Last Tuesday, I road the D-train into Manhattan from Brooklyn during the morning rush-hour. It was the first time I’d done so since I got back from my road trip to North Dakota. I was running behind and still tired from the trip. On my run to the subway, it felt like the rest of the world was just a few steps ahead of me, tied to a string in which Cosmo – the resident jester of the universe – kept pulling just a little further away, every time I tried to reach out and grab it. But as I packed into the D-train with the rest of Workforce America! I noticed that just about everybody looked to be reaching out for a world just beyond them – just a fingertip away from the big IS.
Of course, there were no empty seats on the D-train so I posted myself against the sliding doors. From my perch, I saw many pairs of tired, protective eyes. Down, then a quick look into mine, then down again. Mine too. I was protecting, too, whatever the deep lizard part of my brain thought there was to protect. Cosmo jumped from one spinning galaxy to another, pointing, laughing at us all.
Of course, more people piled in at every stop. Everybody looked for even the smallest safety bubble. But no use. We pressed against each other as the train shucked and jived on the rails. The human friction created a cloud of electricity, heavy, sluggish, yet powerful like an Oklahoma thunderstorm. Still more people, more electricity. More efforts to hide, more to protect. More futility. Cosmo – dangle, dangle.
Of course, a packed subway commute is nothing new to me. But Tuesday morning, I was hit with a good old fashioned panic attack. Before I knew it, I was short of breath. My left arm hurt as I tried to catch that one big breath that would calm things down a little. But that only brought on dizziness. The train lumbered on, rocking to and fro. I was drifting in a river, nose just above the water, the bottom of the river just inches from my toes – at once trying to find footing and breath. Trains go slower during panic attacks. The jarring stops and starts are ampified, along with the impact of the people bumping into you. I started seeing spots. The train turned a corner, squealing so violently and directly into my brain that I was an impulse away from screaming madly or pissing myself. I don’t mind saying it. I was in a bad way. The train stops squealing just in time for me to remember that we are underground, under thousands of tons of earth. These subway tunnels are ancient, they can go any moment! I see more and more spots until I can only make out blurred earthtones. Hands clammy, legs shaking. I struggle for deeper breaths. The smell of humans on the canned heated air triggers an urge to throw up. I have on too many clothes. I’m f&%$ing boiling…
The train stopped at 42nd Street and – fully clothed – I exited the train, scurried up the steps like a rat for fresh air. I made it above ground into the blur of business dress and yellow cabs. I joined the parade as to not get run over, marching to the tune of car horns and that unidentifiable, constant roar of the city. After a cocktail of cold air with a dash of car exhaust, I found the rythm of the day’s beat. My shoulders relaxed a little. Breathing got easier. Straight ahead was Cosmo – blowing kisses, smiling, tugging.
Cosmo picks up his pace and the world moves faster in New York. One can get lost in his game and before one knows it years go by and the world’s still just beyond their fingertips. The only changes being a little less hair, grayer hair – you’re skinnier or fatter, married to a credit card balance or maybe to a another person. It gets real easy substitute just living in New York for one’s dreams. A few years ago, I suddenly realized I was not terribly satisfied, so I split and went to work on a horse ranch in southern Utah for three months. I was scared to leave New York, a fact I did not know until I saw the city from afar as I rode out to the airport. But kicking around in the desert a while with people to whom New York was just another place like Des Moines or Clearwater helped me see New York as a city again, not the unamable blurry cloud I took it for – where the man I have been was not allowed and where the man I am must engage in a fight-to-the-death with the man I want to be, only stopping to join in the fight against the invisible creatures, Determination and Ambition. I’m very grateful for the clarity the desert gave me. Since the desert, my life has been truly amazing, and simple. But sanity is forgettable, simplicity fleeting. I waltzed back into New York, from North Dakota, and I didn’t remember to prepare for re-entry – to remember Calm. Tuesday morning I payed the price.
On the drive to North Dakota, the world – though Cosmo still tugged it just ahead of me like a yoyo – moved slower with each mile. My mind was able to take space-walks outside my brain, and do some much needed wandering. My caveman instincts receded and my stomach muscles relaxed as the road roared beneath me. Nothing was too serious. New York’s a very serious place. Don’t get me wrong, New York is filled with many quite funny and goofy people. But just imagine what it may be like for circus clowns just before they get out of the tiny car. One clown’s knee’s in another’s back, his rear-end’s in the face of another. One clown’s got gas, but the damn ringmaster insists the windows stay rolled up – it’s good for business, to see all the clowns pressed together, to see them uncomfortable. It makes for a much better pay off when the clowns burst of the little car and roll around on each other. It cannot be the happiest of moment for a clown. Good thing – for business – the smiles are painted on.
I know a man who hasn’t left the city for about 20 years. We had coffee the other day. He did most of the talking as he twitched and jerked constantly. But he kept drinking the coffee.
“Let me tell you Todd,” he said. “Being mentally ill is a drag.”
“Have you thought about getting out of the city? Just a quick day trip on a train or a bus?”
“Oh, no…I…no, I can’t do that.”
He, like most of us here, moved to the city for opportunity. He wasn’t crazy back then, or at least wasn’t content with calling himself such. I don’t know much about him, but I imagine he had some kind of dream back then. Something so strong it lofted him over his fears and into his own being – someone he liked to be, surviving via his mind, legs and arms. He’s not a rare case, either. I’ve known people in the city that haven’t even left individual neighborhoods for years. They babble about in tiny grocery stores – wear coats in the summertime, argue with the butcher that the minute it took him to slice their order of gouda cheese was a minute too long. Mr. Butcher should go back to whatever Middle Eastern country he’s from, the babbling wretch shouts across the counter. Mr. Butcher’s waited on the babbling wretch for ten years. He just smiles, hands her the cheese, and says, “Buenos dias.”
The rule here is that one is an official New Yorker when one has lived here for at least ten years. So, I guess I’m about to become an official New Yorker in a few months. In the decade I’ve been here I’ve seen quite a few people – people real dreams – pack it up and leave. I would never say they gave up on their dreams – just that their dreams changed as they neared them. They say you have to hold onto your dreams to make it in the city. But I don’t believe that. I think holding on to the dream as you saw it – when you first found a wormhole and crawled into the Big Apple – leads to discontent, as the years go by, and clenching it tighter only leads to madness. I was only an actor when I moved here, only wanted to be an actor and if you told me I would find happiness in anything else I would’ve turned and walked away, never to talk to you again. Ten years down the road, that seems like a crazy, hurtful thing to do, to you and to myself. The view of my dream changed as I neared it. Something – especially a dream – cannot look the same, from far away, as it does, years later, when one has reached it.
I understand that the world’s always gonna be just slighty beyond my reach. But I also understand that I have to continue toward it, just like everyone else. To babble and scream that it is out of my reach – yet not take any steps toward it – might suggest to someone that I was quite mad. Just like bursting out in tears and pissing myself in the subway. I’m glad I hung in there and took the pressure, like everybody else.
I’d managed to piece together a full workday on Tuesday. Afterwards, I hopped the F-train out to my buddy Joe’s to play guitars. Joe’s a good friend, and I got many. Many of them are shapeshifting dreamers, too. I hadn’t taken the F-train in a while. But I used to live off it, a few years ago. Back then, I would see a woman begging for change. Every night, she said her and her little girls were living in a shelter, it was cold and dangerous. Please help. I saw the same lady Tuesday night, too. Begging, her little girls were still little, still living in a cold and dangerous shelter. The woman’s voice still cracking the way it did a few years ago. Then I thought about a guy I used to see on the 6-train when I lived in Spanish Harlem. I’d see him every night, begging to the point of tears that he was living in a shelter, and the night before his bag containing everything he owned was stolen, and if we could please find it in our hearts to help…every night.
So, I guess I’m living the good life because – though I’m feeling the pressure of New York quite a bit, lately – I’m still playing Cosmo’s game of cat and mouse – still able to play it. I can move. For some people, the pressure is simply to strong. They are frozen in time. The bag will always be stolen the night before. The shelter will always be cold and dangerous. Her little girls will never grow – will always stay little girls.