Thursday morning, I had to jump on the R-train into Manhattan. It was rush-hour, but I was lucky, I didn’t have a full day’s work ahead of me. I just had to paint a single wall in a friend’s apartment. He’s a good friend and a generous fellow, so I knew he would pay well and I could take the labor at my leasure, though I was sure it wouldn’t take me too long. So, there was a spring in my step as I boarded the subway car. I felt removed from sleepy, 9-to-5 America. I even found a seat. Lucky me.
Naturally, as the subway flowed like a bead of mercury toward the drain of Manhattan, more of 9-to-5 America boarded. Just about everyone in the multi-ethnic mix – ranging from busboys to data enterers – carried the same expression. From my fortunate, easy going, sitting position, I saw many vacant stares. Tired, sure, but more so, resigned, as if they had just thought, Ok, step one, complete. Now the train. A little…more…time. Between the time that thought left them and the next thought came, they floated in the vacuum of an empty mind, one hand on the rail, moving to and fro at the subway’s whim. Subway rails are a curious thing. No one really uses them for support. Some barely have a finger on the rail. A subway rail offers the traveler an illusion of security. More so, affirmation. I am touching the rail, I am plugged in. I really am here. Please, let this not be a dream about work. Whatever this is, don’t let my job be my dream. From my low angle, 9-to 5 America looked like a herd giants, corraled, fastened to the rail much like circus elephants tied to a stake in the ground by a piece of yarn behind a rickety old big top. Like the elephants, the giants could easily break free, before they reached their fate in Manhattan, which is perform Le Ballet de Gargantuan en le Teatre du American Dream. But they don’t break free, because it’s Thursday – payday – which will make the day go by faster, and tomorrow’s Friday, which is basically the weekend, when all the giants are let out of the pen and free to climb the beanstalks til their heart’s content until Monday.
Just before Manhattan, the herd of giants and I transfer to the Q-train, which runs express through lower Manhattan. Again – this must be my lucky day – I find a seat. Things is nothing but roses, I think to my self. But the Q certainly didn’t smell like roses that morning. A homeless man had set up camp in the car, and carried upon his being a very strong odor – hence the easilly attainable seat. All the giants smelled it too, but again – vacant eyes – they just held the rail. Actually, the smell wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t the standard, moist, warm smell of dirty clothes and uncleaned flesh that can easily turn the stomach. This homeless person smelled like a stockyard – a blend of ammonia soaked earth and the smell of feces after it has dried out into light carbon. This disturbed me a bit. We all stink, we all get the moist, warm funk from time to time. But no human being should smell the way that fellow did that morning. There but for the grace go I, I thought as I sat among the swaying giants. I was very lucky.
About half of the giants got off at the 34th Street stop, the other half at 42nd Street. Just like that, the subway car was almost empty. I turned to look at the homeless man. He sat, hunched over on an old suitcase held together with tape. His head and torso were covered with black trash bag, as if he had fallen asleep while trying to crawl into a body bag. He lay there, half packaged for the Great Beyond, as the only other person in the car – an androgenous Latin man or woman wearing a jogging suit – sat across from him, moving to the beat of whatever song it was that flowed through his or her pink headphones. His or her eyes were closed, but he or she didn’t seem to mind the smelly fellow. He or she just grooved, tapping his or her painted purple finger nails on his or her seat.
The only other person in the car was a black construction worker, sitting to the other side of me. He was reading some kind of self-help book. Of course, I leaned closer to get a better look. The book was old – the pages were yellow and curled at their ends – and the page he was reading had several quotes on it, highlighted in yellow. One quote was by Garth Brooks – you know, Garth Brooks – which read, You get wealthy by going out there and finding something money can’t buy. Another quote was from Benjamin Franklyn, which read, America offers you the pursuit of hapiness, it doesn’t give it to you. The construction worker’s steel toes were bulging out from his boots, and his pants contained a permanent layer of sheetrock dust. His hands were rough with cracked callous, but he held the book as if it were sacred text on 3,000 year old parchment. He held it so close to his face, not to miss out on any of its wisdom. I stood up and went to the door as the train approached my stop. I stared straight ahead and caught my reflection in the window on the door. Uh, oh. I saw someone – vacant eyes, drooping mouth, gently rocking to the subway, a hand barely touching the rail. Could I possibily be a sleepy giant, too, unaware he’d been broken, tamed and trained? I shuttered to think such a thought, but subway windows don’t lie.
The painting went easy like I thought it would. After a nice Thai lunch special in Hell’s Kitchen, I walked down to the 42nd Street stop to hop on the train. The train platform was bustling with workers heading back to work from lunch. Now, their eyes were alert. They stared straight at their destination – the R, N, or Q train – as if their ship was shoving off the dock. All were determined to make it, to jump from dock to deck, clock back in to duty and punch in letters and numbers into a computer until next shore leave.
In the middle of the platform, a busker played the banjo. People pushed about, rushed passed him as he picked his instrument with his eyes closed, smiling and belting out haunted, driving mountain tunes. His raw voice filled the tunnel as if it were a coal mine. When a train would arrive, he’d stop playing and cradle his banjo – eyes still closed, still smiling. His coat was carelessly bundled on the dirty platform. His boots were really a series of holes connected by strips of leather. He had holes in his pants, too, and vinyl was sewn onto the thighs where the banjo rested. After a train would depart, the busker resumed – his voice penetrating my flesh, one boot tapping a tambourine, the other foot pounding a kick drum that punched base notes against the old worn out suitcase on which he sat, and his arms moving so fast he looked like some kind of trailer trash Krishna. The faded tattoes on his forearms blended into some unknown image and I was certain that if I could only figure out what that image was, I would never need The Dollar again. I tried to define The Image, believe me I did. Then I caught a glimpse of his banjo case, laying out in front of him – a few dollar bills laying in it. My train arrived, and I left the busker alone to find a name for it. Practice does make perfect.
On Friday night, I hopped the R train and headed into Manhattan for a dinner party at my friend’s place- the same friend for whom I painted the wall. People were headed home from work. Again, I was lucky, I didn’t have to work Friday. So my eyes were wide as I observed the herd. So many people were coming home from the long workday. Their eyes weren’t vacant this time – though they did look tired. There was something else in their eyes, like an expression borne out of a slight relief. Something like, It is ok to be tired and a little relaxed on this subway because everybody else is. Soon, I will be home. Home. I didn’t see, in any of them, a pride that they helped keep America strong for one more week, or anything like it. What I saw was something better, a simple pride in their selves. They’d done it another day. I was capable – held body, heart and mind together – another day.
My friend’s wall looked great. I’d done a good job, don’t mind sayin’ it. There was a large window in the middle of the wall, and combined with the fresh paint job, it looked like a giant, live-action shadow box of The Big Apple, in which 8 million grand epics were being played out. 8 million capable giants. I did my best to partake in the fellowship of the evening – as my friends laughed and ate between me and the shadow box – because it wasn’t polite to daydream while around such good company. I was lucky to be with them. But every now and then, I gazed at shadow box and thought, Damn, what a good paint job.
It’ll probably be a while before I see that group of friends all in one place again. Earlier in the week, I gave notice to my landlord that I’ll be letting my apartment go in April. I’m leaving New York City. First, I’ll probably head to North Carolina to do some work on a friends house in the mountains. Then to Texas for a month. Then probably to LA to work for some other friends. After that, maybe Texas again. Maybe New York. Who knows where sleepy giants will wander? Whether we’re staked to the ground or floating in space, no one really knows what’s going to happen. All I know is I’m pretty lucky. Maybe I’ll follow Garth Brooks’ lead and rope the wind, or pull a Ben Franklyn and go out into the storm and touch the lightening. After all, it’s all waiting out there for me. I just have to go get it.