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Monday, April 17, 2006
By Paul Ford
As I began to walk down the stairs at the Brooklyn Union St. subway platform I felt the rush of air that comes when an express train hurries past on the inner platform. Standing at the top of the steps my shirt was pressed against my chest and my hair was lifted straight up; I imagined a billion tiny comets, rushing past me on the way to 4th Avenue.
There are famous winds. The north-bound mistral in France in the winter, the hot, sandy simoom in the deserts of North Africa. We hear more about wind now that we are warring in the desert, about the sand chewing into the machinery. I once stood under palm trees in Israel as the khamsin tossed sand through the air. The sunlight refracted through the sand amplified the colors in the flowers and the palm leaves. The world looked like a picture in an old cookbook from the age of Jell-O(TM) molds and glistening hams. That was six years ago—19 cents on the dollar of my life.
But I am already doubting the story. Was the wind really the khamsin? Was the light truly amplified? I look for confirmation online and yes, there is the khamsin (the Hebrew word for it is sharav). But no one on the World Wide Web mentions the quality of the light and I worry that I have got the wrong wind. So: I know I had a job outside of Tel Aviv in 2001, and there was a wind. The wind had a name, and I felt sand in my mouth. I do not have a name for the tiny squall of litter that is lifted by the air pushed forth by the rushing N train. Traindraft? That sounds like a software application. Subgust? Pushwind? Maybe.
As I descend I am sad to hear the express train passing. Sometimes I grab the R train and go one stop and check to see if there is a D train waiting for me. But now it is gone ahead; the local won't catch up. I want a D train because after a few minutes along its journey it leaps out of the depths of Brooklyn onto the Manhattan bridge, over the East River, with miles of water, buildings, and boats visible out the window. The commuters are like moles given wings. But it's gone.
The Union St. station breeze carries copious amounts of perfume, sweat, and hair product; it contains the coffee-breath of the multitudes. It also brings carcinogens; the very air, as I have read over and over, is latticed with invisible poisons, parts per million that will find their way through my lungs and land on my organs like bees; they will pollinate my cells and one day, a shadow on the X-ray.
But we also—they told me this in physics class—breathe in the same air as Shakespeare or Leonardo da Vinci. The physicist Enrico Fermi made his students figure out how many molecules of gas from Julius Caesar's final exhalation we each take in with each breath. The answer, according to the math, is one: each time you suck air you take in a solitary molecule from Caesar's last gasp. Also Brutus's, and billions of other more anonymous souls give their share.
And eventually, me. Breeze gone, I pay the toll and stand against a wall to wait for the local train. What choice do I have but to breathe it all in? There's obviously room in my lungs for both history and carcinogens.