The Butcher Shift–a Gotham Hazing.

by

02/11/2005

4000 st nicholas ave ny ny 10032

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

In a city that purportedly never sleeps (but does take frequent disco naps), there is a population of workers who must keep the place running while most inhabitants are in fact snoozing. Our commute begins as most are bedding down with Letterman or curling into a vodka-drenched stranger. We are the skeleton crew operating the machine while the rest of the city sleeps or recreates the night away.

Riding to work during normal business hours, a person a gets to see the shiny scrubbed version of humanity. Freshly shaved men in wool crepe suits, women straddled with leather totes and travel mugs stained with lipstick. For us, however, the alarm goes off at 10 p.m. We run for the train at an hour when most people have put their work day behind them. And the journey is not always pretty. Those who have lived in New York become just as familiar with its beasts as its beauties.

If you are one of the many whose work day begins at midnight, the imperfections are blatantly exposed. Eventually, the squalid becomes proportionately more familiar. And, in time, the hideous surprisingly unravels into painful and muted splendor.

One night last August, I was riding the A train downtown from Washington Heights on a late Sunday evening. My fellow Metrocarders and I were the chosen motley committee sent through the underground tunnels to greet midnight and no one appeared particularly enthused to brave the task.

For my part, I was en route to work the overnight shift waiting tables and babysitting drunks at a 24-hour restaurant in the Meatpacking District. This shift was once called the “Butcher Shift” because, twenty years ago, the only customers between midnight and 8:00 a.m. were the butchers readying themselves for a day of slaughtering and shipping meat. The butchers would saddle up to the counter with the neighborhood’s other primary residents, the transsexual hookers.

THese days the neighborhood is a trendy intersection for pseudo-hipsters in Manolo Blahnik sandals and the butchers get to share their chow time with this mass of inebriated revelers.

The train was almost empty when I boarded at 191st Street. When I stepped into the orange and yellow car, I was aromatically assaulted by a bouquet of urine soaked emanations. It didn’t take long to determine the source of the offense. An old homeless man sat alone in the middle of the car wearing clothes painted to his skin with the dirt of time and the cold sweat of disregard. He appeared to be molding and decaying before our eyes. His head bobbed freely around on his neck as though independent of his control. Occasionally, he murmured incoherently. When I arrived on the train, the seats furthest from the man were the only ones occupied. His malodorous aura kept a wide circle around his physical body, an invisible wall separated the man from the ‘normal’ population. In general, it seemed most were either mildly annoyed or completely indifferent. At each boarding, people stepped onto the train and walked dutifully to a point far away from the homeless man, quickly assessing from whence the sickening scent came. As usual at that late hour in upper upper Manhattan, there was not a white person to be seen for several stops. Until the train approached 81st Street, only two young white women joined us and they sat huddled together quietly in the farthest corner of the car, glowing white lights in the dark night. As the train slowed its progression and pulled into the 81st Street ˆ Natural History Museum stop, I saw a large crowd gathered on the platform. Families and tourists waited eagerly to be swallowed into the giant metal subway beast. Two young Dominican boys across the way from me laughed conspiratorially, “his should be funny.”

The happy Banana Republic families were chattering loudly as they stepped inside the car. Most barely acknowledged the man at first, unaccustomed to the homeless being an immediate constant in the elaborate equation of urban living. When the rotting, oily smell reached their nostrils, the tourists all seemed to shriek with their whole bodies. A few well-heeled men scurried away from the source of the offensive effluvium with violent politeness. Parents huddled their young children under their large arms trying to rescue their virginal nasal passages from the putrid perfume of hygienic dereliction. The mothers pursed their lips into tight frowns at each other, careful not to overly offend but clearly unimpressed with their environment. One husband’s eyes betrayed to his wife’s,I told you we should have taken a cab! A quiet drone of whispers surfed through the crowd as we neared the next stop. I looked up to see that the old homeless man was now holding his penis out of the unzipped hole in his pants. He tugged at it casually as one would bite their nails or smooth their hair. It was like a deflated black water balloon flopping around between his fingers. As will happen with a creature kept too long in captivity, the dark snake gasped hopelessly for breath having been recently freed from the confines of its owner’s eternally soiled pants. The boys across the way were almost in tears, holding each other together in unbridled laughter.

I have seen more than my fair share of strangers’ penises after five years in the city, but sharing the experience with virgins to the situation is unsettlingly amusing–a Gotham hazing. At the Times Square stop, more people poured into the train. At this point, it was logistically impossible for so many people to fit onto the train and still honor the radius of space around the old man. Instead, many people got off the car and quickly moved to the next one, fleeing the scene of the excitement. One young man in baggy sweatpants threw up his arms at the sight of the homeless man’s recently freed member. “Aww, man!” he snarled. No sooner though, the young man was distracted by the music in his headphones and seemed to forget the genitalia sighting.

The two-note beep signaling the closing of the car doors was also the cue for one of my favorite subway performance groups to burst through the doors separating the train cars. Two older black men weaved and danced through the crowded aisle while shaking a paper bag of loose change as an accompanying tambourine. The man in front shook the graying curly wisps on his head rhythmically and elicited a sweet baritone riff, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine . . .”

His friend followed him and tipped his hat lightly at various female passengers. He accompanied a growling harmony, “Let it shine, let it shine. . .” They were unfazed by the homeless man, the homeless man’s penis and everyone else on the train. Just another day at the job.

I looked at the faces of the families drawn together like little bundles of baked bread. One mother’s countenance of civility was betrayed by the white-knuckled clenching of her right hand on her daughter’s shoulder. She buried the girl’s eyes into the black wool of her coat. A few stops before I was to get off the train, a crew of uniformed officers boarded as well. I was surprised that none of them approached the homeless man either. Each carried the same black bag and seemed deliberately unaware in their ill-fitting clothes. I guessed they were still students at the police academy. I do not normally see authorities harass homeless people on the train unless they are lying down and taking up several seats.

It is against the law to take up more than one space on the subway; it is not illegal, however, to smell like shit. Although I am sure it is illegal to fondle one’s naked member on public transportation, not one of the dozen officers confronted the old man. Much to the dismay of the woman clutching her daughter, the group of neophyte law enforcers got off the train and left the man to his own devices.

Although I had a long night ahead of me, I sat in my single seat and smiled to myself. I have always loved the rush of people progressing through the subway routes of New York. When I am out of the city, I long for the rhythmic spasms of hurtling along in a steely creature that endlessly roams the dark tunnels underneath the metropolis. It is one of my favorite urban intoxicants. Like a nightmare sequence in a scary teen movie, the people on the train muddled into a crowd of color and sound. My focus remained on the homeless man. I looked beyond the wall of impenetrable fetidness and disorder to see the man. A real human who had succumbed to the will of weak flesh or fallen on the sharp stake of sorrow that threatens us all. An inevitable product of a society created and furthered by people consumed with acquiring more for themselves at the expense of others. A man whose dreams deferred to a collection agency that only accepts payments in suffering and tears.

As I pondered my own financial place in the machine of America I recalled reading someone’s declaration that we are all just a few paychecks away from being a lump of our former selves. Riding the late night train and grabbing thoughtlessly at our own limp penises.

The train’s brakes shrilled and announced my stopped and I realized I had to leave my thoughts and seat behind. I pushed my way out into the station and inhaled the effusion of bleach and disinfectant being sprayed onto the floor nearby, washing away the filth of another day of comings and goings. I tried to find the homeless man through the window as the line of cars followed its natural instinct and pulled away. I wanted to meet his eyes, pay penance to his rotting soul. Maybe I could feed him a morsel of hope to nourish him through this moment of his life. But, he and the moment had already left me. With a rush of wind, the silver cars fast-forwarded through my immediate view, pushing the hot smell of locomotion over my cheeks. I paused before turning away and kept breathing the soapy fumes of the newly mopped floors. The train swelled with the redolence of many lives crushed into one small space, blaring on into the dark early morning with immodest wonder.

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