Intervention at 42nd Street

by

11/11/2007

Grand Central Station, 10017

Neighborhood: Midtown

I hustle into the car, glad to secure a seat. It’s always musical chairs on the cross-town shuttle, full-grown adults making a mad dash to slip into any remaining sliver of real estate. The open desperation on their faces and their coiled, tense bodies once embarrassed me. But I’m used to it now. I’m one of them. There is no such thing as shame when you’re tired and your feet hurt.

After exhaling I notice him right away, he’s spread over two seats opposite me, drowning in a hodgepodge of rags. If I hadn’t seen him, I would’ve smelled him.

I’ve grown accustomed to encountering homeless people. It’s a grim reality of the city–one that leaves you feeling horrified, guilty, helpless, and ultimately apathetic.

This one is aggressive and unpredictable. His body reels slightly, in small, jagged circles, like someone who’s lost his balance after having been mercilessly spun around. And although he’s sitting, he’s trying to steady himself, reaching out with scattered, roving energy.

A group of adolescent boys rush onto the train, claiming the space around the door, deliberately blocking it. They are wildly confident in their number and unabashedly exude a group menace.

Immediately the homeless man’s eyebrows furrow–almost a parody of their aggression, comical if it weren’t tinged with his own, barely suppressed rage. He’s all focus now.

“If I were you, I’d be angry, too,” he starts.

The boys dart wary glances in his direction, sizing him up. Just another grizzled old kook, their narrowed eyes say dismissively. But they’re listening.

“You got every right to be angry,” he mutters, his voice rising.

Something about its forcefulness causes the other passengers to look up. Maybe today is the day the crackpot snaps. Maybe now is when he wreaks his revenge on the rest of us– who go about our business as though this man, a mere arm’s length away and breathing the same air we breathe, weren’t dragging his soul through the lowest circle of hell day after day.

“You know what you gotta do?” he says excitedly. “You gotta start some trouble. You gotta get out there and rob a whole mess of folk. Take everything they got! Shake ‘em up! Smack ‘em down!”

The passengers shift restlessly. The doors have closed now and the train is in motion.

“You should rob that lady with the red purse,” he snarls. “Looks like she’s got a load of money. Like she’s got a Mercedes Benz in there. Like she’s livin’ it up. If I were you, I’d rob her. Right here, right now. Who’s gonna stop you? I won’t tell! I’ll help you!”

I do not have to look down at my large, shiny red purse to know that the lady in question is none other than me.

The passengers on either side of me move away as though by some invisible, magnetic pull, leaving an unusually generous amount of air on either side of my thighs.

Maybe I’m too tired to be afraid. Or maybe I’m tired of being afraid. Or maybe I’ve grown to love this city so much, every harried, nameless inhabitant, regardless of his or her mental stability, or lack thereof, has become like family to me.

Then again maybe I’m just another crazy New Yorker. Who knows?

“What, me?” I say with theatrical doubt. “Like I’ve got a dime to my name.” (This is true. Ask anyone who works in the publishing industry and they’ll attest to the microscopic sacks of change otherwise referred to as “compensation.” How anyone can be expected to live off of pennies in a city where the average monthly rent could buy a small yacht with accompanying crew is beyond me.) And somehow, miraculously, I flash him a brilliant smile, laced with just the right amount of knowing cynicism.

The man’s eyes widen. And suddenly his face, knotted and pitted with shadows, unravels and lights up like the sun, and he returns the smile with double brilliance.

“Blow her a kiss, fellas! Blow her a kiss!”

He raises his hand to his lips and waves it in my direction: once, twice, three times.

I maintain my smile. This is the nicest gesture anyone has given me all day.

Now the kids look me over like they aren’t sure there’s something wrong with the red-purse lady. After all, I’m engaging with a lunatic. Maybe I belong in the same category.

The train stops and the doors open, unleashing the usual stampede into Grand Central.

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