New York Myths
Poetry and Prose, 2009-2016
The X Line
Illustration by Shakhed Hadaya.
It was really too late to be in this subway station. He recognized that now, he knew that when he left the party the trains were going to be a nightmare, but he let the call of his own bed and his waiting goldfish lure him away from his friends; their worried voices, their warm arms, their promises of couches and improbable guest bedrooms and clean sets of sheets, “we’ll make pancakes in the morning and put you on a train by noon, come on, we’ve known you for years, we don’t want you to get mugged.” He might have even gotten laid if he’d stayed at that party. That New School Girl and he had been talking about the oil spill for forty-five minutes as they drank their vodka tonics – that was the year everyone was drinking gin, but Walter had always liked vodka and stuck with it, and the Girl did too, in honor of her Eastern-European heritage, which she was proud of like only an international politics major with neo-socialist leanings at the New School could be. She was smart, even as they got a little smashed and their hands had started absent-mindedly tracing each others bodies in comradely flirtation she kept the earnest political debate going. She made a pretty good argument that the disaster was a natural consequence of a heartless, market-based energy economy, the solution to which, of course, was the nationalization of the oil market, all the while as he ran his hands through her soft blonde hair and she deposited little agit-prop kisses along his neck and collarbone. It seemed like good political theory at the time. Or maybe she was just cute.
But all that was behind him now, and the drunkenness was already wearing off as he demurely awaited the 3 train to take him back downtown. His friends lived in Harlem, up by 148th Street, in a beautiful one-bedroom they illegally subletted from an old Dominican man and filled with four people. Their apartment was large windowed and mostly devoid of furniture, homey in a starving-artist kind of way, and Walter envied them for their collective achievement of la vie boheme. He lived at home in Jersey City with his parents, who were all too happy to welcome their prodigal art school son home after college. That was the other reason why he didn’t stay at his friends’ house, he supposed. His mother would probably be wanting him to run some errands with her before he went to work, and he could get out of it if he had to, but she would get that weepy, put-upon look on her face, the one that made him run away to art school in the first place. Yes, he had his reasons for abandoning his youthful revelries to this long wait for the train.
That being said, this train was taking an awfully long time to get here. Walter had been in and out of the city all his life, and he was pretty good at comporting himself in these types of quasi-dangerous urban scenarios, but as the platform gradually filled up (well, full, about 20 people, which was quite full at 4 in the morning in Harlem), he began to realize he was out of his depth. Not that the people surrounding him could be called threatening, really, that wasn’t why he was so unnerved. No, the community that formed on the train platform couldn’t have collectively wounded an African gnat, rather the gnat probably would have found them an intriguing meal. A tall man was quietly, spectacularly bleeding from a giant wound in his chest, his hand clasped over the blood but with no sign of pain on his face. There were an awful lot of stoically wounded people in this crowd, bleeding from every conceivable body part and Walter was tempted to offer help but in true New Yorker fashion, they acted as though he wasn’t there. A teenage girl slat slumped, gray-faced, in the corner, softly weeping with no tears on her face. Her shoes were missing. A lot of silent old people, some crying like the girl, some staring blankly into space, a few attempting to talk, and some with a look of quiet contentment on their faces as they awaited the arrival of the train. A skinny boy with wet hair stood very near the tracks, his face full of blood from his nose and his eyes shining. Walter gasped when he realized the cause of the tremendous hush that had befallen the station. None of these people seemed to be breathing. Only his shallow gulps of air echoed on the concrete walls, and his heartbeat seemed like a snare drum in his chest, in the absence of others.
He began to look for the exit. Maybe he should stay with his friends after all, the trains in the morning would be much quicker, and with a few hours of sleep and a little less vodka in him he wouldn’t be plagued by these delusions that he was waiting in a subway station of zombies. “No, not zombies, they weren’t eating brains, what was…that other one, what horror movie am I imprinting on now, fuck this is really why I need to hang out with fewer experimental filmmakers, I’ve lost it and I think my life is a Bruce Campbell movie, or an old episode of the Twilight Zone, pretty soon that guy isx going to come out and start monologuing all over the place, ‘Walter Hoffman was an everyday college graduate, until he entered…’”
But before he could finish his reverie a blinding white light roared into the train station. The force of the subway’s entrance knocked Walter against the concrete wall, flattening him in terror as the other passengers calmly picked up their bags. This was clearly not the 3 train he was waiting for. The entire train seemed to be composed of light, and gave off a palpable heat as it shimmered before him. The whine of its entry had continued after it stopped, in lush harmonic drones, harmonies Walter had never heard before. Its conductor was a beautifully rasta’d Jamaican man in a gleaming white linen suit and a Panama hat. He winked at the girl in the corner and she stopped crying. The passengers gave one last look around at the dingy station, and then stepped through the open doors.
And then they were gone. Walter was left gasping in sobs that seemed as ancient as the ground above his head, tears that were as confusingly joyful as they were racking. He was alone.
He picked himself off the filthy concrete floor, caught the 3 five minutes later, transferred at 14th Street to the PATH train and got home as the sun rose. He never told his anxious parents why he looked so tired, never told that New School Girl about his adventures the night they met, even as they met for coffee and then dinner, even as he had suddenly moved in to her Lower East Side apartment, even as she became his wife and the mother of his children, whom they raised in Cobble Hill because the Lower East Side schools didn’t have a good art program. He never told anyone about his experience at the 148th Street station, and by all accounts it seemed he had forgotten it himself.
And years and years later, with the New School Girl long dead and his children moved away, Walter felt his heart begin to quiet. He got on a 3 train and headed uptown. And no one has heard from him since.
Sunset Above Canal and Lafayette
I cannot get a picture
of the sunset above Canal Street
but I think you should know
that the sky is on fire
that gentle rolled clouds burn deep blue stripes in the unfathomable
alizarins and burnt umbers and goldenrods
Like the Almighty is making clay snakes for rope pots
or maybe just clay snakes for clay snakes’ sake
that the blue could be the thing that humans grasp at and never reach
when we call a blue “midnight”
but also know that it is not midnight, it is 7:49 on Canal Street
and this sunset
is long gone by the time it takes to write to you
but oh, for an eternal moment!
the Christmas light sign
that straddles the traffic at Lafayette Street
to tell oblivious commuters and pious truck drivers “Welcome to Chinatown”
betrayed its true semantics
and fools noticed its greatness and holiness and danger
and I saw this
in a fortuitous traffic light before my J train
and it seemed like it had something to do
Why the Beach is Eroding
ARRRRGGGGHHHH… It’s like this, okay? Once upon a time the shore and the sea were one, he was covered in her and she was surrounded by him and they were the same, they were the planet, okay? Okay? So, I don’t know what happened, there was a tectonic shift, or something; the gods, or whoever, decided they should be separate but equal, and the sea would have the fish and all that stuff, and the shore would have these new species that would now be allowed to grow, good for everybody, youknow?
It’s the reason why we exist.
And the lovers saw the logic in this, they weren’t really happy, per se, but who knows, maybe the shore wanted some independence from the sea, I don’t know.
They ain’t talking.
But it happened, and the sea wept and became salty, and the shore wept and became moist, and then plants grew, and life happened. Our species was founded on a heartbreak, a separation, a divorce – an amicable one, they still see each other and they share the kids, but they aren’t together, you know? They aren’t together anymore and that’s that.
But every night you can hear them talking to each other.
At least, if you live near their meeting place like I do.
You hear them fight, and you hear them dance, and you hear them kake love, and whisper sweetness into each other’s ears.
But they cannot be like they used to be, because they’re not one anymore, you know?
And the sea crashes on the shore and says “come back, come back.”
And the shore submits and says “I can’t, I can’t, I’m sorry.”
But he does, grain by grain she takes him into herself
and she takes him away
And I ask, is this destroying the shore, this love?
They build rock barriers to keep her away at Coney Island.
At Far Rockaway they’re worried because the beach falls away more and more each year.
As we, the children of the estrangement, the fruit of the shore’s newfound lonliness (and moisture inherent in said lonliness)
Build our houses on the ground that shifts beneath our feet.
But it’s just atlanta saying “come back, come back, come back.”
That’s why the beach is eroding!
The ocean is lonely without it.
And one day, they will be one again, no matter what they do.
But for now, we can still sunbathe.
at 8 AM
is almost shockingly beautiful
empty of sound and full
of yesterday’s price tags
and last month’s take out containers
scattered across streets
to be wide and gleaming
Soho not so hostile to me
as the people who inhabit it.