Earlier that afternoon I had come back from a trip to visit my Dad in the Midwest. I braced myself for the crush of people as always, but as I left the gate at LaGuardia I immediately noticed that something felt different this time. First in the airport, then on the bus, and finally on Broadway no one seemed to be in the same hurry as usual, and neither was I. As night fell I planned to have a leisurely single course of pizza at Coronet, but first I stopped at 113th and Broadway and looked through a green plastic kiosk for a fresh copy of a free weekly from the week when I had been away.
A streetlight pole beside the kiosk caught my eye as I bent down and rummaged. One of the flyers on the pole made me nervous. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had the distinct feeling that it was not supposed to be there.
The flyer said, “FOUND: TYRANNOSAURUS REX.” There was a picture, clip art, of a Tyrannosaurus Rex with its fearsome maw open toward the street. The paper had an appropriately fossilized look, wrinkled up and gray with hardened rain and obviously much older than all of the other flyers. I wondered why no one had ever ripped it down or flyered it over when the streetlight served such a busy intersection.
Most alarmingly of all the entire bottom third of the flyer was torn away. The information that stated whatever purpose the flyer was supposed to serve was gone. That the Tyrannosaurus had consumed a portion of its own flyer was both as unprovable and as likely as any other explanation.
Minutes later I sat two blocks down in Coronet chomping on my plain Jumbo Slice. No disrespect, but there is something gummy about the crust at Coronet which makes it a pizza that has to be chomped, not chewed, and especially not lamely suckled and swallowed whole like the pizza across the street at Famiglia. Try as they might, Famiglia will never drive Coronet out of business because Coronet hones the act of sitting on a stool and consuming a piece of pizza to its barest essentials. That is the only way to approach Coronet. The slices are too big to take on the street, besides which there is something unsightly about seeing seen with such a vast, unwieldy portion of food covered in such sweaty-looking grease. You eat with your face down even if you aren’t alone because Coronet is lit like the places you don’t want to be. A hospital waiting room, a high school math class, the post office. The harsh overhead lights cast every nook and cranny of your physical being in the least flattering possible relief. Finally, Coronet’s gummy crust sucks the herbivore straight of your teeth so that Coronet fills up with the sounds of lips smacking and furious, open-mouthed chomping.
I read Matt Taibbi’s political column in a giggly mien while I chomped. Taibbi wrote, “Rove is not a genius at all. He is a pig, and the only thing that distinguishes him is the degree of his brazenness and cruelty.” I thought to myself, Tee hee. I was in the best possible mood until a voice from down the counter disturbed me.
“Hey, the way you eat that pizza . . . That’s an interesting method you’ve got there,” it said.
I looked up. It was a young man with a moustache and a goatee that looked scraggly, but still a little bit too full for his Johnson & Johnson complexion. His thick head of dark hair looked electrocuted in a vaguely Einstein-esque fashion, but at the same time pampered. If you looked closely enough, you could tell each fine, delicate strand apart from all of its neighbors. His round glasses filled out his weird pseudo-European aura, on top of which he wore a Hawaiian-style shirt that depicted images of the Manhattan skyline against a voluptuous tropical sunset. Over and over again, the shirt said, “New York,” in a hazy yellow font that seemed nostalgic for itself.
He tilted back his head and looked down his nose at me like a professor demanding that certain essential facts be repeated.
He asked, “Could you tell me if that is the way that you always eat pizza, or are you deliberately trying to do something different?”
The gentleman was referring to the fact that I tend to eat the crust first. It’s the eat-your-vegetables principle applied to pizza—get the crust over with and save the tastiest portion for last. I said, “I don’t know.” Then I returned to my article.
Taibbi wrote, “Karl Rove is a character of a type that reappears from time to time throughout history—an unscrupulous power-chaser of the highest order, who rises to the top by demonizing and defaming innocent people.” I tried to get back into the groove.
“I’m just asking because, I think that’s very interesting what you’re doing there.”
I kept reading.
“Do you think I should start eating pizza like this?”
I looked up and saw him turning his own piece of pizza counter-clockwise in his hands, opening and closing his mouth to simulate chomping.
It was late at night. He was sitting only one stool away from me in a restaurant that I now realized was otherwise empty.
“Or, do you just want to get back to what you’re reading?”
“Yes,” I said. “I would like to get back to what I’m reading.” I turned away from him accordingly. But then I turned back and added: “If you’re really thinking about trying to eat pizza counterclockwise, that would be cool.” I mimicked the way he had turned his pizza, but without picking up my own slice, and continued, “Like, eating the pizza in a spiral, instead of in rows? That would be cool if that’s what you’re contemplating.”
“No,” he said, sounding serious. “That’s not what I was talking about.”
I said, “OK.” I went back to my article and at some point he left.
When there was nothing on my plate but a smear of grease I stood up from my stool without lingering. I felt cool, I guess the low-key excitement that had struck me upon my return was persisting. When I stood at the trash, the single gesture with which the contents of my tray slid down into the open mouth of the receptacle felt masculine and decisive. I needed to walk downtown five blocks to return some DVD’s that had been due before I had left on my trip. The thought that the fees incurred could be the final, single straw that cleared out my bank account and doomed me to constant, desperate foraging for crumbs throbbed away in the back of my mind, but the throbbing was quiet. To survive as a small business owner you had to have real teeth, but despite that I truly believed that the owner of this rental outlet had the soul of a herbivore. Tonight, things just felt OK.
I had a spring in my step. I ambled under a corridor of scaffolding between Coronet and 110th singing “Cold Blooded” in my head. Uniform shadows loomed under the scaffolding that concealed pedestrians’ faces, but not their iPods. I thought, Is it not the loss of the inner iPod that is the true tragedy of the iPod? I started trying to make up new lyrics for “Cold Blooded.”
“Hey man. Do you want a cookie?”
I shuddered—he was back. He walked beside me, under the scaffolding all but invisible but for the silhouette of his absurd intellectual hair. I saw that he was a full head taller than me.
I heard the squeaky sound of the cookie pouch tearing open.
“I got ‘em at Duane Reade’s,” he said.
I said, “No,” as though he were homeless and I had never seen him before, sped up, and then crossed Broadway at 110th. From across Broadway I watched him ambling in front of the huge well-lit Gristedes, cookie pouch in hand. I knew that everything about his laid-back, surfer-Trotsky style was so over-the-top that it could only be explained as cover for a violent, irrationally aggressive personality, whether he knew it or not. Just after Gristedes he disappeared from view . . . Either he was on an excursion, determined to buy at least one item from every single store on Broadway, or he was hiding. Or both? In any case I knew the video store was on the East side of Broadway and that I would have to cross back over to his turf sooner or later.
My apartment was further uptown, on Riverside, and there were times when I would walk between there and the Columbia campus late at night and have to remind myself that it was not all one, single, continuous campus. The elegant stone facades of Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, the Manhattan School of Music, and the many vast faculty housing projects almost lent themselves to the fantasy, but at night an eerie silenced reigned in Morningside Heights that compelled dread. On the very few occasions when I had experienced urban violence, the quality about it that stood out was its suddenness. One minute you’re ambling, the next there’s a knife in your face and whatever you had expected in the previous second now means nothing.
How do you make it clear to a stranger that you don’t want to know them? That is, How do you let someone know that you won’t feel comfortable with them at least until they tell you their name? The fact that this idiot would offer me a cookie without even telling me his name was the ultimate proof that he was out of his mind. Crossing Broadway I envisioned him coming up behind me with a knife, a hammer, or just his elbow, a potentially life-changing act of retribution that I would lack even the privilege of being able to witness.
I slipped in and out of the movie store unnoticed. There had been no collection agency flunkies lying in wait as I had feared. A group of drunk men of all different ages swayed from Broadway into a nearby bar. I hopped off the curb and into the street to get by as fast as possible. In this area, you know people are safe if you see them in groups. Elsewhere, the opposite may be true, but the point is that at moments like this, in which I was being stalked by a lunatic who was capable of literally anything, made me grateful that the language of social signs could at times be so precise. On this score, I began my trek through the gauntlet back uptown regretting my earlier opprobrium for the iPod. Walking around carrying an iPod was a way of relinquishing any claim on society and embracing total atomization, right or wrong. The dead look in the iPod zombie’s eyes said as much; it was impossible to imagine being robbed by such a mute, passive savant.
That was why the iPods looked the way they did, I decided. It was a white flag, a sign of peace in the urban war of all against all.
The streets grew emptier as one business after another locked its doors. Lights went out and I watched people get into cabs blocks ahead of me, only to have disappeared without a trace when I would catch up to their point of takeoff. I walked backwards crossing 109th because it was a wide-open area, but there were a lot of trees below where he could have been hiding.
When suddenly I heard the squeak of the wrapper again I started, almost screaming until I looked around, found no one, and then realized that the sound had come from a cookie wrapper abandoned on the sidewalk that I had stepped on myself.
Could it have been the same cookie wrapper? I didn’t have time to find out.
I didn’t feel safe until I reached 113th, where I was in clear view of Columbia Public Safety. I found the flyer again and I studied it, “FOUND: TYRANNOSAURUS REX,” and asked myself again what I thought it might mean. Irony—it was a joke of belonging. Anyone who understood it could breathe a sigh of knowing relief. The Tyrannosaurus Rex was the monster loose everywhere, the ever-present threat of violence that haunted the metropolis at even the best of times. It can never be lost because it is at home everywhere, and at the same time it can never be found . . . Because it finds you. Like the counter-clockwise pizza-eating buffoon of my acquaintance, the monster wears New York like a Hawaiian shirt.
I took off into Columbia, behind its comforting black iron bars, to check my email at the 24-hour computer lab. There I would be safe until daybreak . . .