Scenes From City Life
A novelist with a book just published is probably best off finding other things to think about.
So I offer two contrasting scenes from the subways of New York City.
The other day, I was heading into Manhattan to meet a friend, when I found myself in the midst of a crime about to happen. The doors of the F train had just closed when I realized something was very wrong.
There were a half-dozen young men all in heavy black down jackets bouncing raucously around the car, buzzing among themselves, clearly psyching themselves up to do something that none of them would have had the guts to do on his own. Instinctively, I put my back against the doors, making sure I couldn’t be jumped from behind.
But I wasn’t the object of attention here. I heard the largest of the boys say to the others very loudly, “Are you all ready to do this?” as if he was firing a warning shot down the length of the car. They moved into place like actors about to begin a scene and then the big guy threw a stagy punch at a medium-sized kid wearing a doo-rag and gold caps on his teeth. Playing his part, the doo rag kid shoved the big guy and he fell heavily, and deliberately, on a wan, spiky-haired boy sitting by the window, wearing earphones and minding his own business. Despite the size difference, the sitting boy pushed the big guy off him, perhaps thinking it was an accident, but the trap had been sprung. The big guy fell on him again and the five others moved in, predatory and impatient to get at their spoils.
The other passengers froze and did nothing, caught in someone else’s nightmare and powerless to help. It was all happening so fast. Just as the train pulled into its next station, the one with the doo rag stepped forward and grabbed the boy’s bag, grappling for the electronic gaming device inside. The kid being robbed stood up and wrestled for the bag. All of a sudden, we were back in the bad old New York of the 1980s when wolf packs roamed the subways, terrorizing passengers. And what struck me most at the moment was the look of indignance in the mugger’s eyes, as if he couldn’t believe the effrontery of his victim in trying to resist him.
The doors flew open and I yelled “leave him alone.” It didn’t seem to have much effect, and I weighed the wisdom of wading in among six young men, all at least twenty-five years younger than me. It seemed ill-advised. So I straddled the gap between the door and the platform and shouted something about going to get a cop. They ignored me, but something about the way their victim was standing his ground seemed to throw them off. For no obvious reason, they all bolted a few seconds later. The doors closed and the boy with the earphones went back staring out the window. For the rest of the ride, the other passengers seemed to avoid looking at him. And he pretended he didn’t mind.
Not a major tragedy, but in small way it was awful. Because it confirmed every old stereotype about the cold indifference and casual brutality of urban life. As someone who loves the city and has seen it go through good and bad times, I didn’t believe it was the whole story.
And it isn’t.
The next day, I was back on the F train, heading into Manhattan again. The doors opened at 34th Street and three young guys got on, roughly the same age as the muggers from the day before. Only these guys had conga drums. They sat down and began to play. A simmering bubbling rhythm that ended with a loud pop every other measure. But it got inside you somehow. You started listening more carefully, picking the little counter-rhythms and subtleties of accents. It was like a dialogue of percussion between the three guys, but the rest of us were part of it as well. You could see old ladies bobbing their heads a little and guys in business suits starting to jiggle their pinstriped knees.
I closed my eyes for a second, so I could really hear them without visual distraction. At that moment, though, the train stopped at 42nd Street. And as the doors opened, I heard a sound from out on the platform. A high otherworldly sigh of a bowed string. A sound from the other side of the universe. Vaguely, I recognized it as maybe being Southeast Asian in tone. Hadn’t I seen a guy sawing away at an instrument like that in front of Rite Aid the other day? What was it called anyway? A gamelan? No, that was something else. Whatever this was, right at that second, it fit. Somehow it melded perfectly with the beat of the drums, as if the musicians were standing on either side of a border facing each other, building on a common riff, playing the same song. That plaintive wail floating above the bare hands slapping the skins, sounding like nothing I’d ever heard before. And nothing I’d ever hear again, since the whole thing was an accident. One time and one time only.
It was an exquisite moment.
But then it was done. The doors closed and the train continued on its way uptown. And the songs became strangers again, as if they’d never met. The businessmen went back to reading their Wall Street Journals, the old women went back to rearranging the shopping bags at their feet.
And I remembered why I still live here.