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Wednesday, February 27, 2008
My most frequent when-I-am-walking game is Exposure:
What if I had nothing more than my clothes and needed to survive the night?
“All of the brownstone basements have gates,” I said to my wife as we walked down Union St. towards home, “so that no one can hide in the alcove under the stairs.” The gates were new—a few decades old—compared to the homes.
I remembered coming home to my old apartment, nights five years ago, before the landlord fixed the lock, to find a dirty, bent-over person in the tiny space between the inner and outer doors. Or I'd find their ghost, in the form of blood and candy wrappers, the next morning. My neighbors the same. Not every night, just sometimes. And eventually the space was sealed off, the light the visitors had knocked out repaired. And one more warm, dark, hidden space was taken off the market.
“Maybe I could sneak into a backyard,” I said. “And sleep there.”
“That's a good way to get arrested,” said my wife. “You wouldn't try to sleep in this neighborhood anyway. Your best bet, if you are a working person and sober, they will usually help you with the shelters.”
For some reason I hate the block of Union St. between 4th and 5th Avenue. The air there is lead-heavy with menace. It could not be a safer, more amiable block—restaurants and children, even a church. But it rubs me wrong. To hell with it. I would not be surprised if the asphalt parted and a great squamous beast rose through the median. I would not be surprised if someone threw a bottle at my head. Give me President St. instead.
On President St.—mostly sweatshops and warehouses on this block, before we turn right—I noticed there was a light on in the largest building, shining out in a tiny sliver from beneath the security gate of the truck dock.
“I wonder if people sleep in there,” I said.
“Maybe. I see them there after work, waiting,” said my wife.
There must be a secret economy around army cots throughout town. Security gates go down, a lamp turns on. Five, ten dollars is handed over and a pillow comes out of a plastic bag. I wonder if they're in there now, two or twenty of the small men with bowl haircuts, hiding until the next day of work. Hopefully they can find showers. With a bed and a shower you can make it work. Food you can find. Clothes, too. New York is generous; it throws away everything but rent money.
Other possible shelters: the office trailer where they're building the hotel, or behind the plywood-covered windows where the new restaurant is coming in, or in the basement of the bar.
Our neighborhood is interesting. We have seen men counting out large bills late at night, garbage trucks with secret compartments, FedEx parked long after delivery hours in front of an old storefront now filled with empty boxes. Parades of identical Mercedes that fell off the same boat, restaurants that are only open once a month. Men greet each other by yelling and swearing.
My wife and I are visitors, tourists, not welcome or unwelcome. Sometimes the natives say hello--they wished us well after our wedding; they gave us some sparklers on the 4th of July; we gave them a case of beer--but just as often they do not. It's like being in a photograph of the Civil War. The subject of the photo is perfectly still, surrounded by ethereal blur. Online, the Google Maps “street view” of this block shows the men downstairs sitting in front of their club. They sit there every warm day. These people are the map.
I've been looking at two worlds. Bathing myself in technology, more than usual. I had lunch with a friend and I asked him: “why do I care so much about server virtualization? It has no bearing upon my existence. Even if I acquire this knowledge I can do nothing with it.”
(It does not matter to the story what server virtualization is.)
“Because it's fascinating,” he said.
Yes, I thought, relieved. My job doesn't give me many opportunities to talk about these things. The future is so light and small, dreams shuffled like a deck of cards, some in your hands, some on the table, and you're waiting for the flop, or the Jobs keynote, or the announcement from IBM and Sun: everything of substance will evaporate under the heat-lamp of advancement, all will be accomplished within floated condensates of progress redolent of cognoscenti (lilac perfume and bullshit), watched over by St. Cloud/Clodoaldus [“out of the mist”]; grandson of King Clovis. Murderous uncle killed his two bros.; relinquished crown; and hair, took orders; patron to nail-makers.)
That is one world.
The other world belongs more to the nail-makers. The day after playing Exposure with my wife I had (did!) lunch with my friend, talking about servers and our good marriages, and that night I rode my bicycle (analog; powered by tubes) over the Manhattan Bridge back towards Brooklyn, books in my bag, wet tires flattened against the asphalt by my bulk (I expect to be—sometimes am—mocked by strangers as I ride, scolded for being here, in the way, pedaling soft circles). Maybe we move to Pittsburgh and raise children. Maybe I write more novels. I can see where I suck. Maybe I stay exactly where I am, grateful.
When I get home to an apartment held together by dowels and nails, I will greet my wife, take the books out of my bag, and sit down in the office chair at a 20-inch screen, which is actually 1,764,000 tiny particles perpetually condensing, like clouds. I will have won the game again, with my roof and my bed as both ribbon and reward. But not yet—I am still riding my bike. I hit a patch of ice and my front tire slips just an inch or two. I correct by reflex—but the jolt of fear that rose up in that half-second of falling is chased by bolts of adrenaline and as I cruise to a stop at the light and the train goes by above me, knocking snow onto my neck, everything is exclamation points. Full of myself. Wondering, where is the truck with a camera on top to take my picture, here at the intersection, so that I can be, myself, on the map?