A New York State of Mind

by

01/31/2021

Neighborhood: Manhattan, Subway

When you sit down on a weather-worn bench in New York—one that is dry and bone colored—it feels like you’ve stepped out of your body. You’ve left a building, a crowded café, stepped off of an accordion bus, or out of a bodega. It’s a pause where you take a cigarette break even though you don’t smoke. Never have. Yet, you’re smoking the cigarette of the person next to you. Raincoat. Blue tie. White collared shirt. As you inhale, you realize you no longer choke on the smell of a cigarette at first whiff and can endure the nicotine and underlying hint of black coffee that once clogged your throat and set fire to your eyes. Was it one month ago? A week? 

Warbling sounds fill the air. A hissing of old brakes. A whir of voices. A clattering of click, click, click. Building walls are the backdrop of a long city block. Brick. Metal. Glass. You sigh from exhaustion and time slips by unnoticed. When did shadows cross the wide street and past the bumper-to-bumper traffic? When did the sky run gray? You look halfway up and wonder why they hang the baskets of flowers so high on the lampposts. How the hell do they water them? The flowers are half dead. Out of the tumult passing before you—bodies, dogs, cars, taxis, buses, smoke, cell conversations—she catches your eye. Straight black hair. Drop waist dress. Red nails. You wonder if she feels like a whore. That’s what you feel like when your nails are the color of blood. That and something fierce. Then she, too, is gone. 

Your head falls back, your eyes find the world above, and you are in limbo. The New York sky is a puzzle, its edges cut sharp and square by the towering buildings. There’s barely an opening. The world stretches too high. You sit tight on the bench and swallow the saliva thickening in your throat. This city gets under your skin. You feel like you’re falling as the buildings go higher. Until you’re dizzy. Until raindrops burn your eyes. This isn’t rain, you think. It’s acrid. You want to spit New York out of your mouth. The city sidewalks are brimming with the bitter taste of strangers’ mouths—cigarettes, stale coffee, beer, and mint. The rain is washing it away. 

You like umbrellas. Yours was found beneath dingy basement steps in Jersey City. It’s decorated with burgundy flowers, and you imagine that it belonged to the previous owner of the house who is long dead. Umbrellas can tell you something about who people are. Their dress, their eyeliner, their umbrella, and their shoes are all clues. You follow the runoff of water from the umbrellas to the ground and from the wet cement into the drains. At this moment, you realize that you and everyone else steps around the city’s grates. Who wants to fall in—below—on a rainy day? Or maybe it’s because of the homeless people sleeping on them. Their bodies curled into the dense tendrils of smoke rising from the packed underbelly of the city. 

Because you are a dreamer, you can’t help but see that there’s poetry in the way the beggar shakes his cup. His wet, cardboard signs are screaming for a dollar or two. You reach in. But your empty pockets are empty. There’s poetry in that, too, you muse. There’s poetry everywhere. The shit stains on the cement tell you where someone stepped, shoes swooshing and gliding, a little to the right. Half moons, the color of mud. 

You walk down underground into a packed body of people. Where do their limbs begin? Where do yours end? You want to take a deep breath. A homeless man inside the train station on 14th Street is inspecting a roach between his forefinger and thumb, staring it down. Further in, you hear someone playing a violin. You think about how music can sound like a single lonely soul calling out. You wait for the train and hear it in the distance. A man swears that he’s going to jump just as the train begins to haul into the station. He ain’t got a thing to live for, he screams. He stands at the edge, his legs bent, his arms pushed back like he’s about to jump. You try to look away. The train is coming. Its metal-bullet face is pushing forward. Your heart beats faster. The sound thunders through your body. You hate the city. One hundred pairs of eyes try to look away. The man is sprinting. Legs prepared to leap. You want to open your mouth, and scream. He runs alongside the train, but he doesn’t jump. He just laughs. And laughs. And laughs. All the world is spinning and spinning. You want to push him into the train with you. You wanted to save him. 

You cram inside the car. The sound of someone being slapped is actually an umbrella dropping onto the speckled train floor. You look down. The train looks relatively clean but smells like the inside of a porta-john whose air vents are pumping shit. You hang on, leaving sweat-prints on the metal rail. 

There is a man in the subway car with a flat screen TV secured with dirty towels. It’s tucked between his legs. And there’s a woman whose hair is the most glorious red you’ve ever seen. The man’s foot keeps tapping to some beat in his ears. This is the season of shopping bags. Zara. Saks. Bloomingdale. Sephora. You watch the woman tug at the edges of a short, green skirt, hoping it’s fabric will pull longer than it can. You start to see everything all at once. The skirt. The man who wants to jump. The roach. The homeless people. The umbrellas. The baskets of plants. The city walls. Her red nails. The smell of cigarettes clinging to your skin and your wet hair. You see and feel and taste it all. And you realize that you’re making moons out of shit-stains on the sidewalk to keep yourself from drowning in a city that feels like it’s swallowing you whole and spitting you out.

***

Natasha Persaud is an Indo-Caribbean American immigrant writer who is working on her memoir The Dirt From the Yard, a retelling of her childhood growing up in tenements of Georgetown, Guyana.

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