Going Home to Maine

by

05/04/2004

400 W 31st St # 4, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Manhattan

The downtown 1 train at four forty-five in the morning is almost as crowded as it is at noon, but quieter. I am lucky to find a seat. There is a feeling of camaraderie amongst those of us who are up and about at this hour and I find myself feeling sorry when the scrappy-looking young man across from me disembarks at Columbus Circle. You’re leaving? Already? An older man with a black wool hat takes his place, sips coffee from a blue and white paper cup. Someone snores. The darkness of the tunnels is soothing; the station lights, too sudden.

Penn Station is never called Pennsylvania Station, although the walls in the subway say PENNSYLVANIA in capital letters.

In the waiting area a woman stumbles over to the pay phones, unzips her pants, and urinates all over the floor. Everyone watches. Ten minutes later there is an announcement. “Mop needed in east waiting room. Mop needed, repeat.” Everyone laughs.

An elderly man asleep. Two children, about six or seven, mock wrestling on the floor. A babyfaced Marine making a telephone call. “Hi, how are you? Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t sleep at all. Yeah, I just ate.”

More announcements come over the loudspeaker. All ahbawuhd. Lascall. Trenninphilladelphya. Washinnondeesy. Alllll ahbawuhd. My train is called. Bawstunsprinfield. I pick up my bags. It’s time to go.

As the sun sets in Waterville, Maine, the trees stand sentry against the sky, which is colored in shades the city knows only from shop windows and certain women’s eyelids. There is a palpable energy not in the streets or on the sidewalks but in the wind – a whiff of the Canadian tundra, hints of a cold fierce enough to kill. It buffets the chain stores that have sprung up around the interstate exits, but it cannot, nothing can, knock them loose. They are as much a part of the landscape as the river and the bridges and the smokeless smokestack of the empty mill.

On Main Street everyone I meet has one thing to ask. How is New York exclamation point question mark. Quick, think fast. Sum up the unsummable in a pithy phrase or two. Well, I say, fumbling. It’s an adjustment. They nod, expectant, wanting more. Well. There was the time the man leapt onto the train at 125th Street with a handkerchief pressed over his face. He inhaled deeply and fell down, laughing, hooting and screaming and huffing all the way to Times Square, where he crawled out the doors. There was the man in the fedora who said bless you honey as I took out the garbage one bright fall morning. Bless you and kept walking. What would you like? Would you like more? There was the time outside the Met when a cab turned right on red and had to come to a sudden stop to avoid hitting a pedestrian in the crosswalk. The man, who had a plastic child’s sled under his arm, wheeled about-face and began walloping the hood of the cab with the sled. “I know I shouldn’t laugh, but knowing that makes me laugh harder,” remarked a well-heeled blonde beside me. More, they clamor with their hands, insatiable, more.

There is more. There is a twenty-four hour deli where you can buy not one, not two, but ten different kinds of soy milk at any hour of the night or day. There is a grinning man who plays an acoustic guitar in the 14th Street tunnel, grinning and singing and bouncing on the balls of his feet for the people striding from the 1 2 3 9 to the F V L. There is a loneliness so sharp and pointed it takes your breath away, an ache like a hypodermic. There are sudden empty hours in which you wander the streets, wondering whatever shall I do with myself now? There is the warmth of a kitchen in Brooklyn, all white linoleum and deep red chairs, brown cigarettes and whiskey in coffee mugs. There are roasted peanuts for a dollar.

Do you like it? they ask.

The train slides south toward the city in the pitch-black night. I can see the lit streets leading straight into its heart, slabs of buildings on either side. I recognize the Triboro Bridge by the History Channel billboard below it; I remember fixing my eyes on that red and gold H as I drove across the bridge in a Ryder truck full of my possessions. The other bridges I do not know, not yet. I realize I am nervous, panicky, and not even the sight of the Chrysler Building can soothe me.

Life in central Maine is many things – cold, sedate – but at least it is rational. I can feel the ground under my feet, I can grasp my days and make sense of them. Here my grip slips. Where, after all, is the reason in ten different kinds of soy milk at three a.m.? Where is the reason in the man who fell to his knees on the subway and screamed for the love of God please help me it’s cold and I don’t even got no socks? Where is the reason in looking away (as everyone looked away)? Where is the reason in forty-foot billboards looming over the streets as though these particular blue jeans held the secret to world peace?

The train ducks into a tunnel and roars beneath the river, wheels thrumming. People around me begin to stir, stretching their cramped limbs and reaching for their luggage overhead. The blackness gives way to white tile walls, and the platform is in sight. I will make my way up the stairs and down the long hallways to the subway which will whisk me eighty-two blocks uptown, an express train if I’m lucky, although that means changing at 96th Street (and it occurs to me I know this now, as I know my middle name) – and this is Penn Station, says the conductor, this is New York City.

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