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Unlimited Metro

Letter From Manhattan

Pick A Lane

March 5, 2004

Thank God it’s the express train, because something’s crawled into the short chap next to me and died. He’s making his Tuesday commute with I-Pod on and eyes closed, unwilling to acknowledge surrounding casualties. To my left a tall black man breathes through long bony fingers, attempting to form a makeshift gas mask. I bless the parting doors at 42nd, never happier to join the crazed sea of humanity. From an ascending escalator I see a guy sing “Easy Like Sunday Morning” while a girl leans and watches, momentarily relieved from the task of putting all this together.

But who could put all this together? Above ground three midwestern gals (two fifty-something sisters and Mom) bask in the delight that is Times Square: Peep-O-Rama, Pronto Pizza, and the Christian megaphone set with a display of glossy prints that makes skipping lunch a viable option. But this trio is locked in on something else – a towering Calvin Klein Pro Stretch Underwear billboard gracing the masses. The model, Swedish footballer Fredrik Ljungberg, definitely puts the “c” in “codpiece.” “I was noticing his tattoo,” one daughter confesses. “Oh bull,” shoots back Mom.

The next morning I’m hit with the harrowing realization that the short guy’s gone, but whatever crawled up inside him is still there. It was never his in the first place and has taken up semi-permanent residence underground, somewhere south of 72nd. This time I bolt up the escalator stairs and into the great outdoors, happy to share what oxygen Fredrik’s left me.

***

It can’t end today– this much I know. I’ve just purchased an unlimited MetroCard, assuring thirty days of limitless travel and committing myself psychologically to another month. For seventy bucks I get it all: access to each of the five boroughs and the material of a lifetime. The thing about material, though, is that it’s only as good as the person interpreting it. It’s easy to understand how last June’s colorful cast of subway lugs could quickly become this April’s traveling commune from Hell. But I’m not quite ready to let this happen. Whether they realize it or not, these folks still hold some appeal, and this city quite literally never stops.

It’s too big to stop, or even pause. New York is always available, like a bottomless cup of strong black coffee. If you’ve managed rest in between, it can carry you to the next inspired word or novel observation. But without occasional refuge it can batter and rattle nerves, like a screaming baby in a crack house. In exchange the city asks that you pay your rent and pick a lane; that’s about it. Keep the cash flowing and know where you’re going on the sidewalk, even if you don’t know what you’ll do once you get there. They don’t mind if you cut them off, but God help you if you slow them down.

***

I have to find another place to live and again have less than a month to do it. I’m jarred awake most mornings by shouts, slams, and someone dragging a floor safe outside my door. The gas has been off for five weeks and I’ve tired of Fairway’s chicken Caesars. I need somewhere I can cook, sleep and rest. So I’ve again taken to the pavement, searching for potential roommates and studios. The fourth time’s no charm, and combined with lack of sleep it’s wearing on me. I get some encouragement from new Iowa resident Kelly, who writes: “You have what NYC wants and she will embrace you. Just be yourself.”

Being myself, I answer an ad the next day for a roommate and am greeted by a woman in sweats who looks like she’s logging about as much pillow time as I am. She gives me the grand tour, starting with a backyard that resembles an access alley to a South Central Home Depot. She assures me that the decaying, strung patio lights will come down, though they’ve apparently survived the winter. We go in to see “my room” but I’ve already had enough. “What do you think?” she asks. “Think you’ll take it?” Even if the place was acceptable, I already know far more about her divorce than any ten-minute acquaintance merits. I politely decline when she offers coffee. The only thing I’ll be taking is an aspirin.

That night I check out another place on the Upper East Side. While not my favorite neighborhood, the apartment sounds good and the woman is inviting when I call. “Come by any time,” she tells me. “I’ll be here.” And so she is when I arrive, but insists on greeting me in the lobby. I’m struck both by the condition of her pupils and a decided inability to look me in the eye. “I’m so sorry,” she says, “it’s not usually so ‘dramaesque’ around here, but I have an unexpected visitor. Can we do this tomorrow?” I have no idea what she’s talking about, but am a bit frightened by the intense manner in which she scans the paisley wallpaper. I hit the road, relieved with not having made it to the elevator. Outside, I pick a lane and move on.

2004 Rick Monaco All Rights

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