The 24 Hour Movie

After a conversation with my Russian-Jewish barber, whose son is getting married in July in a wedding palace in Queens (“how many guests are you having?” “300 hundred. Small wedding,” he quips, clipping my ear hair. “I cut beard today? Very bushy. Ah, no? I understand. Beard private.”), I walk to the F train, through rubberneckers on 8th street who are watching a movie set. There really isn’t much to see, apart from a lot of black cabling and wiring. Though, between massive trailers and tech trucks and techies with wrap around shades and beards like Hells Angels, there are some potential anonymous star glimpses: two actors wearing FBI windbreakers in 90 degree heat. (On the 31st of May!)

Entering the platform at West Fourth Street, the atmosphere starts telling me: something’s different up ahead. People are gawking at a particular space, while giving it space, a wide berth. An obese-y, wrinkled homeless woman, eyes 3/4 closed through scowling, and her hoarding shopping trolley essentially its own wrinkle in time on the platform – she lives down here, essentially – this woman is fronting off with a tall, slim man in a vest (wife beater) and shorts of clashing colours and stripes. He has a beard and wears a baseball cap. Possibly a tourist? In any case, he’s broken a cardinal rule: don’t engage with a New York “crazy”.

She is shouting in his face: “I don’t fucking like you, ’cause you’ve got no fucking drive!” (Is she his mother? I wonder.) “Yeah! I don’t fucking like you ’cause you got no pride, either.” She has found her rhyme, and is warming to its pivot: “you’ve got no pride, no drive,” she repeats again and again. The man is silent, stunned. The New Yorkers keep well away, wisely, while watching the latest installment in the 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year film. Better than Imax.

Moments of Perspective (and: Realising that You Need to Leave New York)

It’s strange to come out of the tunnel, and realise that I haven’t exited New York in months. That isn’t uncommon: to take a breath, and say to yourself: “shit, I need to leave the beast!” It’s strange to come out of that tunnel, because for a city with majestic views, the teeming nature of it doesn’t often allow the solitude to enjoy those moments – at least, not in public. The train comes out of the tunnel at 4th Avenue / 9th Street, it’s evening, no one but lunatics are commuting to Manhattan 12 hours too late. I’m on the way to meet Adrienne. I can see a muted sunset, wrapped up in blue, the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines are overlapping, the Statue of Liberty, far off, is like something to pick up and put in your pocket. It’s all of that, but more importantly: the carriage is empty, just me and 3 other people, each of us seated throughout the carriage. Rightly, we are taking the opportunity to spread out and settle into ourselves, and breathe slow in public again.

I let my breath out, sigh. I’d forgotten this: what it feels like to be allowed to sit in public without someone immediately impinging on you with any number of oblivious, neurotic, infinitely-annoying New York traits (someone singing to himself, a woman emptying and filling her bag and spreading the contents out beside you casts a cobra eye at you when you dig through your own bag for something, a dude sitting opposite you in mirror sunglasses, affecting oblivious cool and this is fucking with your head because of course you can’t see his eyes and of course that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Someone sits too close, their thigh almost breathing on your thigh, but not close enough to allow you to tell them to move away without you appearing to be the neurotic one).

The F train emerges going the opposite direction, from Carroll Street: the sun glitters over Carroll Gardens, and it is like waking from a mood state – not depression, less definite, though the way depression settles is anything but definite. It is the city’s own mood state: what it does when you are on its canyon floors 100 storeys down, or underground, for how many commuting hours? Coming out of the tunnel and crossing the culvert across the scrapyard area of Gowanus (though the train slants like it’s going to fall) is, in a small way, like coming up for air.

It’s the same in a taxi going uptown, especially if you can only afford to take a taxi, say, once a week, and only when you have to. The driver’s got the hang of the light sequence, and is barrelling towards East 105th street with no real allegiance to whatever staying in lane might mean: testing, trying his luck, one more microbe or a virus among all the other denizens of this grimy mainline vein. (The funny thing is that he seems to want to get there as quickly as you do: maybe with him it’s a matter of pride?) Truckahead! You grab the oh-shit strap, he eases back into lane or, rather, forces in on top of another taxi, who of course, not showing guild solidarity, honks away at him.

What I’m getting at is the uptown taxi journey can grant perspective (the La Guardia-bound airplane dipping its wing crossing the Chrysler Building’s plating made of light is a more extreme example of literalist perspective). “FDR Expressway?” he says. Crosstown indecision to get to it (“shit! $10 already to get from Union Square to 2nd avenue!”), but then the glide begins. Better if it’s 1st avenue, or 3rd, when the lights are right. It’s like jumping the vines in Tarzan, or a relay race where every runner in the 100-person team between 17th street and 101st is on form, and each green light is a bit of grace. The glide gives you an insulated sense of perspective, much like reading a great novel does: and, you’re finally given the space to be able to love, and bless, humanity on an abstract scale.

Otherwise I take the train (MTA stands for mother fuckers touching my ass). I close the door of my flat like a pressure door. Blowing out my lips in a sigh, and smoothing out the stress-vein-bulge at the temples, I give the order: “Periscope down, bos’n! Dive to 50 leagues.” “Aye, aye, sir,” and my sanctuary disengages from the city for the night. Drifting down, going deeper, a tenuous equilibrium returns.