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.


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