In New York people bend to the fitful will of public transit. That evening, I knew I was already late when I got to the bus stop but I wasn’t worried; my friends could stand to have another beer while they waited. And besides, they understand that in this city people need to be lenient when it comes to punctuality. Traffic is too thick and public transportation too fickle for anything else.
But even as I tried to board the bus I knew there’d be trouble.
“Do you stop on 110th and 3rd?” The old black man in front of me asked the bus driver. His dark suit and matching hat told of humble begginings and the worn edges of his briefcase exhaled with age. The guy looked like he’d stepped off the stage of The Music Man in 1930 and had been walking ever since. At Houston, just before 1st street, the driver told him that no, he didn’t stop at 110th and 3rd. “But you take 3rd avenue all the way up, right?” The bus driver, with a heavy lower lip and and a tendancy to roll his eyes was showing all signs of being weary of the general public.
“Yeah, and I stop at 108th street and again at 111th street so you can get out at one of those.”
“Well, you can stop at 110th for me when you get there, right?” The driver sulked a bit deeper in his seat and looked at the old man with disbelief.
He shook his head and motioned with his right hand, not taking his eyes off the old man, still incredulous at the request. “Have a seat.” The old man hobbled off and grabbed a seat in the front. I waited patiently for him to move out of my way and that’s when I noticed — to my great surprise and interest — that so did the line of New Yorkers behind me.
Unexpected. I’d always thought these people to be animals, on a clock and unstable, mouths frothing with frustration at the slightest obstacle. Hmm… or maybe that’s just LA.
What is usually a 10 minute ride so easily turns into 25 though, when at every stop it seems the bus has stopped for quadriplegics and septegenarians. At one point we were stopped for a good 10 minutes for the usual herding of the senior citizens, and on top of that the bus driver had to stand to break up a fight I hadn’t seen start at the front of the bus between two meth addicts about to fall over on school kids. That’s bad mojo on your bus and New York bus drivers don’t let that kind of shit fly. But again, I seemed to be the only one visually bothered by the disturbance. Maybe I just haven’t been here long enough.
I got off at 35th street and walked into Third and Long, the pub where my friends were waiting. There was already a thick fog in the night and the tip of the Empire State building a few blocks away was completely shrouded in mist and cloud. Peter and Jeff were right at the entrance of the pub, each cradling an almost finished ale.
“I’m excited,” Peter told me after the usual pleasantries, “this seems like such a New Yorky thing to do.”
“Well, that makes for two of us,” I told him, “I’ve never been to an art show either. I have no idea what to expect. But Em told me there’d be free booze and probably food, so…”
“Yeah, so, who’s this Em chick?” Jeff asked. I looked at Peter, figuring maybe he would’ve mentioned it already. But no.
“She was in our highschool class,” I told him. “We weren’t friends or anything but, you know how facebook can be.”
“Ahh,” he said, “one of those.” Jeff finished his beer. I pondered getting one myself, but it didn’t look like this was the place to stay if we wanted another round before hitting up this supposed art show. ”Where is this place we’re supposed to go, anyway?” Jeff asked.
“It’s, uh, what’d I say earlier…529 Third?” I mumbled, pointing up the block. “Yeah, yeah…it should be this block up here. Have you guys checked it out?”
“We walked around the block but didn’t see anything obvious,” Peter said.
“Well, shit,” I said, “then, let’s finish those beers and go find this place, eh? They have free booze over there…”
“And food, I hope,” Jeff said. “They’d better, anyway. All I ate today was a gyro in the morning…”
After some ten thin slices of mozzarella, and three or four of the fancy cheeses that came around less often, the four glasses of wine we’d each had started kicking in. I’d wanted to flee as soon as I saw the place. It was a small frame shop where everything had bee pushed to the back to create mingling space in the middle. It was chock full of unattractive people that seemed overdressed in order to impress themselves.
The walls were covered in colorful childish abstractions of birds and feathers by a guy named Britto. It wasn’t bad and I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t anything I was really impressed with either. There were also three or four pictures taken in different places around the world — cheap, low-res pictures that didn’t belong on someone’s screensaver, let alone at an art gallery. And then there was one painting by The Subway Artist.
It was his show, mind you.
When we’d first arrived Em approached our band of out-of-place misfits and introduced herself to Peter and Jeff. I was surprised she hadn’t remembered either one of them from highschool, but I guess that made the conversation a little fresher to start off with. After plenty of wine and the aforementioned bits of cheese, I think they all started remembering things a bit more clearly, like who’d had which teacher for what subject, who people had dated and other contrived and trivial matters. I started getting bored.
“So after I graduated I thought, ‘why not do something different’, you know? So that’s what I did! I decided to come out here and become, you know, a New Yorker,” she said with all the rotten glee in the world. “And it was hard at first, you know, like meeting people in the city, and learning, like, what to wear and, like, where to go but things are really going well for me now and my group of girlfriends, we totally go out together all the time now and blah blah blah…”
I took a deep breath and exhaled long and loud, and Peter gave me a stern look of disapproval, but Em left to mingle somewhere else, seemingly unaware of my hostility.
“Take it easy, man.” Peter told me once she’d left. “These are people we know, and our circles are small. These things come back to bite you in the ass.” I rolled my eyes. “And I don’t want you fucking writing about this either, you dramatic bastard.” Fine, I lied.
Suddenly, and for no reason I could understand, she returned, half-drunk in an instant, dragging in her arms a thin black man. The Artist, I assumed.
“You guys, this is Enrico — he’s the artist,” she shouted, though the room was not so loud. Her voice was starting to slip from her control and I guessed that she would soon start yelling from all the cheap wine she’d had while mingling with us. I could hardly blame her. “Enrico, these guys went to highschool with me, but it’s not like we were ever friends,” she slurred, and then turned to us, “right?” and we weren’t sure what to say. It was true, and I felt the same way, but who wants to call attention to that ten years later? It was a rattling affair to have to put up with and Enrico’s graveyard breath wasn’t making things any easier. We were glad when he slid off to mingle with some other clique and Em disapeared with him.
“I like his style,” I told Peter. “It’s got a really industrial Van Gogh thing going on and I like that he uses Subway maps for his canvas.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I kinda like it too.” He sipped at his red wine and Jeff offered him a piece of cheese, which he took.
“I think it’d be cool if he did a Warhol thing and actually painted a Subway map ON a Subway map,” I said, thinking out loud.
Peter’s eyes beamed and he finished his wine. “That’s a great idea,” he said, putting his plastic cup down. “You should totally tell him that!” I dismissed him with a spurnful roll of the eyes.
“Right,” I said. “I’m sure artists love having wayward drunks come in from the streets of Murray Hill and tell them how to paint.”
“Well, he looks like he needs some ideas, wouldn’t you say?” Jeff suggested. Which was true. The man did, after all, have only one painting at his own gallery showing.
“Guys, I need to eat something soon,” Jeff continued, starting to slur his words. “I think I’ve had five glasses of wine and I haven’t eaten anything. I might fall over soon.” But Peter wasn’t having it.
“Get yourself together, man. We’ll get out of here soon enough.” Jeff consented silently, looking sullen and worn with heavy eyelids from the red wine. Peter looked at me and lowered his voice a bit. “I’m rethinking this highschool reunion thing,” he said. I knew he’d been excited for a five-year reunion that never happened but he was nervous about the ten-year one coming up. “Even if I’m in the San Francisco in October, I think there’s very little chance of me showing up. Not after what I’ve seen here tonight.”
“You bet,” I said, thinking of how tired I was of having to condense the last ten years of my fast life into thirty seconds of chit-chat every time I met someone from highschool. And then to have to listen to them go on about their uninteresting existences, what jobs they’ve had, why they’re in New York, what their cat’s name is and shit — Jesus. It was all I could do to keep the paintings up on the wall instead of taking them down and slamming them over their boring faces, maybe adding some color to their outlook.
When Em’s short blond friend — Heidi from Iowa, I think — started talking to me about her boyfriend and how she loved having someone she needed in her life, I pulled out the stops. Normally I reserve the harsher, more pointed rhetoric for those friends of mine who have proven — through continued tolerance of my presence — that they can handle it without throwing me into a ditch out of embarassment. But she was asking for it with talk like that in a crowded place, when my head was full of wine and I was bored of the crowd. Her bright blue eyes, young and shallow, had a strange, almost opiate constriction to them, and if she wasn’t so calm and bland I would’ve known instantly that I was dealing with some kind of cocaine or morphine freak.
“Nonsense,” I told her, sometime around my sixth glass of wine. “Necessity is the clearest sign of weakness.” I felt detached from the scene. This was not a person I was speaking to, it was an ideal, one I felt at odds with. I could feel a look callous indifference crawling on my face, and didn’t bother to register her reaction to it.
Then I felt Peter, who’d been standing just behind me, give me a nudge to take it easy again. I nudged him back.
“It’s better to wake up every day and choose to once again have that person in your life than to be resigned to it,” I told her, and sipped my wine. She looked slightly scared, like she’d never considered the prospect before. ”Otherwise it’s all just a cage and you’re just another sap waiting for your time to run out. I think you’ve got a serious problem on your hands, there Iowa,” I told her. “A goddamned ticking bomb.” Her face went blank with disbelief, confusion and the early signs of trauma. She put her empty glass on top of the water cooler by the entrance and muttered something about me not telling her boyfriend that, giving him ideas because she didn’t know what she’d do without him.
“Case in point,” I told her, “But you’ll be fine. I probably wouldn’t have this conversation with him anyway.” She exhaled and her shoulders sank, and then she fled to get more wine. Peter turned to me when she’d left and shot me a glare of what-the-hell-was-THAT.
“What the hell was THAT?” he asked me. “Did you have to shatter that poor girl’s sense of direction?” I caught Heidi looking at our group from the other side of the room where she was talking with Em, who was looking in our direction with nothing but contempt. Who KNOWS what kind of stories that sad girl was telling about us.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “She won’t bother us anymore with idle chatter. Besides, she’ll wake up tomorrow and forget all about it. She won’t change.”
As the evening wore on and more bland types filled the room we started feeling uneasy and out of place. Most of them seemed to be Em’s friends but I didn’t know Em all that well, nor did I know what kinds of friends she had. Jeff was becoming harder to hold up vertically and he was very hungry. Ers had finally arrived and we were in the mood to get out of there.
“You guys, I know a good bar around here where we can really chill for a while,” Ers announced.
“Please tell me they have food,” Jeff whined.
“They’ll have food,” Ers assured him. “Chips, and meat and stuff. Is that alright?”
“ohmygodthanksiloveyouers,” Jeff mumbled.
We walked down third avenue and got Jeff some pizza, to make sure he didn’t keel over before the next round. Murray Hill is too full of young girls fresh out of college and still on daddy’s credit cards for us to comfortably drag a drunk body through that place. These people have limits and you have to take it easy with that kind of ugliness when the streets are crawling with primped twenty-two-year-old children who are there to ‘experience New York’.
We kept walking and the air got colder. After six or seven blocks we ended up at Rodeo Bar, a place I’d heard Ers talk about before, and stepped in just as it started to rain outside. No one had cash so I bought Ers and Peter a good Irish beer, and asked the Texan waitress to get Jeff some water. I couldn’t hear anything through the blare they were playing before the band started but I saw her scoff. The boys all headed upstairs to get us a couch but I saw the band setting up and told them I’d catch up to them.
The country band started playing their jumpy tunes. It would’ve kept my interest if they’d been a little more genuine, but their lead singer was too big of a douchbag to ignore. Their guitarist and bassist were jamming in the back by the drums, and they were tight. The pretty belle flirting with the violin was hot, standing on stage with a wide stance and short skirt, running the bow softly across the twangy strings. But it would’ve been better if she’d actually played the thing instead of just providing backup vocals.
Oh well. When I got upstairs the three gents were having a sinister-sounding chat that involved bets, dares and potential pay-offs. Jeff looked like he was passed out on the couch but was clearly a very vocal part of the conversation.
“I’m just saying, Ers, I’m offering you $10 to ask her,” Peter said, putting his beer down on the table in front of us.
“Ask her what?” I asked them.
“I’ll give you $20, Peter, if you feel her up and let me know,” said Jeff’s body on the couch. I looked over at the group next to us. One of the girls was dressed in a tight red tank top, leather pants and black boots. Strange, since all of her friends were in jeans and sweatshirts with names like Vanderbuilt and Purdue. But the attention grabber was her chest — tits so terrifyingly perfect they could only exist in Victoria’s Secret catalogues or on the streets of LA.
“Those?” I asked them, and they all nodded proudly, unsure of what they had to be proud of, but proud nonetheless. “Listen. There is no way in this crippled, half-mad world that those things are real. Nature doesn’t work like that. You’d have to breed Gisele Bündchen with Rebecca Romijn for a thousand generations and you still wouldn’t get that kind of perfection. No way.”
“Yes!” Ers shouted, and slapped me a high-five. “Thank you! That’s what I’m saying. There’s no way.”
We all considered it for a minute.
“I think they could be real,” Jeff’s corpse said, still unmoved on the couch.
And then we took him outside and put him on a train that we hoped would get him home.
Drunk and exhausted, I rode my own train home later that night with Ers.
“You know, Ers, some of us are teachers, doctors, musicians and what not, and we roll along fulfulling these noble pursuits. But it’s weird — drunk as we all are now, next week Peter’s going to be teaching Algebra and Calculus to a minion of children, idiots and some eager young minds. You know what I’m saying?”
“I haven’t the foggiest,” he said. “I could use another pizza though, or more peanuts or something.”
“That’s what I’m saying. You’re a drunken mess right now, and so am I. But tomorrow you’ll be analyzing the stock value large multi-nationals and I’ll be saving my clients millions of dollars through a well-practiced speech that I may as well not even understand. We do these things despite the fact, or alongside the fact that tonight we were in some bar in midtown getting sloshed and guessing whether this poor girl has real breasts. We travel and do weird things on the weekends, despite are outlandish professions. But all those people at the gallery tonight, and probably most people we’ve known since highschool, those bland and uninteresting hacks…what are they doing? What’s their point?”
“You’re talking too seriously, man. Have you been watching Frontline again?”
“…yeah. So?” He ran his fingers through his crumpled hair smiling and leaned over on his knees, looking at me sitting across the car from him.
“We move through the world day by day, and change things around us slowly. Including ourselves. But so does every one else, man. Some people change more than others and some people are luckier than others, but every one changes over time. You’ve gotta give ‘em more of a chance.”
I thought about it for a sec. “Wow, Ers. That’s pretty deep, calm…mature, even. Does that mean you give everyone you meet the benefit of the doubt?”
“I think most people deserve at least that much, yeah.” I smiled at him.
“What about that guy that was such a tool in high school that you agreed to be friends with on facebook just so you could be the first to know when his life tanks? What was his name? Anthony…something?”
“That’s the chap.” He didn’t even think about it.
“No. He’s just a douchbag.”