Volume 35, Number 2


René Houtrides

Manny and me at the game. Middle of the fourth inning and the score is Royals 3, Yankees 1. Lightning flickers low in left field. Just foul. It starts to pour, and the umpires call a rain delay. This gives me time to have my second warm beer and another cold hot dog (the classic culinary pleasures of baseball).

Twenty-five minutes later, the wet stops long enough for the Yankees’ lead runner to get a walk, steal second on his beautiful prancing legs, and then steal third off the addled Kansas City pitcher.

The skies open again, this time in a biblical deluge. After an hour and a half, the game is called, and we’re issued rain checks. All the fans head toward autos or the #4 or D trains. It’s almost midnight. Everybody’s as sopping as if we’d all jumped, clothed, into a full bathtub that could accommodate, let’s say, 40,000 people. My feet squish in my sneakers. Manny and me are moving slow because of his arthritic knee (bicycle accident), so we fall to the back of the crowd. By the time we get on the downtown D train, the subway car is empty, except for us. We’re leaving puddles of water on the floor near our seats. It’s a spooky ride; the fluorescent lights emphasize the hollowness of the subway car. The train crawls to a stop at a station I’m not familiar with, and the public-address system crackles that this D is being put out of service, due to track flooding.

So, we’re now standing, just the two of us, on the subway platform. It’s one a.m. We wait a long time for a downtown train, but none arrives. We hear an uptown D pull in on the other side of the station and we make a run for it—up the stairs, across, and down—thinking we’ll head back uptown to Yankee Stadium, walk our drenched bodies over to the Lexington Avenue line and catch a downtown #4. The only problem is Manny’s knee, which is bad always and doesn’t improve in rainy weather. Moving at Manny’s pace, we hobble up the stairs on our platform and across and down the stairs to the opposite platform. Just as we get there, the uptown train pulls out.

“It figures,” says Manny.

At this exact moment, a downtown train pulls into the platform we’ve just vacated. I make a dash for it—up, across, and down—thinking I can ask the conductor to hold the doors. But when I get there the conductor shakes his head before I can say anything. He waves his hat to me as the train leaves the station. Nyah, nyah, nyah nyah, nyah! Meanwhile, Manny has limped—up, across, and down—to join me.

We now believe we have evidence that the downtown trains are running again. We’re wrong. Another 30 minutes. Nothing comes or goes, in either direction. Then an uptown D screeches into the upstairs-across-and-downstairs side—oh, so far away. We give the subway a mournful look as it screeches back out again.

This is when Manny suggests we go to the street and get a cab. This would make an interesting photograph—one middle-aged female and one middle-aged male (with a horrible limp) standing on a deserted corner at 1:45 in the morning, waving their hands frantically in the air, for what? A yellow cab cruising the Bronx in the wee hours?

I feel a jolt of remembered sympathy for my friend Terrell, who’s Black and who last winter had offered to help me (I’m white) get a cab on a late night in the East Village. At least a dozen empty on-duty cabs whizzed past his signaling until he quietly said, “I guess I’m not helping much,” and I said, “I guess not,” noticing how soft his face looked. He hadn’t taken five steps away from me before the very next cab picked me up, and my embarrassment and I drove away while Terrell walked west.

I veto Manny’s cab proposition but, after another 20 minutes with no train action in any direction, upstairs looks good to me.

“Let’s try it,” says Manny.

And up we go. It’s a little after 2 a.m. The streetlight is out, and no one’s around. A few cars move along, their headlights splattering through the rain. We take five steps toward what we think will be a more populated street, change our minds, and take five steps back and around the corner. We’re dancing a pedestrian pavanne. Thirty feet in a new direction and back again, looking for a better choice. A thin membrane of panic forms on me; it slides on top of the layer of rain that already coats my skin. I’m about to ask Manny if he’s feeling the same thing, when I’m interrupted by a voice that comes from above us. Manny and I cock our heads up. An old woman is at a tenement window, her arms resting on a pillow placed on the sill. Even in the darkness we can see the color of her smooth chestnut skin.

“What you doin’ here, you white children?” she says. “Walkin’ roun’ here this time a night ain’t your place to be. God bless you. You get on back down to that subway an’ go on home now.”

And back down we blessed children go.

Finally, at 2:30 in the morning, a downtown D shows up. We clamber onto it, gratitude swelling our tired little hearts. The subway car is sparsely populated: me, Manny, a Black woman in nurse whites, and a black man in car-mechanic blues.

That is until the drunken white man, with a mustache as scraggly as his body, no shirt, and several chest tattoos lurches into the car. He carries an unlit cigarette and a book of matches and is screaming at the top of his lungs, “White motherfuckin’ fascist! That’s what I call him. That’s what I call all of ’em. A white motherfuckin’ fascist! I’ll smack him around. Who does he think he is? White motherfuckin’ fascist. Suck my dick!”

Like all born-and-bred New Yorkers, I’ve developed some unusual skills. Local attributes, like instantaneously calculating, within one-fifth of an inch, the distance between my toes and the wheels of a turning bus; sleeping through sirens that are so loud the emergency vehicles might as well be careening over my living room sofa; and knowing how to cross a dark street at an illogical angle when I hear suspicious footsteps accelerate behind me on the pavement. And native New Yorkers are sassy. I once watched a guy turn to a cabbie (who had braked suddenly after nearly mowing down 19 people at a vehicle entrance to Central Park) and say, in a Queens accent, “See that sign? What does that sign say? It says PEDESTRIAN CROSSWALK. It don’t say BOWLING ALLEY.”

And, of course, I possess the New York knack of occasional invisibility. This expertise comes in handy when, say, an elderly woman wearing pearls and neat white gloves sits at a restaurant table adjoining mine and proceeds to engage me in a conversation that would be appropriate if we were both escapee characters from a Tennessee Williams play.

“Suck my dick, you white motherfucker. He’s following me around, the fascist. Why are you following me around? Just because I dress different from you, I’m not allowed to light a cigarette?” continues the drunk, as all four of us in the subway car feign being engrossed in the ads for vocational training schools and Dr. Hemorrhoid’s Clinic (offices in all five boroughs—mention this ad when you call and get your first hemorrhoid free). If your hemorrhoid is the victim of medical malpractice, it could be entitled to an eight-million-dollar settlement. Take your hemorrhoid to Aruba, five flights daily. Your hemorrhoid can learn English and get a better job (call 839-888-7363). Your hemorrhoid could win the lottery. Test drive your hemorrhoid.

Once I feel that I’ve evaporated sufficiently, I peek around for the target of the drunk’s tirade, spot a young transit cop in the next car, and deduce that the cop has told the foulmouthed passenger that he can’t smoke in the subway.

“Why can’t I light a cigarette? Don’t I have the right to light a cigarette? Why can’t I light a cigarette, you motherfucker!? Just because I dress a little different from you, motherfucker!”

This is a man with limited conversational topics.

“Just come over here! I’ll smack you around good! Suck my dick!”

Some New York City police can’t survive the job’s stresses. For instance, the rookie transit cop I once watched run down the 42nd Street platform with his hands over his ears, shrieking, “Oh my God, No!!!” It turns out it was his first night on duty and he’d just seen the remnants of someone who’d fallen between cars on the N line. But a real New York cop is as thick and blasé as the police horses who stand stolid and calm in the middle of Times Square chaos. Those horses are either tranquilized or enlightened.

The cop on our train is the genuine urban article. I see him glance into our car, note that something is still up and walk, at a syrupy pace, toward us. He oozes directly up to the suddenly silent ranter with the unlit cigarette. Their noses are almost touching when the cop says, barely audibly, “What?”

A switch flips in the drunk, who now smiles mildly, drops his voice to totally acceptable conversational tones, and says (politely), “I was just saying, why can’t I light a cigarette? It’s because it’s illegal, isn’t it? Well, I can understand that. I was just asking, why can’t I light a cigarette. That’s all. I was just wondering, just asking. But it’s illegal. It’s probably a fire hazard, that’s the reason. I see that now. I understand.”

After all, he’s drunk, not stupid.

We, the other passengers, are still stifling our laughter when we pull into 59th Street, the drunk edges his way off the train, and the cop saunters away.

The next day, in my own Brooklyn neighborhood, Wilson, the superintendent’s son, meets up with a group of white teenagers who make fun of his Jamaican accent before destroying his front teeth, rupturing his spleen, kicking his collarbone into three pieces and running off.

I get to the crowd on the sidewalk, by coincidence, just when the ambulance is pulling away, its siren shrill and painful. Gus, the deli man from around the corner, tells me what happened. It seems Wilson had been on his way home from a softball game in Prospect Park. He has young knees, and their running elasticity had carried him 17 blocks—up, across and down—before the white motherfuckin’ fascists finally flooded over him and smacked him around good. And not a cop in sight.

It’s bright daylight as I stand there talking to Gus, but there’s an ugly wash to the familiar pavement.

A young black man points to me and says, “Someone’s going to put out your lights.” And fear sticks a claw into me, leaving me wondering, what inning is it anyway, and what’s the score and how the hell are we all going to get home?