F Train © By Michael Hueston

September 30, 2012 Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, 1 of 3

I take off on the F Train at Carroll Street and write these first words as we emerge from the tunnel onto the elevated tracks.  I look out at Red Hook, Gowanus, Staten Island, New Jersey, the Upper Bay, the continent.  The sun shines.  The BQE creeps.  The Metropolitan Detention Center, a federal prison, sits in Sunset Park, and I push back thoughts of my clients incarcerated there.

I let time happen.

At Ditmas Avenue a young Jewish man leaves the train and an old Jewish man boards, both dressed in Hasidic black.  At Bay Parkway there are parking lots filled with school buses and a crowded cemetery spanning blocks.  The stops run ubiquitous and empty to me, named Avenues I, N, P.

We brake and glide into Avenue X.

The Wonder Wheel and Cyclone not far off now, and I recall swinging and climbing on the poles and handrails of an F Train years ago with Dean and Cooley headed out to Coney Island.  Doug and Julia were there too.  That summer night we rode the Cyclone three times, raced go-carts, crashed bumper cars.  And when Julia’s tube-top slipped down on the Polar Express Ride, as we spun and twirled to Jamaican Dancehall, she just pulled it up and laughed.

My desire to do something like this was with me back then, but it was vague, hibernating.  And though the pipe that burst at my uncle’s building a few nights ago, dealing with the tenants and soaked floors, has finally set me to this, no single reason explains why I’m here on this train today, writing in this notebook, much less what I hope to accomplish other than the act itself.  In part, it’s the culmination of so many experiences, of stress, of one incident too far, but that’s saying too little, almost trivializing my unease, and is certainly incomplete.  Because it’s also about admitting that I’m in need of something that must be done now, a rebellion of sorts against myself that starts with me setting out to visit every stop on the F, whatever that means.

I bite my lip, as is my habit, to push my pen further, and look back at Manhattan.  It’s barely there in the distance, but I must confess New York City is also driving me.  It’s this swell, even conceit, that’s been with me since I was a teenager, formed during moments like those nights with my friends in Sheep’s Meadow when we’d sit and talk in that fishbowl.  I can still recall the coolness of the grass and the depth of the quiet.  In that emptiness the city burned raw power; and my feelings were as palpable.  I even tried to put them into words in high school, when I had one of my comic book villains proclaim, “The city’s magnitude is the progeny of our ambition and its aggressiveness an extension of our will!”  Those sentiments were hyperbolic and naïve, but have proven strangely durable, encumbering me with this burden I once felt was a blessing.  And though I continue to tell myself, “So what?  There are harder, meaner places, that living here is no feat.”  I can’t shake my disquiet, and the feeling that New York has me for a loss.

1:20 p.m.

The train settles into Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue.  The conductor squawks: “Last stop.”  The doors open.  I step out into the humidity.  I walk down stairwells and ramps through the nearly deserted station onto the street.  Along the way I pass an Asian family, black MTA workers, a Hispanic man wearing a fedora, a lifeguard chair by a token booth, stained glass images of old time Coney Island (some are mildly grotesque like the man with flipper instead of hands). 

On Stillwell and Surf Avenues, the Welcome To Coney Island sign greats me with its joker grin.  I walk to the familiar, West 12th Street, and recline against a fence across the street from the Sideshow By The Seashore Theatre.  Its marquee advertises: Blockhead, Snakeology, Sword Swallower, Electra, Weird Women, Strange Men, their likenesses painted in tan, red ochre and turquoise.  I’m about to head over to the freak show when an elderly couple turns onto the block.  They walk past me to the boardwalk.  He gripping his cane.  She holding his arm.  Her floral perfume pleasing.

I cross the street.  A young woman sits at the ticket booth.  Her face is suntanned.  She wears black lipstick and indigo eyeliner.  I hand her a twenty and she hands me back my ticket and change with fingers adorned in rings.  She tells me that I’ll have to wait until the next act before going inside.  So I browse the murals and banners in the lobby.  They’re of more performers painted in sand and sea colors.  I’m admiring a painting of a woman pierced all over her body, imagining what it would be like to be her and what my act would be if I was a freak, when I hear clapping and I glance over at the indigo girl who nods that it’s ok to go inside, and I do.

The theater’s small and dark, nearly full.  A snake charmer is leaving the stage.  The audience is talkative.  I find a place among the bleachers.  The seats alternate yellow and red.  The closest people to me are a father and daughter.  The ringmaster, Donny Vomit, walks into the spotlight, vaudevillian, with his handlebar mustache, bowler, tie and vest.  He introduces Insectavora Angelica who takes the stage holding unlit torches and a single flame.  

We quiet down. 

Angelica’s lean but curvaceous, illustrated in tattoos.  A blackwork maze covers most of her face and runs down her neck to her bosom.  An electric guitar plays minor chords, and a somber voice joins in.  Angelica moves seductively, lighting her fingers on fire, then igniting the torches, one by one, with her touch before arching her head back and setting her lips alight.  She stares effortlessly into the flames, and I begin to wonder where she’s from and how she got here, as I’m reminded how for a long while after returning home from law school, I thought most transplants (who knows if she’s one) were here to just get off on the anonymity the city provides.  I couldn’t grasp the flip side, couldn’t appreciate how being anonymous could be a way to come to know yourself, unencumbered, able to reset despite the risk and, at times, pretension.

Angelica sinks to her knees before the torches, swallowing gulps of fire, lips smoldering.  And as I smell the charred air, I’m still thinking of those first months back home after law school, when I used to hike the night, plowing through 30, 40, 50 blocks at a clip, smoking cigarettes, writing in bars, glad to be back in it, back in the shit, wanting to feel, to be, to belong, to be a part of this place, and to create something, something I valued, whatever that was, whatever that could mean.  I didn’t appreciate it though, didn’t realize how fast my time was running out as I whined about how much New York had changed and how fed up I was with bridge and tunnel people having their white bread lives toasted by it all.  Before I could get over myself and accept the city that existed as opposed to the one I wanted, I was overtaken by my new life as a litigator, where one night when I expressed my frustration to my former boss, now friend, Ed Willard, over the contradictions and politics of the terrorist case we were defending, he chuckled: “The truth is a malleable concept.”

The music wails and Angelica ends her act spitting bursts of flame.  And as I applaud her I’m still in my past, but now a couple of years on, when I lived for trials, especially summations.  I’d stay up all night repeating and choreographing my closing arguments, smoking ashtrays full, listening to the same song over and over until I was in this break.  The next day I’d go free fall from the podium, steady eyed on the jury, possessed by this clarity, knowing and believing what I had to say, as I tapped what I would, in time, call the Summation Effect.  Being that litigator was so dear to me because it filled me with a wholeness that showed me how empty I was.  I hadn’t expected that, hadn’t known that about myself, not really, since before that time I’d never cared enough to commit myself to anything or anyone.

Donny Vomit’s back on stage setting up his own act, holding a hammer and long nail, but I don’t stay.  I close my notebook, put my pen in my pocket, squeeze past the father and daughter, walk through the lobby, nod to the indigo girl, and I’m outside.

I breathe the salt air.  I listen to the rides and excited cries.  I feel dredged up, hungry and thirsty.  I start towards the Nathan’s on the boardwalk, but notice an older woman working the ticket booth of the Wonder Wheel.  She has on a black t-shirt with the word “Sexy” in sparkling silver letters.  She’s sun burnt and weather worn, but has a hopeful smile, a smile that persists even when ignored.  And I change course and walk to her booth and gaze at the rims, spokes and chairs, spying on her as I work up the nerve to ask her a few questions.  But she speaks before I do, and I take down her words in real time.

“The view’s great up there,” she says.  “You should head up, you’d see more.”  Her voice is a bit hoarse but easygoing.  And I stall, off balanced, conscious of the notebook and pen in my hands, not knowing what to do, because it’s about me doing this thing I’m doing, and I don’t know what’s fair, what the rules are, or my role is.  And note taking affects people; they gauge their responses.  But I don’t want that, not now.  So I close my notebook, knowing that when I recount this encounter it will be more susceptible to my point of view, which is why witness testimony is so often flawed; and I reply, “Thanks, maybe another time.”  And I start to ask, “How long have you-” but the woman gestures at my notebook and asks, “What are you writing about?”

I hadn’t expected that.  How do I describe it?  Do I try?  Do I know?  So I fall back on how I answer judges and instruct clients: Keep it simple, and say, “What I see.  People.  My thoughts.

There’s laughter and voices passing behind me.  The woman looks away and smiles at whoever’s there, and when she looks back, she asks, “Like me?””

My eyes narrow, and I have to stop myself from searching to see if she’s being insincere, since I’m likely to find a false positive given my own skepticism.  “There are no stakes at risk,” I tell myself, “or, at least, none I’m used to, see her without sights, not as a potential adversary.”  And what I think I see is just curiosity, perhaps boredom, a flirtatious chutzpah.  And it’s clear she’s read the answer in my face because she asks, “Can I read it?  Read what you wrote? 

I feel a jolt but no hesitation.  I’ve caused this, wanted this opportunity.  Now it’s about faith.  And I hand her my notebook.

The wind picks up and she holds the pages down.  She starts at the top, I think, at the freak show, underlining my writing with her fingers.  When she’s done, she hands me back my notebook and says, “You know your handwriting’s god-awful.”    

That’s a letdown.  But whether she’s gathering her thoughts or avoiding comment, she’s right.  My handwriting is a mess of print, cursive and shorthand.  And I think about how Ms. Margolin, my second grade teacher, tried mightily to set my penmanship straight, gently admonishing me about how my r’s looked like v’s, reminding me to give my p’s and y’s proper tails, and not let my words sink below the lines.  Ms. Margolin was the teacher who first encouraged my interest in art and history.  She was funny, compassionate, knew everything a seven-year-old needed to know, and I adored her.  And I see myself that first day of school, blown away by how beautiful and welcoming she was, captivated by her brown eyes and chestnut hair, and raising my hand and asking her if she was married, because that’s what I wanted to do, marry her.

“Terrorists?” the woman asks, tripping up my reverie.  “You really represent them?”

It’s odd how that word fascinates, sort of like sharks do.  I don’t hedge.  “Yes, I’ve represented people accused of terrorism, still do.”

The woman gives me a once over, perhaps wondering if my Levi’s and Dr. Martens add up.  Finally she asks, “Is it frightening representing them – those types of people?”

My answer comes easy, having said it often enough. “Yes and no,” I explain.  “It’s harder defending someone who’s been played by the government, who’s a patsy.  They’re lumped in with more dangerous actors, and most people don’t understand that.  And it may sound strange but defending true believers isn’t as bad, because they’re stronger.  But mostly all we do is make sure the process works.”  It all sounds pat, balanced, a near nothing.  And I don’t mention how troubled I am over my client Kaleb Mohamed’s (I’ve changed his name for this project) case, or the anger I felt when the assassin drew the REDACTED on my legal pad and promised REDACTED.

The woman seems satisfied, and I’m relieved to see some guys approaching the ticket booth.  I step aside so she can tend to them.  They’re talking about their weekend partying, sounding British, gay and hung over.  And when the Wonder Wheel carries them off, I say to the woman, “I should keep moving.  You have work to do.”

There’s another gust of wind, and we both look at the storm clouds lolling in from the west.  And I say, “Take care,” and start on my way, but she calls after me, “You know you’re wrong.

“About what?” I ask.

“About my smile.”

“How?  You have a nice smile.”

“I know, but people don’t ignore it.  You didn’t.  People just don’t smile back.”  I get it, getting her.  “And you know what else?”  And I wait as she winds up.  “I’ve still got it.” And she cocks her figure, whipping her “Sexy” at me, and I head on and find a bench on the boardwalk, and write down what’s just happened.

2:47 p.m. 

In front of me is a sign that warns: “Beach Closed Danger,” which no one’s paying attention to.  Down the way, a band of twenty-somethings in sport jackets and cocktail dresses play Ragtime on a pavilion decorated in balloons.  A squirrel scampers near them, while in the background The Zenobio Ride’s giant steel arms cartwheel, in terrific loops, carrying couples five, six stories high.  On the beach kids fly kites; my favorite looks like a frog.  Out on the breakwater men fish, and out beyond them tankers and cargo ships sail in silhouette.  And when the wind rushes again, carrying the odor of the nearby restrooms, I’m reminded I’m still hungry. 

I walk to Nathan’s, and along the way I feel the rumble of a bike and the clacking of a skateboard, and notice how much Russian I hear, of which I understand only some: a boy complaining to his mother, teens talking about something to do with school, and a man on his cell phone shouting «Блядь» (blyad) fuck.

On line at Nathan’s, a seagull plops a drop of shit on my shoulder.  The girl behind the register covers her mouth both amused and embarrassed for me.  Other people look, I guess, Germans by their sunglasses.  And I shake my head since this is now the third time I’ve been shit on by a bird.  I ask the girl if she can get me something to wipe it off, and she comes back with a wad of dripping napkins.  I put my notebook and pen on the counter, next to a streak of mustard, squeeze out the excess water, and wipe off the shit.  After the girl takes the napkins from me, she leans in close and says, “You know that’s a good sign, a good omen.” 

I was thinking, “Shit happens,” unstressed, but I see she’s trying to be helpful, giving me a wink and nod with that sunlit chocolate face of hers, and I can’t help but appreciate her words for what they are: a token of meaning to something meaningless, and I reply, “I hope you’re right.”  And we both stand there not knowing what else to say until we default to routine, with me giving her my order and her bringing me a hotdog and beer, before I thank her again, give her tip, and walk out onto the beach.

I’m sitting in this small empty playground just off the boardwalk.  It has incline benches, rails and bars arrayed at odd angles and heights.  There’s no padding, save the sand, refreshingly opposite of today’s overprotective play spaces.  I finish my hotdog and beer, as a couple comes over: a woman in a bikini with sleeked blonde hair and a bald man in Speedos wearing mirrored sunglasses.  I smell their sunscreen.  The woman snaps on spandex shorts and begins to stretch in front of me.  The man grips a bar and starts doing pull-ups.  

I laugh to myself.  “This isn’t a playground.  It’s a workout area.”

Soon a bare-chested middle-aged man, wearing Russian style military fatigues, joins them and starts doing lifts and handstands.  “What’s his story?” I wonder.  And I fill in the blanks, giving him a history, so he becomes ex-Soviet military, Russian mafia.  He’s ripped, and reminds me of my former client, REDACTED, who’s now in Witness Protection, and the way he would clench his fist and punch his hands when he talked about REDACTED, like he was beating the shit out of his own words, and I realize I’m not far from where he and his boss kidnapped the pool shark and ambushed the snitch.

And there it is.  In an instant, I see the pool shark’s immolated body left in a torched car just off the Belt Parkway, and the snitch lying on a sidewalk in Brighton Beach dead from shotgun wounds.

Of course thoughts trigger memory – thought triggers.

I look up from my notebook and something must read in my face because the bald man is staring at me.  He speaks to his girlfriend in Russian, and I understand: «что» (chto) (what), «письмо» (pis’mo) (writing), and «какая разница» (kakaya raznitsa) (who cares).  They notice me listening, perhaps realizing I understand some of what they’ve said.  And I almost say, «Здравствуйте» (zdravstvuyte) (hello), but I’m not in the mood to be cute and move on. 

3:26 p.m.

I’ve walked out onto the jetty, passing a Chinese man fishing.  I sit cross-legged with the sky and ocean before me, my pen and notebook in my lap, letting the weight of my melancholy press in on me, not resisting.  

I look out into all that blue, grey and white, and feel the spray in the air, feel my body against the granite.  Part of me wants to disappear, to be obliterated, to fractal.  But this isn’t about some escape or erasure or sit ass meditation.  It’s about walking this walk, and it doesn’t matter if it makes any sense.  It’s only the first day of a long march, and I don’t know what I’ll find.  I just have this feeling, no, this belief, I can be helped by, and among, strangers. 

I stand and face Brooklyn, pushing that drama I like.  More clouds have gathered.  Kites are being whipped.  A woman in a pink swimming cap backstrokes the waves.  A beachcomber meanders the whitecaps, his metal detector pinging him here and there.  On the shore, two ballet dancers are being filmed as they arabesque, pirouette and lift.

How did I miss the dancers on the way out here?

I step off the seawall and notice how packed the sand is.

How did I miss that too?  

I kneel and push my hands against the sand and think of the millions who’ve come here, doing all the things that we do, from the mundane to the profane.  The metaphor is obvious; this isn’t soft vacation sand, inaccessible and bought off.

I look up from my notebook and catch the dancers and the film crew checking me out, and I spot a pattern.  I’m affecting people’s behavior by writing so openly when that’s not necessarily what I want.  But there’s no avoiding it now.  And I watch them watch me until the director claps his hands and shouts, “Again, again, let’s hurry!” and they go back to work as raindrops begin to fall.

I leave the beach and hurry down West 10th Street between The Cyclone and Wild River Ride.  The rain’s really coming down.  There’s a row of parked sedans and limousines with diplomatic plates; security men in suits and sunglasses are escorting an entourage into the park.  Rides are shutting down.  I duck out of the rain, under a tent by The Night of Horrors, joining a kid in a hoodie sitting on a bike, and a hippy chick standing with a little boy.  A hearse is parked out front in a spreading pool of mud.  I catch sight of stragglers, from the entourage, dash inside an arcade just across the way, and I give it a minute before following them inside.

I spot the group straight away, a dozen casually chic young adults, chaperoned by a few older folks, maybe Russian, definitely Eastern European; it’s hard to hear over music and gaming sounds.  They’re waiting out the rain and having a good time of it.

I play spy again, walking on the casino carpeting, searching for a spot among in colored lights and screens where I can set up without drawing attention.  I come across Galaga, a game I like, place my notebook on the screen, get my pen set, put a dollar in the machine just in case, and try not to be obvious.

The guys are playing shoot ‘em up games, aiming, firing at whatever, tight-lipped, eyes darting in that twitch pattern.  One curses.  One slaps a machine.  Another cheers.  Most laugh.  And I don’t judge.  I’ve been them, felt that brag and virtual accomplishment.

And there’s another trigger. 

And I see and hear the teenager whose father was gunned down in front of him by my client as they walked in Brownsville, Brooklyn.  “I miss my dad,” he said while I stood beside my client at sentencing.  “I don’t know why you killed him.  But he’s gone because of you.”  The young man spoke through tears as his mother held him.  And he wasn’t the only victim to speak.  The paralyzed drug dealer recounted being tied, pistol-whipped, shot and left for dead during the home invasion.  The bank guard talked about the bullets still in him, the surgeries and bankrupting medical bills.  It took on a spoken word quality.  And I felt exposed, sorry for their loss, and ultimately ashamed, when, using a trick I’d learned from an old time lawyer, I sampled my empathy for them to make myself tear up, on cue, and convinced the judge not to give my client the life sentence most would say he deserved.

… So that’s my act, my freak show.

But this isn’t some woe is me.  I’m not alone, or even close to the worst off.  Still, as I write these words, I see I’m struggling over whether I’m simply impaired or if I’ve gained some needed insight from all this shit.  Maybe both?  Is there difference?  I just know – no believe – I have to give meaning to these experiences.  If I don’t who will?

Wasn’t that the Nathan’s girl’s point?  

Still, meaning mustn’t be rushed.  I’ve done that before, jumped ahead of myself with no place to land.

I turn from the guys to see what the girls evoke.  Two of them are competing in a dancing game, bouncing, stepping, sashaying, clapping, pumping, posing, while their friends egg them on, and the older folk talk among themselves, half paying attention, checking to see if the rain’s stopped.  One girl flops and puts her head in her hands, laughing as the other dances on.  

And there’s a new trigger.  I’ve danced and partied, a lot.

And I think of those three, almost four years, when Dean, Cooley and I had our run.  Whether it was dancing in some dive on Ludlow Street to Cooley’s Hot Box, the first drum and bass band Cooley founded, or those packed hallucinogenic Rubulab parties in Williamsburg, or with the Spanish ladies at Montero Bar & Grill on Atlantic Avenue, the three of us were ready.  I loved the release, the charge, the pump-it-up, as we hijacked nights, shirtless, whisky in hand.

And before that there was those times at The Continental, during college in Buffalo, New York, like the summer night when the platinum blonde wrote a poem about me as I danced in my black everything and eyeliner.  I found the poem on a napkin, waiting for me, at our table and booth. And she played it coy, but loud, and I sat beside her, copped a drag off her cigarette, and read:

Beginning on this note-
Dancing as you are-
Beyond and outside yourself-
You dance alone.
To begin with the music is for the common…
Energy releases through a moment of observation-
The dancing fills the world with energy-
Alone.
The balance allows expansion-
Without dance the body collapses, 
Awaiting the presence, uncontrollably within the essence of freedom
To be in a field without colors. 

I kept the poem not just because I like it, but because that’s the moment I aped the idea of writing in real time, in nature, following her example.

4:12 p.m.

I press start on Galaga and spend a few minutes fighting spaceships before heading back to the subway and home.  The rain has passed out over the Atlantic.  I walk by a rundown carousel and some beat cats licking themselves, while in the distance The Sling Shot shoots a couple sky high.  Near me, a boy kicks a beer can into a vacant lot, and I think of the 1960s’ Space Race, as the Mexican Ranchera playing from a Burrito stand somehow ties it all together.

As I walk, I notice just how poor this neighborhood is, at how many homeless people there are.  There’s even more homeless at the station, I guess, in from the rain.  I’m struck by their silence and how they watch us, and I wonder if they may see more than most even if crazed.

I go for a piss before catching the F.

In the men’s room there’s a man shaving his shoulders, chest and arms.  His backpack lies at his feet.  We’re all watching him.  He’s staring in the mirror with watery blue eyes, swiping and rinsing his razor again and again.  He has my undivided attention until I see the pile of shit lying in the urinal, and I step to another urinal and piss.

The man’s still at it when I walk out, and I head to the train platform, unsure what I’m supposed to do, if anything, with the encounter.  My initial thought is: “Anonymity has a red line you shouldn’t cross,” but I stop myself from going too far, from pushing meaning.

The F comes and I try to distract myself from thinking about the shaving man by checking out the kid with a Puerto Rican flag tied around his leg, and the orthodox Jewish girl in a black dress and gray sweater with a suitcase in her lap.  The sunlight saturates their clothes and brings out the colors beneath their skin.  And before we sink into the tunnels, I distract myself further by spending some time watching the train’s shadow streak over the rooftops, and admiring the World Trade Center still under construction, but finally standing tall. 

And there’s another trigger.  

I want to give meaning to that time and place, to that neighborhood where I started my career, to where I found friends and enemies and lovers, to what happened that day, and to all the things that have happened since.  It’s like with the shaving man.  It’s seems I’ve popped the cap off something containing me; and it’s compulsive, this need I feel.  And I distill the feeling into two words: meaning machines.  I think that’s what we are, or need to be.  But I can’t rush it, can’t force meaning from this … whatever I’m doing.  And I look back at the Puerto Rican kid and Jewish girl, both so different and yet so alike, each looking out the window, hands in repose, in thought, doing what I’m doing, what we all do; and that’s enough meaning for now.

November 10, 2012 – Coney Island – Stillwell Avenue, 2 of 3

It’s been just over a week since Hurricane Sandy, and I’m not sure if the F is running out to Coney Island, but I don’t see any notices and the token booth agent seems unconcerned talking on his cell phone.

I head downstairs to the platform.  The train storms into Carroll.  F sign glowing.  Conductor braking hard.  The doors open and I step inside.  There are few passengers. The closest is a young man wearing a Ranger’s cap, hiking boots, jeans, flak jacket, all in gray.  He’s listening to music, sunglasses on, arms crossed, legs spread apart.  I’ve got in earbuds too as I look out at South Brooklyn overcast, my legs crossed, foot bouncing to The Replacements’ Unsatisfied.

Smith–9th Street, 4th Avenue, 7th Avenue come and go before I write: I’ve been in doubt about returning since the first day’s rush faded.  Still, Marie keeps encouraging me, having recognized my need before I did.  After years of hardly writing anything, except for work, she gave me this notebook, which stayed shelved until I started this…  But I haven’t told her about the blowback that’s got me faltering and questioning the consequence of continuing.  The cop I deposed just before Sandy revealed it.  I interrogated him the way I do with my war mask on, flat, empty – not so different than Kid Gray over there – trying to reflect the cop back on himself.  And the cop was game.  He glared back deep, his contempt plain, which was fine, since it’s easier when someone wants to be my enemy.

“Your client should have dropped to the ground when we came in,” the cop answered as I questioned him at my office.

“But did Mr. Rivera try to hurt you?” I asked.

“He didn’t get a chance.”

“You were there to arrest him for running an unlicensed social club?”

“Yes.”

“Not for a violent crime?”

“No.” 

“And how did you arrest him?”

“I took him to the ground.  I tackled him.”

“Did you think you’d injure him?”

“I didn’t care.”

“You broke his jaw and cheek.”

“Yes counselor, I did.”

The cop’s blunt talk helped my client’s case, and before this … project, I would’ve been satisfied with that result, but that afternoon I found myself noticing our similarities: the clenched jaw, the pressed exhales and stilted posture protesting too much control.  Here was a fellow traveler hardened to prevent himself from bursting.  So after writing down: 中 (zhong), the Chinese character for “center,” my shorthand for what I believe is key or important, I added: I get you.  I’ve hurt people too.  I still do.  Maybe even you?

I bite my pen and walk over to the subway doors as we travel along the elevated track to Neptune Avenue.  The angle’s steeper.  I can see more: ruined baseball fields, stagnant canals, deserted subway yards, solitary walkers.  The train takes the bend approaching West 8th Street, and I step to the opposite window where I see the Cyclone and Wonder Wheel blacked out and skeletal, then tense at the sight of sand dunes covering Surf Avenue.  Kid Gray’s up too, sunglasses off, looking at something I can’t quite make out.  Glassless, he looks spent, upset, and when we pull into Coney Island, though I know better, I nod to him, fronting a solidarity I don’t feel – notebook open, pen in hand – and the kid glances me a: “Fuck off.”

The Welcome To Coney Island sign greets me again but with a flood line staining its teeth.  I resist my impulse to head to the boardwalk, to the familiar, and instead travel between Neptune and Mermaid Avenues, stepping around wrecked furniture, hearing the cut and strike of tools, smelling rot and exhaust, rubbernecking at flashing turret lights – a ride of sorts, but a disaster ride.  

I see torn down cables and battered facades but no fallen trees.  Perhaps because there are so few to begin with, and none that are old much less grand.  This neighborhood is poor and has been deprived this basic amenity.  The inundation of salt in the earth will only make matters worse as shrubs are already dying.

I pass by many flood-damaged tenements and row houses.  A few are taped off with hazard signs slapped on them.  On West 27th Street a large group is repairing several homes.  Some carry lumber and dry wall.  Others sort through personal effects.  Most wear filter masks.  Two teenaged girls in rain boots hand out water among them.  A man takes a bottle, rinses his mouth, spits, then steps inside a house carrying a crow bar.  They speak Chinese, which Trevor and Sean would tell me is Mandarin, Cantonese, or Fujianese.  They’re obviously immigrants, but it’s their bearing, more than language, that identifies them, which suggests they’ve had less and suffered more.

Outside an Episcopal church at the corner of West 25th Street volunteers are handing out food to native New Yorkers.  A young man finishes placing groceries inside an old woman’s shopping cart.  The woman thanks him and pushes on, and I follow her down Mermaid to 23rd Street, trying not to appear like a stalker, slowing my pace to hers, even pretending to tie my boots.  Along the way, her cart rattles so much I picture a soup can popping out, fielding it, and using the opportunity to talk to her about Sandy.  But, of course, that doesn’t happen.  Instead, she trudges on into a dreary courtyard and disappears into a dusty apartment building that’s part of the Carey Gardens Housing Projects – one of those kinderprisons that produce so many of my clients.  And I’m reminded of Jane Jacobs writing about project promenades leading from no place to nowhere, an observation that bothers me, not because I disagree with her, but because the grace of her prose diluted her warning, because, maybe, like me she never had to live it.  

If only the solution to help these neighborhoods was a matter of diverse uses and eyes on the street.  The cyberslums of the Silicon Age are ever present in our overhanging icloud.  

Only yesterday I was reviewing data seized by special agents and prosecutors from the phones and social media accounts of two of my clients and their codefendants.  Trey Crips.  Gorilla Stone Bloods.  Folk Nation.  Six-point Stars.  Three Dots.  Dog Paw Marks.  Double Baggin.  Stackin.  Baby’s Mama.  Deuce Deuce.  Hammers.  Hennessy.  Gucci.  Sex in.  Slut Gang.  Youngbrooklyn.  Prettymelo.  GFMSquad.  Sugaranddiamonds.  Skankdollars.  Nobehaver.  Kingpom.  2Fly.  DAMU.  BOS.  TOS.  Harlem love BMB niggaz.  Moola beezly.  Ghetto star u bak in action.  Wats craccin cuz.  I had to bark on some niggas.  Yo blacc ima bring u a molly or epill.  On the blocc smoking a spliff.  Grab the 20 ill give you 10.  I got 40 on dese hoes.  Got you dead ass.  Dis nigga on fb talking bout racks mayb we shudd rob him.  Yo leesh blood.  Shit got me stucc bro.  Nigga fuccn up my money.  Cant let a next nigga get it.  Try to take care of duties move right but its always sum shit got me tight.  Ight.   

It’s coarse, beat, braggadocio, posed and torrented in scene after flat scene.  Hype Nothing.  Futile Style.  Mafia Wanna Be as if that’s something to be.  Most are proud but crippled from having lived among so many broken neighbors and kin – casualties of an ever-targeted people.  I get along with most of them.  Many are bright.  All are wasted potential.  Sometimes, they tease me during my prison visits when I read aloud their transcribed wiretapped calls, as I play up how corny I am – always nerd first – while intent on deciphering whether their lives amount to a crime, which is far too easy for many, if not most, to conclude.

Theirs is a culture that’s been monetized, coopted and criminalized.  And I often wonder how did this sag-pant parody overtake Black Pride and our victories against American Apartheid?  And why did we let Hip Hop metastasize into an ever-constricting urban armor – a trap?

Rap music.

A trap music.

A trapped culture. 

I never saw it coming.

Growing up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, my friends and I reveled in Hip Hop’s beginnings, illuminated by Dondi, Zephyr and everyone going All City.  We threw mean mugzies and diddy bopped, copying the homeboys from Uptown and the Bronx – kids who seemed so city certain.  I daydreamed of nights partying with them and their fly girls at The Roxy and The Funhouse, churning in a sea of bodies wet, slick and engorged, or better yet hunched over turntables like Grandmaster Caz or Kool Herc, mixing elemental tracks like: “Planet Rock,” “Al Naafiysh,” “The Message,” “Give it Up Turn It Loose,” “Numbers,” “Confusion,” and “Play At Your Own Risk.”  It was a“Check it out!” and “Did hear about that?” time.  America had headlined New York to “Drop Dead!” and the fair weathered had fled.  But we didn’t fall.  We stood tall, spawning super cats from the rubble.  And it was the joint to live in that resurrection; our city recast and respected.

Yet I must’ve been infected by the same allure and perilous pride that’s been breeding the causalities of Hip Hop who are now my clients when I wrote my one and only rap at 15:

New York, a death sport
It ain’t no resort
It’s a cop killa
A mace to your face thrilla’ 
It’s an angel dustin’ you
It ain’t no New Zoo Review
It’s a dealer runnin guns
A sista’s dyin sons
It’s the anatomy of terror
A cold cocked beretta. 

“NY do or die!” so we taught.

The stakes.  

The breaks.

… I move on, wandering a few blocks before stopping to look at wrecked condo that’s being cleared of debris by a day laborer.  He’s coughing hard from the dust he’s stirred up since he has no filter on.  That’s when I notice it, the grime, the flood has left everywhere, on everything.  

I drag my fingers over a hydrant and along the base of a streetlamp, then rub the residue between my fingertips and sniff the decay.  There are scores of derelict cars covered in the same crud with “Geico” and “Allstate” scribbled on them in fluorescent marker.  I think, “Wash Me” as I feel an urge to play, and find a minivan that will “do nicely,” quoting Han Solo, and put in my earbuds and press shuffle.  The Ramones shred with Johnny leaning out in front, and I bomb the van in 3D bubble letters with EPIC and KAI – two toy tags I created in junior high – then draw one of my high school comic book characters, Tempest, with his pointed black mask and fiery demon hands.  Finished, I wipe the dirt from my hands and relax in my funhouse mirror moment, noticing my reflection in my piece, that is until I see the day laborer’s image reflected there too, down from the condo, dusting himself off with a rag, eying me and my disaster exhibition.

It’s funny how fast you can feel like a dick.

Two blocks later, having cut from my me scene, I walk onto one of the dunes that’s swamped Coney Island.  Beside me is a row of parking meters buried up to their necks in sand.  I prop my foot on top of a meter, standing where I shouldn’t be able to.  Down the block a bulldozer is carrying off cars from a parking lot.  The boardwalk is a few feet to my right, and it’s not what I expect, since it’s intact with more people than I’ve seen all day.

Sudden laughter.

Two little boys tear past me, wearing crisp new overcoats, perhaps donated, that billow behind them.  I worry they might hurt themselves on what’s beneath the sand, but they run off, daring and calling out to each other.  Inspired, I try to vault over the railing onto the boardwalk, but my foot catches, notebook drops, and I scramble to pluck the only pen I’ve brought with me from slipping through the boardwalk’s slats.

Nice.

On the boardwalk, I step on warped wood, over missing planks and feel the heads of loose nails catch against my soles.  I’m in no hurry and my pace slackens, wanders, and eventually stalls out on the beach.  I’ve been replaying my display of … indifference at the minivan, trying to see it from day labor’s perspective.  Now the thought is dissipating, no blending with the swelling waves, salt air and gusts; perceptions which are themselves intertwined with my boyhood memories on Fire Island: spraying cans of soda at the docking ferries, collecting hermit crabs in my wagon with Dave and Rachel, catching the hint of cocoa butter from my babysitter’s skin, and staring at the sun with my eyes shut tight – blood light radiating through my eyelids – then opening my eyes to find the colors faded and everything shimmering and somehow quieter and more connected.

God the water, the sky, all of this is so beautiful.  But there’s always that undercurrent, that indifference….  And it sounds odd, but I feel I’m made of the same indifferent star stuff, and share its same callous potential.  

Joe.

Back in law school you called me out about that, about my lack of empathy. 

“Mike, do you really believe people move as easily as capital?” You asked me at the Pink Flamingo in Buffalo, during one of our arguments about globalization.  “Factories leave and communities fall apart.  What if it happens to you?  After school and debt, then building a career and family, friendships, a community, someone from on high tells you: It’s over, too bad, now you have to be retrained and relocate?”

I gulped my shot, pushed my quarters into the pool table and felt the balls drop.  “Joe, who’s to say Mexicans don’t deserve new factories and opportunities?  The goal is economic evolution, not stagnation.  We have to kill exceptionalism, kill nativism.  That’s what caused the Great Depression and World Wars.”

“God you’re so full of it.”  You snatched a pool cue off the wall and pushed up your glasses.  “Do you listen to yourself?  Fucking academic new speak.  I’m not saying Mexicans don’t deserve better lives or we’re special or we can’t change.”  You rolled your cue on the table.  It wobbled.  “My point is, that our polices should serve our people.”

“The benefits outweigh the costs, Joe,” I pushed back, “even if our people don’t understand.  It’s about protectionism versus liberalism.  War versus peace.  World uplift.”  I finished racking the balls.  “But hold on, hold on, let me talk.  I’m not saying abandon anyone, but the New Deal’s done.  Unions are obsolete.  Manufacturing is leaving.  We have to change.  It will be hard on some, especially the old and the poor, but the now is: robotization, computerization, and open borders.  So be–”

“–be ready or be fucking buried!  For fuck sake how many times you going to say that?”  You downed your shot.  “I don’t know why I talk to you sometimes.  Must be because I don’t believe you believe half the shit you say.  Your pal Sean probably fed you that line.”  You smacked your glass down on the table covered with stickers from local bands: Green Jello, Mark Freeland, The Goo Goo Dolls, and The JackLords.  “Now, listen to me Mike, really listen.  There’s an emotional and spiritual cost to your now.”  And you picked up the cue and rapped it in your hand.  “Isolation.  Anxiety.  Hopelessness.  Depression.  Rage.  I know you believers in holy fucking economics think you can account for all things that matters, but you’re wrong.”  And you pointed the cue at my chest.  “What’s inside there – even in that deluded heart of yours – can’t be measured, but it can be broken.”  And you caught yourself and lowered the cue and smiled at me imploringly, wistfully, like you did sometimes.  “Mike, we need a reason to be.  We need lives worth living.  We need family and friends and places to know and stories to pass on.  You take that away from us and we’re done for.  We’re not fucking soap, Mike.  We’re not.”  

We’re not soap.

We think and feel.  We hurt and don’t always heal.

Joe you’d’ve said: “If the universe wanted indifference, then why us?” 

That night’s argument, like so many others we had, challenged my beliefs about “self” and “survival” – ideas cultivated from my study of history and war, as well as my observations of everyday selfishness, stupidity, cowardice and cruelty.  At Sean’s suggestion the summer before college, I’d read Clausewitz’s treatise, On War, and seized on the axiom: “War is the province of physical exertion and suffering.  In order not to become completely overcome by them, a certain strength of body and soul is required, which, either natural or acquired, produces indifference to them.”

I remember substituting the word “life” for “war”, and feeling I’d discovered a truth, and believing – no, knowing I needed to become indifferent to my own suffering and that of others to survive and succeed.  It didn’t matter that it meant denial.

Sometimes survival requires denial.

But I should’ve read Clausewitz more closely, understood that he wasn’t offering some panacea from suffering, or a salve to absolve ourselves from consequence.  Indifference merely puts off our day of reckoning, like the climate change I’m certain contributed to this so-called super storm.  Economists call it an externality – a side effect of an economic activity that affects other parties, or as Joe would’ve said: “Not giving a shit about what you do if it doesn’t hurt you.”

“Shit, fuck, piss, karate,” I borrow a thought from Dean’s comic book persona Billy Dogma.

Joe you were the first to really get me to question the wall I’d built, breaching it.  And after all these years, you remain that agency demanding that I act on the compassion and empathy you believed inherent in us all.  You were … 

The cop.

I’d started the deposition expecting to reflect the cop on himself.  Instead I saw myself in him, and I got angry, but not at him, rather with myself.  And this new actor in my head, this … F Train, it, we … I wanted to hold myself accountable.  So I confronted the cop with the questions I felt I should be asked and not until this very moment did I realize I was channeling you again, Joe.

“Did you care that you fractured Mr. Rivera’s jaw and cheek?” I asked the cop.

“No,” he answered.

I showed him the photographs of the pooled blood, discarded gauze and medical tape on the checkered linoleum floor.  “How did you feel when you saw Mr. Rivera injured and bleeding?”

The cop left the pictures on the table.  “Nothing counselor, nothing.”

“Did you try to help him?”  

“No.”

“Why not?” I gripped my pen to settle my hand.

“Never occurred to me.”

I would’ve claimed the same.  

I leaned back, clenching the arms of my chair, “Why are you pretending this doesn’t bother you?”

His lawyer stirred, uncertain.

“Why are you pretending?” I asked again.

“What are you doing?” his lawyer questioned.

“Are you afraid to answer?” I baited the cop, but wanting, needing my answer.

The cop cut me a thin smile and pushed back, too street to resist once called out.  “You know counselor, it’s really no different than how I coach little league.”

I sat for some long seconds unsure of what to say, caught in a blur of my own schoolyard elations and defeats until I seized hold of our similarity and weaponized it.  “I bet you think you’re helping those kids, right?” I asked.  “Toughening them up for what’s ahead?”

“Don’t answer,” his lawyer directed.

“I bet that’s because you’ve been hurt.”

“Objection!”

“Because you’ve been weak, been a victim.” 

“Objection!”

“Maybe even when you were a kid.”

“This is over!”

I’d delivered my accusations with a vulgar ease, feeling my fervor grow as I wounded him.  Chairs screeched.  Jackets flew.  But I kept on.  “I bet you think because you’ve been hurt you get to dish it out, right, to teach people a lesson?”  And as his lawyer opened the door leave, I shot at the cop’s back, “You know, you’re teaching those kids to become like you.”

I almost said us.  

I should have said us.

The cop stopped and turned at me.  He would’ve broken my jaw if he could’ve, but he was helpless since we were in my playground, and I smiled at him, unmasking myself for the villain I can be.

… Waves ripple before my boots.  

I crouch, set my notebook and pen down bend me, cup my hands in the break and raise the water, barely feeling its sting my hands are so numb.  And as the water drains I pray, “For those who are no longer with us,” then walk back to the boardwalk.  

Villain.  

Hero.  

Human.  

Pushing my drama again.

By the Nathan’s where the seagull shit on me my first day out, a prayer circle is gathering.  “A good omen,” the sunlit chocolate girl told me that day.  A pastor leads the circle.  He’s graying, but sorta hip in his dark sweater, knit hat and jeans.  He’s talking to a woman who’s dressed with a LL Bean appeal, her pale red hair tied against the wind.  

I sound like a fucking catalogue.

I stash my notebook and pen inside my peacoat and walk over to them.  The pastor turns to me as I approach.  “Can I help you?” he asks.

“Hello, I’m Michael,” I reply.  “May I join you folks?”  He considers me without a hint of blind faith.  “I’ve come to help,” I lie.

That draws a handshake.  “Sure, please,” – he makes a space for me – “I’m James, this is Belinda.  We’re just about to start.”  

I clasps with them.  I count over forty people, mostly black and white millennial women, and I’m reminded of Obama’s recent victory and wonder about our “Promised Land,” but something’s off about them.  They’re dressed more for a school trip than volunteer work in their too stylish attire as if the job’s already done.  Many fidget, gloveless, in the cold, cheeks and noses flush, which makes me self-conscious of my own sniffling.  Some eyes meet mine, but most don’t.  I’m about to ask James who they are when he starts his sermon, sounding part poet, affected. I follow his and Belinda’s lead though, closing my eyes, listening as he orates about helping our neighbors and having grace in face of tragedy and faith in God’s mysteries.

And all the while I challenge myself to let his words raise my empathy to the surface, to feel more than mere sentiment.  But my feelings stay sunk.  And it’s not just because I don’t believe in God, or at least not in a God that saves, since it’s clear to me we have to save ourselves – but because I haven’t earned it.

I peek to see how the others are faring.

Everyone’s on script, except for this couple flirting, tugging at each other, trying to make the other break the circle.  They remind me of the last time I held hands with a stranger some 25 years ago at an outdoor concert in Orchard Park, New York, where Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Grateful Dead played.  That day I met a girl who I’d never really knew, Alyssa.  I can still see her on the right side of me – if that makes sense – her auburn hair braided in the summer sun, skirt flowing, blouse loose, singing song after song along with Crosby, Stills & Nash.  She was exultant, uninhibited and preserving in that womanly way, so open, sharing what was inside of her.  And I gawked at her – my chest and face streaked in war paint – high on LSD, hallucinating in her and her voice.  And she looked at me and smiled as she took my hand in hers.  That warm press.

That summer I often tried to write about that day, fumbling and fighting with words about being Alyssa’s afternoon boyfriend and how monumental and minuscule I felt in our cliché, tripped out, smelling B.O., pot and patchouli, while wishing I hadn’t needed the drug crutch to connect with her.  I only realized why it had been so hard to describe what I felt, when I admitted I was simply unfamiliar with the feeling, which I think was joy.

James ends his sermon with: “Let us carry each other’s burdens, and fulfill the law of Christ.”  And the circle utters a collective, “Amen,” while I stay silent, unconvinced.

I need to backtrack.

When I first walked over to the circle I noticed a homeless man sitting off to the side, his white hair swirling tangled in the wind, thin hands pressed against his face, mouth gapping wide, silently screaming at something only he sees.  And I’ve been waiting for someone in the circle to acknowledge him, to walk over and help him, but no one has, and now they’re gathering rakes and trash bags to clean the beach.

“Coming?” James offers me a rake.

“No,” I say judgmentally, “but I’d like to ask you something?”

James takes me in stride, enigmatic, softly righteous back.

“What about him?” I nod at the homeless man and add, “Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather comb the beach than his hair,” knowing as I say it my joke falls flat, exposing me not him.

James nods at the homeless man, picks up his backpack, and looks back at me.  “Michael, we spoke with him when we got here.  He’s ill, mentally ill, wouldn’t say a word to us.”  James swings his backpack on and adjusts his straps.  “And these young people, they can’t help him, not now, not yet.  For now, it’s enough for them to be here, learning how to help and take these first small steps.”

I want to punch James.

… I head back to the street, passing by ruined ice cream stands and snack bars, water logged rides, men in hazmat suits cleaning mechanical monsters with high pressure hoses outside the arcade where I spied on the diplomatic entourage, boarded up sun and fun, disaster survival and dignity, captured all-in-one by a shop keeper on his knees, in the midst of mud and sand, scrubbing the glass doors of his souvenir shop.

A small step.  

Fuck you James.

On West 16th Street near Neptune Avenue, there’s a Hispanic family with rags tied over their faces, dragging full contractor bags from of a roped off building.  The father calls out to his son «Ten cuidado» (Be careful) when the boy’s bag begins to tear, then «Espere» (hold on), and beckons me on through.  When I decline and walk onto the street instead, the father offers me a “Gracias,” I don’t deserve.

More steps.  

Another fuck you James.

I thought I’d be on my way home by now.  Instead I’m looking for a new provocation to add to this found writing, to recover from my defeat with James.  

At the corner of Neptune and 12th Street, I settle my attention on a crowd that’s gathered behind a U-Haul truck, picking through tables of donated clothes.  I spy on them from beneath a scaffold along a project.  Some people are choosy, but most get on with it and move on, looking tired and bitter.  I think it must come from fathoming their helplessness while being unable to change their circumstance.

One mother’s face is especially poignant because she’s watching her daughter playing hide and seek among the tables, watching a child too young to comprehend the extent to which she’s already been marginalized.  These people are special in that everyday way – and I stop writing, bite my lip, then go back and underline the words: these people, acknowledging my condescension, as I remind myself that for me this day has been a matter of choice, with, perhaps, my only saving grace being that I started this F Train before Sandy and would’ve been here in any event.

… I walk on up the block from the U-Haul and cross the street onto a small shopping mall, trying to figure out the fastest way to the F, to Marie and the kids, to wine and warmth, not anticipating that the man in the chicken suit who’s been handing out fliers in the mall’s parking lot would shout at me, “You enjoying yourself?”

I stop and turn at him.

It’s odd, I’ve been writing about masks today – I see that now – and here’s a man wearing a literal mask. And it’s so clear to me just how much a mask can reveal about its wearer, showing the things we’d rather hide, like this man’s shame at being here, working among in this ruin, dressed in a chicken suit, feeling like a man in chicken suit, doing what he can to keep his business going, to put food on the table, while I, the interloper, chronicle and tour his disaster.  And while I see me from his viewpoint, I feel no empathy.  I remain remote, gauging him, more concerned that he’s called me out, my New York pride triggered, street ready, like the cop, staring at his grimy feathers, measly beak, patched on eyes, my notebook and pen in my left hand, my right hand clenched in fist, facing him, fine with wherever he wants to take it; but Chicken Man keeps walking, and I head on.  Only a block or so later, do I wonder about the face I showed him. 

… I can’t head home yet, not with this new failure on my mind.

Hart Place and West 15th Street.  

This is the bleakest place I’ve been today.  Warehouses.  Lots.  Beat down homes.  Stone walled.  Fenced in.  Dead end.  Abandoned.  Looted.  Empty.  Frightening and forgotten, perhaps among the hardest hit being adjacent to the canal.  Even if the storm hadn’t come it’d be Third World.  I look through windows of one empty home then the next, at fallen ceilings, collapsed walls, tossed furniture, strewn branches, leaves and trash.  The rot’s pungent.  Mold rampant.  My heart races when I try a door, locked, but the next opens and I steal inside.

The floor creaks, as I try to figure out where the supports are, stepping over a pillow and a ruined TV, imagining the vortex that destroyed this room.  There’s a stairwell leading down stairs.  “This is stupid.”  I hold the banister and place my foot down, feeling the staircase sag.  I descend into the cold, dark, rank smell.  “This is even stupider.”  I can barely see where I’m going.  I trip on debris and look up at the torn ceiling.  The flood would’ve engulfed this room.  Anyone trapped here would’ve drowned.

Joe…

Outside again, an Indian woman in an aqua blue sari eats an apple, while two Indian men struggle carrying a couch out of a building on West 16th Street.  One of the men calls out to me, “Hello sir!  Sir can you help us?”

A few hours ago I was questioning whether this, F Train, was something I should continue, but today as I walked streets at once familiar and unfamiliar, streets worn thin but persevering, it’s clear to me the answer was always yes.  And I get it – get my hope – that through this wandering I’ll come to fill myself with something other than me.  And the method and means I’ve chosen is this orange line on a subway map, this line I live and work on, this path I decided to and make larger and smaller.  But it’s not some getaway.  I’ve always known that.  I’ll be dealing with myself in this notebook, as I try to push beyond my obsolete me and understand how the trappings I’ve sought, and even won, have trapped me.  

The Indian family.

It would be nice to write myself up as a hero transformed, but that would be bullshit.  The truth is I said, “Sorry, can’t help you,” and kept on walking, telling myself I’d already given enough to my clients, to my friends and family.  That was my choice, and it has a consequence.  So now I sit here heading home, reminded that I’m still that man who can turn his back even when so little is asked of me, feeling just how deeply impaired I am, my callous acts lying in a heap, numbing me, shutting me down, not only to strangers but to the people I love, reducing me to an empathy cripple.  

And I’m reminded of the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.  I think it’s the same with our emotions.  And if anything, today has shown me that survival requires not just denial, but acceptance – acceptance of those feelings and choices that seek and create connection, that open smile, that giving hand.  Maybe that’s how we let the bad shit out, how we stop it from settling in and rotting us from the inside out.  So I guess I’m saying I need to open up, to have faith, and take those first steps.

Fuck you James.


January 12, 2013 – West 8th Street 1 of 3

3:15 p.m. The latest I’ve set out on this F Train.  And it’s crowded, not that I mind.  It’s just different having that press and shared air at the start, different from the other days.

Down the way there are a group of girls, young women really, dressed in tights, down jackets, a slouch beanie here and knitted hat there, all in assorted heels. They’re talking up their upcoming evening, laughing and vamping.  Beside them sits a middle aged couple, Pakistani I think, staring quietly into that middle distant place we all default to; he in a brown tunic and padded winter coat; she in a turquoise sari and parka.  Through the windows I see the sparks of welders working on the elevated tracks.

At Smith-9th Avenue a group of young men board.  They’re dressed in tight pressed jeans, crisp sneakers and more down jackets.  They prop themselves near the young women.  And both groups get right to it, to that flirt, dance and play of looking but not looking at each other, to that posturing that won’t admit interest or concern.  And at 4th Avenue, a frazzled haired woman in a tweed trench coat pushes her way between them, also avoiding everyone’s eyes.  And I think how we, New Yorkers, are expert at checking each other out on the sly, spying at each other from the periphery.  But I wish it weren’t so, or that we didn’t do it so much.  Because, while I get that catching someone’s eye can offer an invitation or confrontation we aren’t necessarily seeking, I think we go too far, acting as if acknowledging someone would rob us of something in this rat race.  

I mean, aren’t we all voyeurs and exhibitionists?

At least a little bit?

At least some time?

… Now that’s unexpected. 

I’m feeling self conscious about who’s looking and not looking at me, a touch of the observation effect in reverse.  And my pen stalls as we enter the subway  tunnel heading to 7th Avenue.  The Melvins aren’t helping.  Their song Lividity is playing on my Ipod.  The track is sparse, not much more than a bass droning in a void.  It’s got me feeling exposed with nowhere to go.  But maybe that’s what I need to finally get to writing about: Faces?

You see I’ve been on this trip about faces, wondering about face time, face feeding, face place, flat image.  And this is where I’m going, or where I’m at: I don’t think we’re supposed to see our faces as much as we do.  It’s not how we evolved or what other animals do.  Turn back the clock five hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years, and we’re back in the time before mirrors were everyday.  You don’t even have to go back that far.  Just 190 years ago there were no silvered-glass mirrors, no mirrored mass production.  Same with the copied image.  That luxury didn’t become available to the masses until the invention of photographic film 135 years ago.  Before these technologies, most of us didn’t see ourselves with regularity or resolution, couldn’t replicate or transfer our images in oil paints or otherwise.  No, we were restricted to what we saw of ourselves in nature, and even that was perilous stuff, Narcissus showed. 

But I think we’ve forgotten this, forgotten that we evolved eyes forward, on the look out for danger, food and sex, forgotten that our lives are in front of us, forgotten that, for a long time even after our monkey minds conceived of polishing stones and volcanic glass, what we thought of ourselves were our bodies, maybe a touch of mouth, nose and cheek, but not our faces.  Just check out the cave paintings at Lascaux and Namibia, or that fat bottomed girl, the Venus of Willendorf.

The original image essentially faceless.

And by now it’s an old story.  Our inventions have gotten out of control.  Like salt, sugar and fat we’ve grown sick from feeding on our faces, faces we haven’t yet evolved to digest, still face intolerant.  And here’s the rub and paradox of the face trap, and why I think face time is so perilous, and what I’m so clumsily trying to say: I think that when we look at our own faces, we can’t help but use on ourselves, the same awareness and perception we apply to figure out and communicate with other faces.  However, unlike any other face, we actually know what’s going on inside, at least if we’re being honest – which admittedly is a big if.  So we see how much we front when we’re falling apart, hiding what we believe needs to be hidden, showing what we feel needs to be shown, ever editing, airbrushing and photoshopping ourselves.  And I wonder if this has undermined and accelerated the erosion of trust not only in ourselves – in who we actually are – but in our neighbors, since we figure most everyone’s fronting the same false face.  

Still, we keep returning to our faces, telling ourselves that our next look will be our last, that we’ll finally reach that face place, that relief is just one last look away.  Any recovering addict knows the signs of dependence, knows when they’re in the dragon’s claws: the obsession, the constant preening and posing as we labor and suffer over our reflections, painting our lips, trimming our beards, clothing our skin, ever in search of solace no mirror can provide.  And by now in this journey, it seems that most of us have been consumed by our avatars, altogether dominated by the flat images pretending to be the 3D me, although we know that actions speak louder than looks, or, at least, they should.  

And who doesn’t feel the weight of their face in the torrent of the Information Age?

And I’m not saying that faces aren’t powerful and essential.  Just the opposite.  All five senses reside there as does the mind.  The face is the window to the soul.  A face launched a thousand ships.  Such is face power.  But as Uncle Ben warned Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman: “With power comes responsibility.”

West 8thStreet – The Aquarium.  4:39 p.m.  

The station’s interior is decorated in this tacky aqua blue latticework.  I head over the footbridge to the boardwalk, hopping over a toppled over fence.  Blocks away the Cyclone sits still dark and skeletal.  Around me, there’s stalled reconstruction, sand piles, barbed wire, wet rust, the smell of an electrical fire.  I spot a puddle and bend down and look into it.  I’m there: brown skin and eyes, beard and Yankees hat, but translucent and mixed with fuel oil and mud.

The squawk of seagulls turns my head.

I walk onto the beach.  I see a young woman in jeans and a loose brown sweater running barefoot, again and again, at the seagulls I came to find.  And I think that’s her, that’s who she is.  And I imagine myself as her: eyes watching the birds scatter, heart pounding as her feet grips the wet sand, as her warm breath and raw voice, but not her face.  Of course her girlfriend’s filming it all on her phone, reducing the moment onto a screen and launching it up to take up crowded residence in the Cyber Slum lurking above us.

It makes it less, flattening the moment.

But the lawyer, I am, pushes back, reminding me, myself and I: Who am I to judge?  I don’t know these women or what they’re up to.  Maybe sharing the image will do some good.  It’s what the best artists do.  Like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: that iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, mother of seven, destitute pea picker, stranded on Highway 101 in 1936, caught in the wrath of the Great Depression.  Ms. Thompson’s face seems to want nothing from the camera, seems not to even see it, but her face nonetheless teaches, teaches us just how far our country will let us fall.  So reflection isn’t inherently bad.  It can be beautiful, be important and edifying.  No, my problem is that our littered and teaming images have become noise and pollution.

I turn away from the women to the surf and let the ocean fill my ears.

4:54 p.m. My phone vibrates, and I flip it open.

“Hello, hello, is this Mr. Hueston?”  A female voice, tired and hurt.

“Yes, this is Mike Hueston.”

“Oh thank god!  I’m so sorry to bother you on a weekend.”  The tired voice catches its breath.  “But my grandson Devonte was arrested today by the police for burglary and my friend, Elaine, gave me your number.  And we’re here, but they won’t let us in to see him.  We don’t know if he’s hurt.  Oh god, there’s an ambulance outside!”  The hurt voice catches its breath again.  “We need a lawyer.  My friend said you could help us.  We’re at the 77th Precinct.  They said Devonte and his friends broke into a house.  They arrested him three times now.  And he’s just 17, but they won’t let us see him.  He’s just a boy.  Don’t we have a right to see him?  And it’s Blockhead.  I know he’s in there.  He keeps harassing Devonte, always stopping him and searching him.  He won’t leave Devonte alone.  Can you help us, Mr. Hueston?”

Now this is odd.  There’s a pentecostal drawn into the sand, and I step into it before telling her I’m not available and refer her to a colleague whose number I provide. 

“How much does he charge?” Anxious voice unnerved.

“You’ll have to work that out with him.”

“Can we pay later?”  Haggard voice losing hope.

“Please talk to him about that.”

“But can they do this?”  Voice failing.  “Just hold him without allowing us to see him?”

“How old is Devante again?”

“17.”  Voice just about giving up.

There’s no easy way to say it.  “I’m sorry mam, but after 16, a child loses that right, and he’ll be treated as an adult.”  My voice is callous to my own ears.  The voice fails over the line until I hear: “Oh God no!  No!  No!”  Then the voice whimpers quiet.

“Mam, please call my colleague.”  

“Ok, thank you, Mr Hueston.”  The voice hangs up.

I put my phone away and look down at the pentecostal. Stepping inside of it was sardonic.  Then again when would I get another chance?  And it seemed appropriate given what I do and how often I meet people in various states of hell.  But it’s not a joke, not at all.  And I conjure the image of Devante: a poor, young black boy I’ve never met; a boy caught stealing what he didn’t have the support, education, and above all hope, to believe he could earn; a boy, like so many of the boys I represent, craving cash to buy into that savior image that can’t save them, but which they still seek, because it’s all they believe they have or possess, an image of themselves aping the celebrities and algorithms of the Silicon Age.

Boys led astray from the real shit they’ve got to face, charmed into putting on black face for others’ profit.

Silicon Slavery.

Silicon Suckers.

And I think of how so many of us have been wounded by image, buying into unsustainable gratification, consumption and excess, buying into flat images no human can actually ever become.  That’s why, despite how much I admire actors, acting seems so perilous to me, so radioactive, a profession where people are rewarded for mimicking feeling, mimicking life.  And I recall that wild girl, LiMei, back at LaGuardia who starred in our high school’s production of Julius Caesar, and the time in homeroom when she took my hand and held it to her breast as she acted out the lines:

Cowards die many times before their deaths; 
The valiant never taste of death but once. 
Off all the wonders that I yet have heard, 
It seems to me most strange that men should fear; 
Seeing that death, a necessary end, 
Will come when it will come.  

It’s funny how the mind works.  I haven’t thought of LiMei in years.  But here I’ve dug her up along with some of Shakespeare’s greatest words about: letting go.  And I hypothesize, pontificate and theorize we weren’t meant to remember all that can be saved and uploaded, that we weren’t meant to have actual recall of our lives, that we were meant to lose portions, misremember segments, distort and build on others, and continually fragment and reuse memory, creating new grooves and vistas, never static in time.

And what LiMei did was a power move.  But that was her thing.  Like the time she fucked me in Sheep’s Meadow, straddling me as our friends played frisbee.  I might as well not have been there as I looked into her emotional mask, into that daredevil grin surrounded by hair so black it shined.  Because it clearly wasn’t about me, just her, and the reaction she could draw from me, or perhaps the role she saw herself starring in.  Whatever.  LiMei was the first person I knew, really knew, who believed she was a celebrity, flattening herself and holding her avatar up to be beheld and consumed.  And I remember feeling something I would later describe as disappointment about this girl, whose talent I admired, but as far as I could fathom, put herself before her art … and ultimately before people.

5:27 p.m.

I’m sitting on a pile of logs, watching an old man feed seagulls that are twisting around him like a living tornado.  And I imagine myself as him, as my hand tossing stale bread, back bending, feet walking, lips smiling; but not the seen smile, but the felt smile.  And it strikes me that I often overlook that we actually feel our smiles, as we do all sensation, and that smiling isn’t an image or a pose, but a way to communicate happiness to ourselves.

It’s getting real dark.  I head back to the boardwalk.  The street lamps are still down from Sandy, which adds to the night.  For a hundred yards or so, it’s just the lights of the Aquarium’s entrance, Brighton’s high rises, and the occasional cigarette embers.  It’s hard to write in such darkness.  And I imagine Ms. Margolin reviewing what I’m scribbling, certain that she’d give me a pass with that smile she loved to share with me.  And I remember her hug and kiss goodbye when she went on leave to have a baby.  What a terrific hug.  The smell of her perfume was like butter and cinnamon, but better.  And to this day, I hope she felt, as I hugged her back, just how much she meant to me, hope she felt my thanks, since it was her compassion and patience and steadiness that got me healing after my parents’ divorce and the brutal assault my mother suffered, unbeknownst to me, at the hands of my father… 

… Father.

That past, present and future is for another day.

Today is about faces.

And I look around to see the people near me.  We’ve turned into silhouettes of ourselves, high def gone low res.  Puddle like. Puddle people.  And it occurs to me that we didn’t evolve with forever light and that darkness may be important because we need to be relieved from the clarity of day, like the erosion of memory.  And at the end of that thought, I’m struck by the quiet around me: just the surf accented and a lone Russian voice.  And I see the image of my Russian professor, Ms. Feodorovna, leaning against the podium in her stockings and heels, half librarian, half spy.  One of the most interesting things she taught us was how the verb “to be” «быть» (byt’) in Russian is barely used in the present tense and how in speech it’s not pronounced at all.  So instead of: “I am walking” a Russian says: «Я – иду» (Ya idu): “I walking.” I noted that Russian got right to the action, to the verb, without the redundancy of the extra self, emphasizing and acknowledging that we are what we do, not what we say we are.

Here I am again at the puddle I gazed into earlier.  But I’m now featureless, one with the puddle.  And I think of The Melvin’s Lividity, and the canvas such emptiness offers us.  No face deluding me, freeing myself to see the actual me.

6:15 p.m. 

I’m struggling to remember a thought I’ve lost when a woman comes aboard at Avenue X carrying her sleeping baby.  The woman’s:stroking-her-baby’s-hair-beautiful. And I think how she’s never seen her face like this.  She can’t and be aware of it.  It would make it something less.  Then I watch a family come aboard at 18th Avenue.  Mom.  Dad. Big and little brother.  And I see their faces as they cannot.  Faces imbued with emotion and thought and memory and observation.  And I call myself out for checking them out on the sly, as I’ve done over and over again today.  So I amend my earlier criticism about how we don’t meet people’s eyes, which I knew was ill formed when I wrote it three hours ago.  For while it’s often true we don’t acknowledge each other because of ego.  It’s also about  face power.  Since to observe someone changes their nature as it does ourselves.  The observation effect at work again.  

So observation is a responsibility.

6:27 p.m.

Stevie Wonder’s Past Time Paradise plays as we approach Carroll Street, and I notice my foot bouncing to its synthesized strings, conga drums, Hare Krishna bells and gospel choir, while Stevie sings:

They’ve been spending most their lives
Living in a pastime paradise
They’ve been wasting most of their time
Glorifying days long gone behind
They’ve been wasting most their days
In remembrance of ignorance oldest praise

                       * * *

Let’s start living our lives
Living for the future paradise
Praise to our lives
Living for the future paradise
Shame to anyones lives
Living in the pastime paradise

And I know I’m reading into this, reaching and pushing to connect one thought to another, but I can’t help but think: Shame on us for holding on to the images of ourselves, as if the best moments, the most critical, aren’t right in front of us.  And I turn face front to my life, my life at this very moment, looking out at the mix of strangers near me: the long haired girls, bald men, hipsters and homeboys, and I’m racing with words and words are racing in me. And I look at my hand holding a pen, writing on a pad.  

So I write, so I am. 

Pushing my drama again.

September 29, 2013, Brooklyn Borough Hall 12:54 pm.

I transfer to the F at Jay Street Metrotech. I see, watch and stare at a morbidly obese woman who can’t fit through the turn-style although she tries and tries, angling herself sideways and to and fro. She’s dressed all pink bubble gum, all white candy. She determined but perplexed, apparently unwilling to accept that she can’t fit through. For a few moments, the station clerk watches, but soon steps from her booth and tells the woman to use the emergency exit, and she does.

After I get on the F, heading to Avenue X, I search my memory for other times I’ve seen a subway emergency exit used in need. Besides images of people with strollers and bikes, and the occasional arrestee, just one impression stands out, that of EMS carrying out an old grey man on a gurney at Park Place Station. Oxygen mask. Chest bare.

I am tapping my pen, listening to the band Crystal Castles over one earbud, when I spot a man sitting on a pillow down at the end of the subway car. A pretty curly haired brunette, wearing a vintage dress, worn combat boots, and a leather jacket, is seated diagonally across from him. She’s reading a book and eating a sandwich, but looks up, walks over and gives him a dollar, then returns to her seat and finishes her lunch.

The man’s got a suitcase with him. His skin is oily. His cheeks are rubbery, round, red. The pillow draws me in. I’ve never seen a person sitting on one while riding the subway. Another man is seated opposite him who has his own pillow tucked besides him. His arms are folded. Eyes closed. He’s got something on his belt that looks like keys but in the sunlight of the Ditmas Avenue platform I see that it’s a bottle opener.

The curly haired brunette leaves at Ditmas, and the man she gave the dollar to starts snapping his fingers at tourists who’ve just boarded. “Thank God I’m not homeless!” he says. His companion keeps eye-closed-quiet. The tourists ignore the man, and when an orthodox Jewish family gets on at 18th Avenue, he shouts: “Rabbi, Rabbi! You have some money for the homeless! Hey Jew, you have some money for me! Thought not! You see!”

“I see,” I tell myself. I see a broken man who feels we owe him more than we’ve already given him in our taxes and tolerance. He bothers me because he’s a nasty fuck in front of their little boy.

Avenue X 1:33 pm.

I get off the train and walk down from the elevated platform to Shell Road. I see a homeless man lying on the ground, and another who’s just finished pissing on a trestle. I cross the street to McDonald Avenue and enter the Psychic Shop as I promised myself I would. Inside is red curtained sunlight. Two men are eating lunch. I tell them I’m here for a reading. They have me wait and step through the curtains, and a woman comes out and greets me, introducing herself as Mama. Her accent’s Roma, Gypsy. She’s about my age, maybe a little older. She has loose dyed blonde hair, crooked teeth and wears a yellow flowered dress comfortably.

Mama has me sit with her at a velvet-clothed table. I pay her $30. She gives me a choice of readings. I chose Tarot Cards. She has me cut the cards three times, then shuffles and begins to lay them out before us: an angel blowing a trumpet, a knight on a horse, a woman cradling a lion’s head. She studies me then draws a card with an image of a burning tower, and others with the words “temperance” and “judgment.”

Mama sets her eyes on mine and says, “You wear a smile, but you’re looking for something, searching for a change.” She folds her arms. “Yes, you wear a smile like a clown, but you’re not happy.” She purses her lips, then asks, “Was there someone in your past whose name starts with A?” and I say, “Arianna.”

So it begins.

“You have regrets over this girl Adrianna,” Mama asks, and I say, “Yes, Arianna,” helping her along. She asks why, and I say, “I should’ve told her.”

Mama considers her words then says, “You know, if you still love her, you won’t be able to move on.”

I say nothing, but tell myself, I have.

Mama draws an ace of cups then a card of a man wearing a cloak, and asks me what I do. I tell her I’m a lawyer, then she asks me if I’m married, and I think she’s not the best observer since I’m wearing my ring.

She touches the cloaked man and asks why I have regrets about Arianna, and I try to explain, “It’s about courage. I’ve had a problem with courage.”

Mama reads me again and asks me to choose a card. I do: a blindfolded woman holding a sword in each hand. She takes it, places it by the cloaked man, and says Arianna still thinks of me, and she may. We’re still friends and colleagues. We even see each from time to time, and after hesitating, I tell Moma about when Arianna was honored for her work in defending the indigent. That night, as she accepted her award, Arianna spoke with her usual humility and humor, uncomfortable with being praised for just doing the best she could, and because she knew she hadn’t done anything alone.

“And afterwards we were going out for cocktails,” I tell Moma, “Arianna was looking for me, but she couldn’t see me in the crowd. And as I got closer to her I was so struck by her expression that I stopped. She was unguarded, expecting, and maybe even a little sad, and I felt I saw in her that same longing I’ve carried in me about her and us.”

I hear my own words, and I’m not surprised when Mama asks me if I’m troubled in my marriage. I tell her no, and try to explain, “I’m truly grateful I’ve had the chance and courage to be with and in love my wife, Marie, but Arianna is, was….”

I stop suddenly conscious at how seriously I’m taking this, talking to this stranger.

Mama folds her arms again. “So you say you’ve moved on. You’re married and have a career, but you’re missing something.”

Aren’t we all? I almost say.

“Denying something.”

Don’t we all?

Mama tells me it’s time for my free question, and I ask without irony, “What will make me happy?”

Mama leans in close and presses her fingers on the blindfolded woman. “Let go of her,” she says. “You both have regrets. If you weren’t married you’d come to each other. But you won’t be happy until you stop regretting your past.”

My reading is over. I gather my Ipod, pen and pad. As I stand to leave, Mama tells me that I have too much responsibility, and though I only came out of curiosity she can help me. I tell Mama she has, thank her and ask if I can give her a tip. She says yes, and I give her extra $10.

On Avenue X, I have a beer and slice at Knapp Pizza II, then continue walking under the blue sky, thinking how psychics can only give us back what we share. And though the encounter has me feeling strangely grateful, I also resent being reminded to handle my past with care.

Suddenly there’s Gravesend Cemetery.

I stop. I feel the cool air hardly move. A Korean mom and son walk by me.

The cemetery is small, surround by a black iron gate. A black garbage bag hangs outside its locked entrance. A pair of black sneakers is tucked near its bars. Just inside there’s a sign dated 1938, stating English Quakers settled Gravesend in 1643. To get a better view, maybe even get inside, I walk up to Van Sicklen, hook a left at the First Korean Church of Brooklyn, and then another left at Village Road. Along the way, I pass two Korean men sitting on the church’s steps, one’s in a suit, the other’s smoking.

On the other side of the cemetery, the gate is also locked, so I look through the bars as best I can. There’s litter and leaves. Most of the headstones are in disrepair, weather worn, illegible, but I’m able to read those of Nellie O. Lewis, Died November 3, 1927, Age 65 years, In Loving Memory, and Albert Cooper, Died December 20, 1898, Gone But Not Forgotten In Remembrance Of His Wife.

I sit on a nearby hydrant and stare out at the graves and grass, and turn my thoughts to regret and Mama’s admonition, questioning if I’ve held onto my memories of Arianna too hard, too long. Be it the memory of the first day of law school when we met and went to lunch; or our study groups in the library and arguments in class; or that spring day in Nashville when we made it to the finals of Vanderbilt University’s First Amendment Competition and celebrated that evening at the remake of the Parthenon; or when we traveled across country after the bar exam; or that afternoon a few years later in Manhattan when she watched me give one of my finest summations in a trial against the NYPD and later that evening sitting next to her at a bar when she told me that her boyfriend (now husband) had been jealous when I took her to Mark’s wedding in Niagara Falls. I remember Arianna waiting for me to finally say it, to talk about the elephant that had always been in our room, but before I could muster the courage my trial partner was back, talking about our win, and I let the moment pass.

Arianna.

You’re interested in people, passionate about them, invested and involved with them. You care, care about those who need the most help, walking not talking, always guided by your innate sense of clear-eyed right and wrong.

You’re not perfect. You’re quick to anger, but also to laugh.

You rush to judgment, but with the best intentions.

You’re a leader who always encouraged me to do more, to be better, flirting with me to take on responsibilities I’d just as soon duck, like become VP of our law school’s moot court board. When I asked, “Are you serious?” you promised it would be fine and we’d have fun together, and you were right, and in our time together, I was so struck by your passion, intelligence and decency, I found I wanted be someone you loved.

Problem was that person wasn’t me.

I look over my shoulder at the elevated tracks. The air still barely moves. It’s time to head home, and I walk from Gravesend, my thoughts unresolved about Arianna’s continued presence in my life.

Back on the train at Ditmas Avenue an African American couple gets on, and we all look unable not to stare. The man’s striking, in his 20s, deep blacked skinned and ripped. But what’s “Wow” about him is that he’s dressed entirely in pink: pink shorts, pink t-shirt, pink sneakers with fluffy poodle dolls attached to them, and a pink baseball cap with a decal of Animal from the Muppet Show. He’s outlandish, audacious, and I smile at being reminded that the extraordinary is supposed to be memorable, supposed to last. It is, and it’s that simple.

So “Yes,” Mama, I do cherish my memories of Arianna, and I suffered for it. But my suffering came from looking to those memories with a desire to change that past. I couldn’t change it. But I could change and accept what these memories could do for me, which was show me whom I should love and the imperative of acting on love.

The subway moves jolting my pen.

So for me it’s not a matter of letting go, and it’s clear we don’t let go easily. The graves I saw today are a testament to that. And it doesn’t matter that they were broken, forgotten, left to the care of strangers. We’re finite. We fail. But it’s clear to me now, I’ve kept this regret, because like the words In Loving Memory and Gone But Not Forgotten require I’ve made a promise, or prayer, to hold onto that out of the ordinary girl I fell in love with, and she lives in the Heaven of my memory.