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Jamaica-Avenue X

Everybody into the gene pool

July 6, 2003

Back in California I drove an Audi A4 1.8T with heated seats and Quattro all-wheel drive. These features made all the difference, risking the difficult quarter-mile down to Bell Market to pick up ripe avocados and a basket of cherry tomatoes. My Brooklyn equivalent is the F-Train, which I catch two blocks up at the Carroll Street stop. It lacks heated seats and a six-CD changer, but makes up for this in a particular brand of urban diversity. The French probably have a word for it, but they wouldn’t use it here.

Of course it isn’t the subway itself that evokes response and emotion, but the people who ride. Without them it is merely a network of clunky old trains plowing through sooty tunnels, clearing the heads of large track-dwelling rodents. Add the human element and the system comes alive – a sometimes thriving, sometimes decaying organism with veins reaching to all corners of the city.

Summer presents the ideal setting for acquainting oneself with the dizzying flow of fellow riders, many stripped down to minimal clothing, revealing all that constitutes both the beauty and cruel joke which define humanity. At times one is offered a momentary diversion from his daily rumination, perhaps in the form of a soft blue cotton dress draped gracefully over elegant brown shoulders. But always equally available are the horror and unflinching reality that is the human gene pool. It has been often speculated that God has a sense of humor. If one were to note this riding the subway, he might also conclude that isn’t entirely unlike that of the kid who pulled the wings off bugs in the third grade.

“Punch is a good guy. He’s one of those guys.. he’s figurin’ shit out. Just figurin’ shit out.”

I pick up this bit of dialogue from two business boys riding the 6 Train up Lexington, both wearing checkered pastel Polo shirts and blue-faced Fossil watches. They are young, probably fifteen years my junior and just out of college. The one speaking looks Irish, with a flap of red hair relentlessly pursuing his forehead and chubby pale hairless legs, pushing from khaki shorts. I imagine that Punch is a coworker, about the same age, and admired by both. The emphasis the kid puts on this short phrase- “figurin’ shit out”- can’t be ignored. For a moment it seems we are all doing the same, waiting for a fresh allotment of confusing shit at the next stop. The doors open at 77th and a black guy with a Charlie Parker shirt and wrap around shades slides in next to me.

“ ’Scuse me, Doctor – what time you got?”

I tell him nine-thirty.

“Ouch! Not good.. not good.”

I note that this is the first “Doctor” I’ve gotten (on either coast) and appreciate the novelty and assumed sophistication. It runs circles around “Big Guy,” “Boss,” and “Chief.” My imaginative friend bolts at 86th, much too involved in his pressing schedule to care about my amusement. In his place sits a lanky, paint-splattered laborer, with a cement bucket and spade and skeletal limbs.

The heat isn’t as bad as I imagined. Part of it has to do with an air of authenticity I assume I’m experiencing. After almost 38 years, this is my first real, extended, urban summer. My seasons in Northern California were rounded at the corners with few extremes, and the exceptions didn’t last too long. I still think that it’s an ideal climate, and certainly one of the most beautiful spots in the world. But the weather out here lends itself to the city. It has weight, distinction, and authority. When the sky decides to do something, it does it. And everything seems played out on a scale that puts human participation in its proper, individual perspective. Perhaps God’s sense of humor isn’t quite so cruel after all – He seems to have spared them earthquakes. At least until I got here…

2003 Rick Monaco All Rights

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