March 26, 2007

Don't dream and drive at the same time.

Getting up bleary to take the kids to school: cranky mottled clouds smoky purple, cars starting up exhaust smells, gray of sleep over everything and thousands of dreams flying upwards, flocking in the sky, fleeing from the heads of their owners like bats scattering at nightfall. Only a few cars yet, and with headlights still on. Big decisions: radio on or off? Crosstown first or downtown? A Lay’s potato chip truck rushes through a yellow light: I can almost smell the chips, in the side mirror I notice the comical lean of a vehicle that’s too high for its width, and I remember how in Manhattan at this hour the delivery trucks own the streets. Though in the outer boroughs you might hear one of those immense streetsweeper trucks churning by slothslow, waking everyone as they unconsciously plead for five extra minutes, merciless rotating brushes kicking up asthma dust and leaving behind if your nose strains for it a sprinkle of fresh water. Like a hippopotamus paying for penny candy out of a tiny purse.

Delivery trucks doubleparked on the bumpy streets with ropedoff manholes and the scent of summer garbage, the stockboys barking parking instructions, steam rising from a subway grate and from cardboard cups of lousy coffee the object not to spill it on your suit as you hurry to the office, jostled against others at the crosswalk hurrying with the same goal in mind like you’re in a gameshow but what’s the prize, most everybody looking down glum silent shabby shlumpy but somehow once in a while there’s a tall close-shaven man in an expensive suit, or a woman dressed like a million bucks with not a molecule too much makeup, who stands tall and looks straight ahead as if they know exactly where they’re going. They seem to come from another planet.

Out of college I worked in the diamond district, though I worked on the opposite of diamonds, and there were guys who rode the commuter train home at five o’clock with millions of dollars in gems hidden in secret belts under their pants, and there were patient, fatigued craftsmen whose jeweler’s monocles were as much part of them as if they dentures. At lunchtime I wandered through Rockefeller Center looking at the people lunching at the outdoor tables amid lilac bushes, or the ice skaters in front of the big Christmas tree depending on the season. I’d stop in the Librairie Française bookstore and try to see what I could get out of Simenon or Balzac in French in those foreignscented paperbacks with the crazy upsidedown covers, or Jaws or Agatha Christie in translation, and there were green Michelin guides on a display rack and blue packs of sweetstinky Gauloises on the wall behind the counter. I’d take out lunch from a sandwich shop, big wonderful sandwiches of chopped liver or roast pork or homemade turkey salad with big chunk of mayonnaise-slathered dark meat from the same turkeys whose breasts they carved into slices. Walking back to the office where I’d eat gabbing and gossiping and satirizing with a couple of other bewildered graduates in a supply closet amid steel shelves stacked with typewriter ribbons shipping envelopes staples whiteout and esoteric varieties of tape. On the mezzanine of the office building there were wholesale outlets for engagement rings and silverware and china, riding up in the elevator I knew people could smell my chopped liver sandwich in its white takeout bag, and I would be wearing a navy blazer with square padded shoulders a light pink shirt a squarebottomed knit tie chino pants my hair curling at the collar the hip office underling 1974.

Going home at five the throngs flowing down the subway entrance stairs as if never to be seen again, the strangely fresh tunnel breeze as if blown in from some polluted beach resort, the air lashing out in the trainwake, the electric shriek of braking metal wheels, the crowd shoulder to shoulder how do they keep from pushing each other into the path of the monster, sniffing each other’s breath coverups, purple Sen-Sen, pink hygienic cinnamon Dentyne gum bought in individually wrapped paperclip-size slivers (this the age before supersizing) from a mirrored vending machine for a nickel, or can it really be a penny? Pressing into the car, standing swaying using other people as your leaning posts, testing yourself can you go the whole way without grasping a handrail. Your personal space constricted to where it doesn’t even include your outer epidermal layer. Silent battles over whether you can read the next guy’s newspaper, folded up thin in accord with subway etiquette but the corner of the front page wagging into someone else’s eye. Violent fantasies about what if someone tries to grope you. All the lonely people where do they all come from: from Pelham Parkway and Fort Hamilton Parkway and Bay Ridge and Woodlawn and Midwood and Inwood and Washington Heights and Jackson Heights and Astoria and Flushing and Flatbush and Bensonhurst and Ocean Parkway and Brighton Beach and Fort Totten and Fort Lee and Bergenfield and Fair Lawn and Passaic and Massapequa and Levittown and Rochdale Village and Greenwich Village and Riverside Drive.

In the jammed street outside the office building at rush and lunch hours, an emaciated roundshouldered man in a frayed greengray suit stood holding up something small and rectangular at eye level, too small to be a book unless it was something really esoteric like it might hold the secret of the cosmos or something, and he murmured in a clipped, meek, oddly ironic voice so that only if you walked very near and leaned your ear attentively could you understand what he was saying: “Wanna buy a card case? Wanna buy a card case?” Little silvered cases for calling cards, as in a Victorian novel. A rapid mutter like an unaccountably demure racing tout: “Wanna buy a card case? Wanna buy a card case?” Did anyone ever? I didn’t. Sunken cheeks, yellow olive skin, using no wasted motion as if he couldn’t afford the caloric expenditure. Knocked by pedestrians’ shoulders and kneeheight briefcases. I have sometimes wondered if at some point he starved to death.

“Okay, kids, this is it, school! Have a great Friday, see you later.”

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