Part of a continuing series, New York City Subway Stories, where I intend to write my way through each subway station in New York City. This installment is part of the 1 train series: 181 street subway station under St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights.
A flock of pigeons fly through the tunnel space. The police carry Onan away. More than one hundred feet below the surface of the street, flanêurs ascend and descend via one of four aesthetically displeasing metallic elevators, brought to life today only by the Dominican men who enter with me listing their accomplishments. “Can you believe it?” one asks. “No, to be honest, I can’t. That’s a brave man. That one. That’s a brave man.” The accomplishments are lost to me. All I know are the sounds. The pleasure in their voices was being.
The elevator brings us to ground level; the men go quiet; we hurry out to the street. My destination is the Fort Washington Branch of the New York City Public Library. I want to write in a quiet space. To escape the noise. The factotum at the circulation desk points me to an especially quiet place in the back of the library. The patrons are a mix of young teens freshly evicted from the diurnal school duty and retired folks who read newspapers and mind their own business. The Fort Washington Library, like many of the libraries in the New York, was a Carnegie gift. It is not my first visit to this particular branch. I remember my last visit here last summer. It is queer to have summer memories during winter. I remember he building that sits atop the tunnel entrance onto the George Washington Bridge. It reminds me of a battered housewife. The rumble of cars and trucks come to the surface of the street with a persistent violence. This is the ugliest building in all of Manhattan. I remember walking past it last summer, while shirtless boys on St. Nicholas Avenue played in the opened fire hydrant. Langston Hughes comes to mind. He was a flanêur of urban American streets. He wrote poetry about memories. About dreams. About IRT trains:
An apt image. Heaven and hell. Another memory, winter: walking recently, during the cold months, across the Washington Bridge into the Bronx, talking to my mother. It was a Saturday morning. Cold. I had first stumbled upon High Bridge Park. The interstices of bridge and roadway collide to make the space look less like a park and more like a dumpster.
Another memory: a Spring one. Bearing the role of teacher, it is my duty to press upon my students the art of the peripatetic. I wrote about the memory of my Yeshiva students in my private journal:
"Let's take a walk," I say to the four of them who were allowed to join me and Rabbi Wasserman on a trip to pick up much needed textbooks and math flashcards from an old and wizened professor at Yeshiva University. I stand at the front of the group, while Rabbi Wasserman handles the rear. "Let's wait for an incoming train," I say. "Where do the pigeons go when the train come, teacher?" I don't answer and instead put my fingers to my lips. Be quiet. Listen for the train. Do you feel the wind yet? But, I do not ask this but instead it is obvious: the rush of wind grows. Aron shivers. "Did you forget your coat?" "Tovia, don't chase the pigeons." "No." "Where is the stair?" "I don't know." "Shhh." "There is an elevator." "Ohhh." "Here comes the train." "Can you see it?" "I see the light." "Teacher do trains come all the time?" "Why not Brooklyn have a train under the ground?"
I tell the boys to shush. The questions are incessant, as always. When the local finally arrives, it feels good to see the platform fill with people. The students crowd closer, to avoid contact with the hoi polloi. I smile. "Let's go," I say. It would have been easier to go alone to pick up school supplies, but the amount of books were great. I needed help. My students always give me trouble so I was nervous about this trip. I was relieved Rabbi Wasserman agreed to come. His presence assuaged their natural curiosity about things. With just me as guardian, I am sure Tovia would have dove into the tracks to chase the pigeons. With these students, kinesthia is rampant. The children constantly speak through movement. One leg on the ground, the other leg wrapped around the desk, a boy asks me about fractions. Gathered into a group they surround my desk when I arrive at the school early and pepper me (and each other) with questions. "Where do you live?" "Are you married?" "How much do you weigh, teacher?" Today, for some reason, which was odd, the boys told me about the Torah, as the train rumbled and tumbled from station to station, 181 street bound. "God give us Torah." "Is that so?" "Yes. We can choose to follow Torah or not." "All Jews are supposed to feed the hungry." "The Torah say, man must choose." "Choose what?" "To follow God." "At Bar Mitvah, we don't follow our life. We follow Torah." Then, they began to talk about my name. "Your name is Rose?" "My sister say a rose is a flower, teacher." Rabbi Wasserman tells them to be quiet. They listen to Rabbi Wasserman. Not me. A group of caramel colored teenagers huddle at the front of the car, looking at us furtively. A policeman boards the train at 42 Street Station. He gets off at Columbus Circle. Rabbi Wasserman tells me that the boys should not look at the opposite sex. "Not good," he says. I tell him he should watch the boys closely. By the time we reach 181 street station, I am relieved.
This is the first time I have seen my students outside of the confines of the school. I am pleased they are doing so well. To see them in the context of a moving train, of the subway, is evocative of their own movements among themselves. In class we often tell stories to each other about we have seen on the trains; when they travel with their parents or with their friends. The boys are quick to tell me that it makes them sad to see the poor. I read in a book about Pius XII that Catholics came to ask him what to do about the poor in the Ghettos of Rome. They wanted to know if it was a sin to not feed them (since it was against the law to feed the outcast of the Ghetto). I realize my students do not think this way. The Torah is always the correct path. The Torah says to help the downtrodden and feed the hungry: A Jew would have no need to ask the Pope (or any authority) is it right to break the law if the breaking of a law went against the law of the Torah. Feed the hungry. Pure and simple. If the law of the city forbades helping those in need, it is not a just law.
Back to the present, sitting here in the public library, the reason why I am here now, emerges. To write. The entry above was supposed to be the entry for this station. But, I am convinced I should write more. I press pencil to paper. A quiet-faced teenager sits diagonal from me reading Fahrenheit 451. Another memory. I had another visit with Jorge who lives on Wadsworth avenue in a cheap apartment: because of a soiled exterior people are slow to move here, but the units are all renovated inside. “It’s crazy, Greig, he tells me, smoking a rolled cigarette outside his building. “I pay less than other places because the land lord won’t fix the lobby up.” I say, “First impressions. People want to pay for a nice lobby.”
We had sex that night after drinking Abita Amber, a treat for him, a mainstay for me. The sex was awkward. I didn’t spend the night. I remember Jorge being especially thin. He had just finished a longterm relationship. It was his idea to meet and provide the beer and cigarettes. I was pleased to have company. I could tell the conversation was important for both us. His sister, who he shared the apartment, was not home. She was also a waiter. The apartment was skinny, like him. To walk between the bedroom and the front door requires a slight pivot of the body.
Back to the present. Picking myself up from the thick wood of the library chair, I trace my way back to the quay deep below 181st street. Twenty-five feet of ceiling collapsed down in this tunnel in 2009, I believe. The MTA reported no injuries. The incident prompted closing of the IRT for a spell. I don’t know how long. We become used to inconvenient events that are beyond our control. It is only the seemingly controllable events that become messed up that annoy us. “How could that have happened?” we say. And move on. Flanêurs.