I love watching Head-Bobbers, I’d hate to be one. It’s humiliating. Especially when you bob so far forward it wakes you. You know what just happened and so does everyone around you, but nobody says a word. They just laugh to themselves.

Just as I am about to doze off I hear a gruff, raspy voice. “Hello everyone, my name is Homeless Ned. You can call me Ned or you can call me Homeless. I am sorry to disturb you, but I need help. I’m looking to eat a hot meal today. Anything you can help me with is much appreciated. Can anyone help me this morning?” A man in tattered, dusty layers of clothing shuffles down the subway car. He wears an aviator cap over his bushy hair and a large, flowing cape that sways around his broad shoulders with each of his steps. His shoes look three sizes too big and, as a result, he drags them instead of picking his feet up. His salt-and-pepper beard covers the entire lower part of his face and continues down his neck. He carries a large plastic cup from Burger King and shakes it rhythmically to get attention; the coins inside jingle-jangle. As he nears me, I panic.

What if he touches me? What if his cape brushes my leg? Yeah, it’s an awesome cape. I mean, I don’t have a cape. But still. What if he smells’ It was just my luck that I happened to sit right next to the door to the other car, the exact door which Ned will go through to begin his speech all over again to another group of passengers.

I never donate to the “homeless” because I can never tell if they are sincerely homeless or begging to feed their addictions. If I can pull off the homeless look, especially on laundry days, then anyone can do it. On Dateline, they ran a special about undercover cops who pose as the homeless. What if this is an employed cop with a fat bank account keeping the donations for himself’ I’d be the jerk off who just gave him a single to spend at the strip club. Can’t fool me, Piggy. Tough luck, “Ned”- if that’s even your real name.

God, I wish I had a book or a newspaper, something. Eileen has the perfect cover. Subway bums never bother people who are reading, especially the ones who look thoroughly engrossed. He’s only steps away now. I find a point to focus on so Ned and I don’t make eye contact. If we don’t make direct eye contact, I won’t have to contribute to his fund and Ned will assume I didn’t hear his plea for help and he won’t be offended. We both win.

I tilt my head down and act as if my bag is the most interesting thing in the world. While I’m fiddling with the zipper, Ned, still shaking his cup, stops right in front of me.

“Any help? Any help at all.”

Nope. Not from me. Sorry, pal. I can’t risk taking out my wallet to give this guy a couple of nickels. What if I touch his hand as I throw the change into his cup? What if he grabs my wallet and runs? What if the condom I’ve had in there since I was sixteen falls out?  I’ll need that someday. No. I can’t. It’s too risky.

When I don’t reply, Ned moves on. He opens the sliding door that connects the subway cars with his right hand. In his left, he holds his cup- his wages for the day. As he steps onto the small platform, however, the train takes a sharp turn and, in combination with the wind from the tunnel, some of Ned’s money, a one-dollar bill- flies out of his cup and lands next to my left shoe. Shit. Ned keeps walking. He doesn’t notice. But Eileen does. She glares at me with those beady eyes of black.

“You have to give it back, you know. It’s not yours to keep,” her eyes seem to say. No shit, Eileen. “Go back to reading your fucking book” is the sentiment I try to project with my eyes. Ned continues to walk through the next car, still unaware of the missing bill. I pull the sleeve of my jacket past my hand. I bend down and pick the bill up with the material. I wonder how many germs this small slip of paper holds. I contain my gag reflex.

Since I can’t walk through to the other car- rules, my friend, rules- I wait for the next stop. I stand up and peak through the window. Ned’s moving systematically through the car in front of us. When the train stops, he exits.

This one dollar bill, which means nothing to me, is Ned’s salary for the day. What kind of person would I be if I left it on the train for another person to take? What human being would take this dollar and hit the nearest Wendy’s for a delicious hamburger on his lunch break? Or insert it into the vending machine for the Oh Henry! bar that calls his name every day? Huh? Tell me!

Contrary to the thoughts of tasty foods to which my mind wanders, I have to return it. Besides, I saw the way Eileen looked at me when I bent down to get the dollar. Although she would’ve taken it in a second, she’ll silently condemn me each and every day we ride the train together if I don’t get it back to Ned. But how would she know?  It’s not like she’s playing Samwise to my Frodo on this excursion.

Getting off this train will throw me off schedule. I will arrive late to work and my whole day will be off balance, all because a bum lost his fucking dollar. How ridiculous. As I exit the train I can’t help but think what a day this is turning out to be, and it’s only the beginning. I am appointed a mission I want nothing to do with. Rescue the princess, slay the dragon, return the dollar. Fate has dealt me a cruel hand and in it is this dollar bill.

Fuck it. I’ll do it. For Ned. If anyone asks why I’m late to work I’ll simply reply, “I missed my fucking train this morning.”

 

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Enjoy the Show

February 15, 2009

I come here often; everyday almost. I don’t know, just something I do. Most people come here everyday, I just stay a little longer than most. Although, when I sit down and actually think about the premise and the purpose of this place, it makes absolutely no sense- liquids and paper goods. They are mortal enemies to one another so how could anyone think to match them up? Genius and insanity, working together.

And yet, coffee and reading material are pushed together constantly with bookstores and big chain coffee shops joining forces. It used to be unthinkable to bring a drink into a bookstore and now, they have multiple doors of connection with the over- priced, over-rated, over-franchised, big-name coffee creation centers. What it boils down to, I guess, is making money. If you spill a mocha latte on your newspaper, it’s all the better for business. You have to buy another coffee and paper. If you bring your liquid energy into the bookshop and spill it, you are immediately forced into the “you break it, you buy it” contract wherein you are forced to purchase what you have just ruined.

But I digress.

I, like most people, buy into it. Once a week I purchase a book and spend the week reading it, or at least trying to read it, in this, the adjoining coffee shop. This is where all the action happens. All of my entertainment is garnered right here. In between sipping and page turning, I observe. Luckily, it looks as though I’m just in time. Mister just walked in and I’m sure Miss is not far behind.  

I’ve got them pegged already. Both working jobs nowhere remotely close to what they studied in college and hating every minute of it. They must have bonded over that fact, dated for a while and moved in together. While neither one is willing to admit the jump as their idea, it backfired. They broke up and here we I am, about to enjoy the show.

Glassy-eyed, Mister turns the paper over in his hands. Moments ago he removed it from his scratched brown leather wallet. Dingy white and folded so many times that it naturally collapses into it’s creases; the letter is just a few words, no p.s., nothing on the back. He sticks his pinkie into each of the three holes although he knows it’s too big to fit through. A sheet of loose leaf paper stuffed in a business envelope. She didn’t even lick the sticky part shut. She must have left it on her side of the bed that night; couldn’t wait for morning; afraid to give it to him when his eyes were open. He leans back in the chair most likely thinking of that night. Putting his index finger to his forehead, he rubs where he thinks he feels the raised letters. He is sure “DUMPED” was forced into his forehead. And “LOSER” isn’t that far behind.

He must have called her. He left a message when she didn’t answer.

Yeah, that sounds right.

 She probably saw it was him calling and let it go to voicemail. He probably called/harassed her for months after they broke up. He said they needed to talk, that they could meet somewhere. The coffee shop had to be his idea. Thought it would set “the mood.” It would bring their story full circle; make it the perfect story to tell people when they asked how they met. He would tell them they met at a coffee shop and, after taking a few months to “find themselves,” it was the same coffee shop where they reconciled; where she said “yes.” That cinematic story would for sure garner dozens of breathy, drawn-out “awwws” when recited at cocktail parties and weddings.

 Lifting his chin and straining to see past a girl in the unusually large sunglasses, he spots her in the parking lot. He furrows his brows- she must have gained weight since the last time he saw her.

Walking through the entrance, she brushes her hand across her face, dragging her bangs out of her eyes. Her short brown hair is pinned back on the right side with a tiny flower pin. Her large handbag is slung over her left shoulder and her flat, brown cowboy boots slap the tiled floor. All she needs is a trusty stead and some black leather chaps. She stands near the entrance looking for him. Standing on her toes, squinting, she spots him and nods in acknowledgment. The beads on her earrings sway slightly with her movement.

“Hey,” how original, he says when she is close enough to hear. She grabs the sides of her flowing green dress, pulls them taut and sits.

“Hi,” she responds as she pulls her massive bag off. “I’m just gonna get something to drink. I’ll be right back.”

“Oh, well I, I actually ordered for you already.” He says as he holds up one of the two cups on the table. He raises a shaking hand and runs it through his hair. “It’s a little cold but I’m sure they can warm it up for you, if you ask. They should do it.” Well of course they’ll do it. That’s their fucking job, isn’t it?

“What is it?” she inquires, pursing her lips and staring at the cup. It’s a pony. What do you think it is?

“It’s a double expresso. It’s what you always get, isn’t it? No sugar, no cream. Do you have a new favorite now? Would you like something else? Because I can…”

“Oh, no. No.  Thank you. It’s just. Well, I’ve stopped drinking coffee. Yeah! I know- me, of all people! It’s just,” her hand brushes against her stomach. She must be hungry. “Well it’s not good for your health, really. So I don’t drink it anymore. Don’t worry, I’ll get something. Be right back.”

She heads toward the counter before he has time to respond. She takes her place at the back of the line. Ahead of her is a young girl. The girl’s shoulder bag is so weighted she has to stand tilted to keep her equilibrium. They have something in common- big-ass bags filled with shit you’d only need if you were stranded in the middle of nowhere- rations for a week, a gallon of water and several granola bars. In back of the young one is a slightly older male on a cell phone. The buttons on his suit jacket catch the light and create tiny circles on the wall. The circles move when he moves. With a black briefcase in one hand and cell phone- probably speaking to his broker or mistress- in the other, it begs the question of how he’ll hold his coffee. She is third in line. She tilts her head back and begins to read the menu. She’ll be one of those “Umm, give me a minute,” hold-up-the-rest-of-the-line, last-minute decision kind of customers.

While she’s ordering, he waits. Great, he’s probably thinking to himself, I try to do something nice and she doesn’t care. Doesn’t drink coffee anymore? Who is this girl? And what am I supposed to do with two drinks? He pushes the double expresso to the edge of the table, out of their way.

  This can’t be the way he pictured it happening. He would buy her coffee; she would be so grateful that she would automatically say “yes” to whatever he asked- no hesitation, total subordination. His leg bounces up and down in a fast rhythmic motion. His hand drifts to the square bulge in his left pants pocket. He taps it, his sweaty palms leave residue on his pants. He then props his hand underneath his chin.

“So…” she says, placing her drink on the table, “how have you been?” Idle chatter, what I live for. She slowly takes her seat, crosses her legs, right over left, and smoothes the front of her dress.

“Good, good. And you? How’s everything going?” His leg stops bouncing when he speaks, but starts right back up again when he’s finished. “How’s your job? Anything new there?” Oh yeah. You know. I became president, I own the whole company, and everyone is subject to my will. Of course nothing’s new. Her job probably sucks.

“It’s fine, you know. Nothing new really.” Told ‘ya. She takes a sip of her drink. She holds the bottom of the cup as she slowly sips. Her eyes are slightly closed as she swallows. She notices him staring at her. “What?”

            Startled, he begins to stammer. “Oh. No, nothing. It’s, it’s nothing. I was just thinking. Uh. I’m. Sorry.” He illustrates each word with a hand movement; shaking of the hands, the palms-up move, the wave-off. Each word is exacted and emphasized with one hand gesture or another, each (finger-point) and (finger-point) every (finger-point) word (finger-point).

            All around them are people. It’s a weekday, late morning- why aren’t these fucking people at work? They are standing in line, squeezed on couches, balanced on chairs and milling around anxiously awaiting the availability of a seat. No, I’m not leaving. Some on their super-light, super-chic computers, others busy having one-sided conversations into cell phones. They’re forced to talk over the incessant babble while I’m forced to strain to hear them talk over the incessant babble.

            “Well,” he says, straightening up in his chair. “I asked you here for a reason, of course.”

Leaning back, she uncrosses her legs; no I didn’t get a peek, and then re-crosses them, this time, left over right.

            “I’ve been thinking. The apartment is quiet and it’s, it’s…I didn’t mean for all of this to go as far as it did. I should have stopped when I had the chance but I couldn’t. I loved the thrill of it.” The thrill? What was he doing? Fucking trannys in roller coasters? “I needed to do it.” Those trannys do have a certain lure about them. “But now I know. I know you want me to stop. I know what you want me to do. If this is what it takes to bring you back then I guess I have no choice but to go along with it.”        

He makes a move toward his left pocket. Oh shit, it’s a gun. He tries to get at what’s in there but it’s stuck. He stands and removes a small box. False alarm. He goes to open it. Alarmed, she grabs his arm and tries to ease him back in his seat. What kind of proposal was that? He sits down, defeated, and places the box on the table. His leg begins to shake, more rapidly than before.

“Stop. Just, don’t. Stop. Listen to me. I don’t want to marry you.” Well, damn. I know it wasn’t the best proposal but at least he tried. “I don’t want to be with you at all. That’s why I agreed to meet you, to tell you that. I like being alone, I like not being with you.” She takes a breath. Here it comes. Brace yourself. “I didn’t want to tell you…but it’s the only way I know you’ll leave me alone. You can’t even take care of yourself so I know you won’t be able to care for anyone else.” Ouch. “A few months after we broke up I went to the doctor. It’s yours. I’m sure.”

            His face drops. Mine does too. His leg immediately stops shaking and he blinks, slowly. She tries to reassure him. Yeah, good luck with that.

“But you don’t have to do anything. You don’t. I can take care of it alone. In fact, I don’t want you to do anything. I want to raise it by myself. I want to. You don’t have to visit or pay money or anything. Actually, I think it would be better if you didn’t. I don’t want to get married; I don’t want to get back together. I never wanted you to propose I just wanted you to stop what you were doing.” What was he doing? “And since you couldn’t do that, I left. I know you don’t want anything to do with a kid, so maybe you’ll finally leave me alone.”

She grabs her gigantic bag, forcefully pushes her chair away from the table and rises. She’s gonna hit him, I know it. Somehow, her stomach is more visible than before. I though she was just heavy in the middle. Without another word she exits the coffee shop. She didn’t even give him a chance to retaliate. Typical female-says what she wants to say and then runs away.      

Alone now, he slides his hand to the bulge near his right pants pocket. Didn’t he put the ring on the table? He rubs it and takes a deep breath. Come on man, you’re in a public place. Go to the bathroom or something. Shit.

 I grab my coffee, afraid he might let one go, and my book and switch tables. Another show is starting soon and I want a front row seat.

 

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February 15, 2009

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