On the platform in Grand Central shuffling with the crowd toward the starry dome, big metal bins stand full of newspapers dropped in after a silent commute, a sticker reads, “Warning: Removing Papers from this Container is Against the Law.” The MTA and the newspaper companies have made a deal to keep words with their rightful owners – or else locked in the trash. But sometimes I see a paper perched on the lip for any taker, and it makes me smile.
Lined up at the fare booth under Grand Central a jolly man with a bristly face knocks on the glass grinning and holding up his card and the voice of the woman comes out through a speaker, “Bring it over so I can check it,” and he takes it back and shouts Thank you, you are so beautiful, a beautiful woman, exuberantly, and I move up into her sight and she waves to the left so she can see past me to the confused father with the stroller at the service door. And she is beautiful, brown skin, attentive, unruffled, smile not extinguished, sitting in her little light house with human waves crashing all around her.
The escalator up to Grand Central is a New York mystery, an escalator of people who just stand where they like, immobilized a moment and caring nothing for the three seconds to be gained by walking up nor for moving aside so others may do so. Why does this escalator, among all others, succumb to inefficient inertia?
In the county courthouse, just past the security checkpoint sits an old cop taking cell phones and cameras, and his grey brush cut, precise pencil mustache, big brown shades, and talk crackling with tough guy ennui shows a man with an image to think about, an image not about to go outta style. “What’s those chairs? Them Julliard people comin’ to play? One more thing ta drive me crazy,” he says and then to me, “here’s what a wantcha to do: sign your name here, telephone number here.” When I have signed I feel I’ve done something important and responsible, something slightly confidential and man to man. All for a four dollar camera.
And each office in the courthouse is a pell mell archaeological site of personal longings and identities, walls and desks taped and tacked with bricabrac of precious sentiment, family photos, a lit-up menorah, Christmas tinsel, a Daily News cover of a GI lighting up in Falluja captioned SMOKIN, Far Side cartoons and a “Let the Stress Begin”sign; every old surface scarred with crusty masking tape, mark of old signs harassing citizens in old-fashioned ways.
I’ve never seen people have such fun with each other as in the courthouse, clerks black and white taking with a verve and nerve not seen since a warm summer evening on a street corner, harassed with a smile by knowing messenger boys or the clerk from the 3rd floor, hitting pause mid-chatter to say, “Sir, the stamp’s over here,” or the shop clerk hustling around selling legal forms and Snapples, leaning near for the young lady’s quiet coffee order (small), booming “That’ll be 75 dollars please,” with an English Spanish-sculpted just to bag a small smile. The counter is stacked with candy bars and breath mints, and I sense his arms can and have reached all over the tiny space like a supremely comfortable octopus immigrated, fearlessly, from more southerly seas.
Timidly entering room 103, court records, where I am told there is a copy machine, the room is full of yellowed tomes on shelves and heavy tables. When the machine does not respond, a voice calls out “That’s a private machine,” and I turn to see a young man seated, hat low over eyes that do not need to look up, a stack of records in front of him and earphones on. Without needing to look up he tells me the public machines are back to your left. The room is a terrain of stories of struggle, plain folk brows furrowed or legal men forehead in hands, gaze burrowing into blurred lettering from long ago, a sanitation department certificate for an inspection said by an old owner not to have ever happened, but I’ll be damned if this aint it.
In a Chinatown noodle house each table full of people come for cheap food, and I savor their talk the way upper East-siders savor opera arias, thrilling and piercing and trailing away; three men sit at a table in front of me, one white, one China born, one ABC. The two Americans trade crude hypotheticals from their workplace, “They just grab your blackberry and kick you in the nuts,” and laughter. The China-born man works gamely to keep up, throwing in his two cents about combination locks, said in English without any crude fireworks, and letting the white guy take a scoop of his noodles. “Y’know what I do, is buy a whole bunch o’meat, lamb, pork, beef, take it home and throw it in the fridge overnight to let it marinate,” the white man says.
Under the scaffolding alongside the museum, where shoe repairsmen and fortunetellers sit, there is a translation of a Chinese sign, all in capitals, I AM A 35 YEAR OLD FORTUNE TELLER WHO SPEAKS ENGLISH. . . YOU CAN TRUST ME. On the six train back to Grand Central hitting a curve hard a European man and woman are pitched practically into the laps of people seated, and a south Asian woman with full lips is shaken, and the Italian man apologizes twice and I realize I should not be letting them see me laughing. The “Ode to Joy” rings out from a cell phone and a working class black man answers. On the way back up to the surface I hear two Hispanic women puzzling out the question of a Chinese woman: “Does she mean Port Authority?” and I step near and she repeats, “I want to go to Manhattan Bus Station,” and the two women say, “The seven train,” and I tell her there is no such place, it is called Port Authority, and she grins to hear her own language. How brave is this foreigner so far afield.
And in the basement of Grand Central where crowds look for tables, a woman with more bags than is normal, a collector of the streets, curls up in one of those Roger Rabbit-like cartoonish chairs, composition notebook open in her lap. I sit at a table with a young white couple who say, “Not bad for non-fat,” and then two black co-workers, one of whom eats a huge salad while they talk 15 minutes about nothing but food, about how when one visits her parents its sugarless jam she just refuses to eat, or how the other discovered peanut butter is full of corn syrup, “Its just gettin’ ridiculous.” “You’ve ordered 2 pounds of greens,” she says, and seeing how disconsolate the other is with all the food talk she says, “This is just a salad appetizer, don’t worry about it.”
If it was not a sunny day this would still be a love song. If the hot dog man from Eastern Europe had not yanked out the napkins with such a jaunty flourish of the hand it would still, always, be a love song.