Newark Penn Station, NJ
May 3, 2007
I am waiting for my coffee and so is a skinny white man. He’s my age or younger and he has big tattoos on his arms. He’s wearing a sleeveless, white shirt. There is an older, unkempt black man with an open bandanna coming out from under his baseball cap. He’s wearing clothes that are oversized and raggedy. He has a beard. A boy toddler grabs at my thighs and I ignore him. I don’t know who he belongs to. I’m waiting for a train that will arrive in thirty minutes. I’m between places. It’s late morning.
“You’ve Taylor ham and cheese?” The white guy asks.
“Yeah,” The middle-eastern guy behind the cash register says.
“Great. One of those.”
The cashier writes something down and walks to the back.
“No eggs?” The older, unkempt man interjects. I look up.
“Nah,” the white guy laughs.
“Need the protein boy, what ‘bout the protein?”
“Had eggs this morning, still hungry.”
“Ah, k.” The man seems settled with his answer.
The three of us are still standing there and the toddler has walked off. I keep an eye on him. The silence is a little heavier now that we realize we can fill it.
“Why you so hungry?” The unkempt man asks the white guy.
“Don’t know,” the white guy laughs again.
“Gargoyles are bad luck, son, shouldn’t have that shit on your arm.”
I look at the white guy’s arm. I see a black gargoyle tattooed between his elbow and shoulder.
“I’m not superstitious.”
“Oh yeah?” The unkempt man laughs. “You a religious guy?” he asks.
“Nah, religion’s a scam,” the white guy says and laughs.
There’s another pause. The baby is touching the wall under the counter. I still don’t know who the baby belongs to. The men don’t seem to notice the baby.
“What you do?” The unkempt man asks the white guy.
“You said a regular coffee, medium?” The middle-eastern man reaffirms with me.
“Yeah,” I say and both men look at me. I smile towards my feet.
“A Marine,” the white guy goes.
“Well, no shit! For real?”
I look over and eye the white guy with more interest. He’s skinny.
“Yup,” he laughs again.
“Been to Iraq?”
“No shit! What’s that shit like?”
“It smells,” the white guy goes.
“Iraq smells!” The unkempt man hoots and claps his hands.
“Yeah, smells bad. I’m supposed to go back in two weeks but I don’t wanna.”
“Yeah, but with that shit got no choice, right?”
“Right,” the white man goes. Crosses his skinny, tattooed arms over his chest.
“I want to be a fireman,” the white guy says.
“A fireman!” The unkempt man claps his hands again. “Well, what you doing in Iraq, son?”
“Beats me,” the white guy laughs.
“They messed that shit up, right?”
I look over at them again.
“Sure did,” the white guy goes. His arms are still crossed.
The middle-eastern man says, “Miss,” and hands me the coffee.
“Thanks,” I say. Go to the table with sugar and milk.
“He touches everything!” A big woman, her breasts balloon out, cries to no one in a heavy Jamaican accent. She goes for the boy. Shovels him up.
“I work in the hospital all night and know kids shouldn’t touch this shit. He touches everything!”
I sort of smile at her.
“A fireman,” the unkempt man says again shaking his head. “You need some help with that. Got to know some people, right?”
“Nah,” the white man goes. “I’m pretty set. I’m a corporal.”
“Shit. Well, don’t go back to Iraq.”
“I wish, man,” the white guy laughs.
I cap my coffee.
The Jamaican woman is holding the toddler on her hip. I look up at the train times.
“Yeah sister, take this,” the unkempt man goes to the Jamaican mother. I turn around. He gives her a dollar. She takes it. I look back up at the train times.
A little later I see the unkempt man again. I am looking at The New York Times headlines at the newsstand.
“You motherfucker lets take this outside!” A skinny, old black man in a small, Christmas sweater and tight jeans is yelling to the Indian cashier.
“You wanna take this outside, I’ll take it outside!” The Indian man yells back in a tart accent.
I’m watching the scene transpire. So is the unkempt man.
“Hey, look how ‘bout I pay for this paper first,” a white businessman interjects indifferently, unfazed.
“Yeah man, take his goddamn money then we’ll go outside, you motherfucker,” the skinny, old man says waving his hands wildly. His extremidities are skinny and electric looking like short-circuiting wires.
The unkempt man and I are just watching this now. We aren’t pretending to read the headlines anymore. I cross my arms.
“Pussy fucking cunt motherfucker,” the skinny, old man hollers, his arms are waving every which way.
“Shut your fucking mouth, nigger motherfucker,” the Indian man goes. Shoves the change at the businessman, he takes the money and tucks the paper under his arm, walks away.
The unkempt man shakes his head. He buries his hands in the pockets of his oversized coat. The two men are still going at it. The Indian man won’t leave the counter. A pale, doughy policeman is walking over slowly, taking his time.
The unkempt man goes, he’s shaking his head and looking down, he’s muttering to himself. He goes, “No good, no good,” to no one in particular. He walks away and so do I.
Echo Lake Country Club, Westfield, NJ
May 2, 2007
I’m having a fancy dinner with my parents and their friends who are ten years older. The dinning room has big windows that face the golf court. The sun has set. There are big, red curtains that bunch and remind me of prom dress sleeves in the eighties.
“He’s dead?” My father reaffirms with Mrs. Booth.
“Yes, make a point to read the obits every week in the paper, he was listed last Thursday.”
“Hm,” my father picks up his knife and fork to cut his steak. “So, he’s dead?”
“Mm-hm,” Mrs. Booth hums as she spears a french fry with her fork.
“I remember him,” my dad goes. “He was sort of,” he paused, “eccentric.”
He eats a piece of steak. Continues, “I remember, we were all standing there one morning, on the platform, before the commute. You know, no one talks. Just stands around. There’re rules to it.”
Mrs. Booth is nodding, I’m not sure if she’s listening.
“And he must have just retired because he was there, but he wasn’t wearing a suit, he was in the parking lot and he just laughs, I mean really loudly. He just laughs out,” my father goes. “He just hollers out, ‘You unlucky bastards!’” My father is laughing now. “And we’re all just standing there, you know, no one says anything but we’re all just sort of looking around.” He pauses, shakes his head smiling. “I’ll always remember that.” He picks up his knife again.
“So, he’s dead,” my father says again, mostly to himself, and cuts another piece of steak.
New York City Library, Manhattan, NY
April 27, 2007
“It’s better here because when you look down the streets you can see the end to it, it’s not just buildings everywhere. You can see out. I felt more trapped in Boston. But you’re so alone here, that’s the thing” she says.
Two friends and I are splitting sushi on the library stairs.
“Excuse me beautiful ladies may I ask to have one moment of your time,” a man with tight braids and thick glasses says. He’s wearing a beige checkered, scratchy looking suit.
“I’m here to help the homeless…” he begins. We stop talking and look down at our sushi. Will him to leave us alone.
“… As you know there is an epidemic in this city…”
I pull the salmon off the rice ball and dip the fish in the plastic lid that’s holding a puddle of soy sauce.
“… With your help you can feed…”
In Bangkok, near Soi 55, there is a place where a legless beggar lays on his face in the middle of sidewalk every evening and I have, on more than one occasion, stepped over him to get to where I was going. He pushes his red plastic money bowl with his head.
“I want to give him money,” Rusty once said as we walked by him. “But I’m not supposed to, right?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I say. “That’s what I read.”
“Yeah, me, too. But why is it again?”
“I forget, so they don’t get used to it, or expect it, or something. I don’t know. So they don’t get in a welfare state maybe?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“I mean I only see college friends who live in the city,” my friend says quietly. “You don’t meet new people.”
“… Only a dollar could make a difference…”
I’m trying to scrape off the sticky rice from my fingers with my nails.
“You don’t look at anyone on the streets. I mean no one.”
In the village where I used to live in the south of Thailand I ran by an open sewers most days. Two boys once built a fort in the sewer. I stopped running. I looked down into it. They had made a room with cardboard. They had toys in there with them. They were covered in that sloth. They weren’t wearing shirts. “Khun Mary!” One hollered up and waved. I waved back.
“… Now I know you ladies have a dollar, just one between the three of you…”
A few days later I’ll be in midtown, walking briskly to Pace University to meet Zach after work. I come out of the park. Swing a right. I’m striding. My hair is long and brushed and is waving behind me.
“Ma’am!” A woman yells behind me. I ignore her. “Miss!” She yells again. I keep walking.
“Miss!” She yells for a third time, this time with agitation, and as I continue walking I entertain the idea that maybe she had something to tell me specifically. But I doubt it.
I’m putting the empty plastic sushi containers in a brown bag.
“… So can you manage it? A dollar?”
My friend looks up. Shakes her head. No, we can’t. Sorry.
“Well I thank you for your time,” he says. Smiles. Walks to the people next to us.
“… Do you have a minute?…”
“And I mean,” my friend gets right back into it, “you just turn off. Devoid yourself of even the possibility of human contact with the people you pass on the streets.”
My cell phone rings. I flip it open. It’s the boy I like. I’m delighted.
“Hi,” I say warmly into the phone. “How are you?”
My friends keep conversing next to me but I don’t hear them. I’m just listening to him now. He’s in the same city as I am, that day. That’s rare. Normally we’re in different countries.