Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A Day In The Life

There's a man I see at the subway station where I exit the system to go to my office.

Let me describe the station: annexed to the Grand Central Terminal is a platform for the 42 Street Shuttle. It's an open air station, in that the token booths...I guess I have to call them Metrocard machines now, c'est dommage...are on a mezzanine, and there are four open stairways leading down to the train platform.

This mezzanine is shaped like an "H" and overhangs the platforms on one end. Along these corridors are office buildings with stairways that lead to the subway, one of New York's many hidden attractions.

One corridor leads to two buildings, and is lightly travelled, so lightly that the shops along this walkway have shuttered. There was a locksmith and a shoe store, both long gone and gated now.

Down this corridor, dimly lit with greying grimy walls, stands a emaciated man with an unkempt fro and the wisp of a beard. Usually, he's wearing some bizarre combination of clothing. Today, it was a pair of running tights, and a hoodie sweatshirt.

I understand why he wears what he wears: he gets these clothes donated by the overpriced clothing stores in the terminal itself, who probably throw clothes at him, rather than have him linger in their stores with the high priced running shoes and the double-mark-up shirts. Even his shoes speak of high end, albeit leftovers.

Sometimes I see him practicing karate katas, waving his hands with force and purpose, kicking high over his head, but nearly silently.

I'm sure the cops have warned him. There's usually a cop or three on the platform or on the mezzanine. You could say this is ground zero for the anti-terror forces of the NYPD.

Maybe he practices these forms because in his head he imagines kicking bin Laden in the teeth when he shows up wired and strapped with explosives.

Maybe he feels he needs to keep in shape because down in the subway, when things get tough in the city, is where death happens. Certainly, the number of homeless, which has crept steadily upward since the 90s, is beginning an inexorable geometry of expansion.

Maybe he's just insane.

Sometimes he just stands there. In the summer, he wears worn jeans cutoff at the knees and held up with a rope like Lon Chaney's Wolfman.

Sometimes he sings, but not very often and not very loud.

Sometimes, he's scary, screaming and ranting at everyone and everything, including me when I need to walk past him to get to the bank. I ignore it, of course. I've seen how high he kicks.

He holds court in this corridor, this dingy remnant of better days in corporate America. The fence that separates the mezzanine from the platform is embedded in a concrete knee wall, tiled with, well, white ceramic tile laid in the subway pattern.

A long banquette for his imaginary court.

He never harasses anyone who walks by, apart from the occasional angry running commentary. He never asks or demands spare change, which sets him apart from his homeless brethren and their imitators. He never accepts a handout. I know. I've tried.

And he never looks lost. He always seems to know that he is precisely where he needs to be, when he needs to be there, even when I've seen him patrolling the vaulted main room of the terminal, rummaging through the bins for leftover food.

This is his home, his castle, his palace, this grand and glorious monument to man's inability to remain in one place for very long.

Ironic, ain't it? He tolerates we many, we unhappy many, we band of bummers, because we cook for him, we clean for him, and we entertain him; hundreds of thousands of jesters a day, regaling in our finery. What must he make of us?

The station nominally closes its doors at 2AM for cleaning, but I know, I mean, I know, he's found a spot where he can't be seen and watches his staff cleaning his mansion.

Or maybe he doesn't care to hide himself. Maybe he's allowed by the MTA to wander freely, picking up the leftovers of the food court, sleeping on a bench somewhere because it's warm. I'd like to think so. I'd like to think that this man, whom we might pity, has been allowed the dignity by the bureaucrats and governance to remain in his home.

And yet, I can't help but feel that he deserves better than this Fisher King-like life he leads. Yes, he seems happy enough, and yes, he's refused help from me, but how can we know for sure that he isn't simply overly suspicious? How can we know he doesn't know how to ask for help? Indeed, how can we be certain that anyone's ever been able to ask him properly?

In a country overseen by Republicans for six of the past eight years, in a state run until recently by Republicans, in a city run by Republicans for decades until one finally had the sense to say basta! and became an independent, this man stands as his own monument to the torment and torture of the poorest of the poor, the meekest of the meek, the most trod-upon of our society.

A shining example of Republic-tude. Mental health be damned! We have wars to fight and cronies to enrich! Economic royalists, we say!

For this man's sake, and for the sake of others like him who have no voice, who hold no seat at the table of American politics but who have to live with our laws and our government, I truly pray that the new hope that Obama promises will include him.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

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