Wednesday, July 4, 2007

191st street tunnel

The tunnel from the subway out to Broadway is oppressively long and straight. But like a road arrowing through desert, curious things happen, things shimmering up in the head or in the heat. Or in the time in which, confined unaccustomedly to itself, without distractions, the mind flowers. That these flowers shimmer subtly within a space and time whose emergence most often provokes a weary annoyance does not subtract any brightness from their real existence. What shimmers is a profusion of ways of being.

“We thought about adding a scene in that tunnel,” said the undergraduates who had come to my apartment looking for a seedy looking place in which to shoot their movie.

“Oh I hate this tunnel, it stinks,” said a woman I passed the other night to her boyfriend.

“No it doesn’t,” he said, “Anywhere in the city can smell just as much, a street or an alley.”

“It creeps me out,” I heard another young woman say once to a friend, “It seems like a place where you’re gonna get mugged.”

“Whattaya mean?” said the friend, “It’s all lit up, you can see everything for a mile!” People soldier through the tunnel. I have hated the tunnel for giving me nothing to look at but adolescent scrawlings. There is nothing worse than anticipating a particular “tag” which one does not want to see, some artless tag of crude lines or conquistadorian aggressiveness, but whose familiarity provokes one into marking time and looking out for it. Ho hum, (step step step), yup, almost up to the second “balla” tag. One is practically driven to imprint oneself with the movement through the tunnel. As one’s memory improves, despite oneself, one finds oneself an involuntary time keeper. I complain about the artlessness and thoughtlessness of most of the graffiti, but really what bothers is compulsively glancing, collecting with the eyes, repeating the same ground a hundredth time, until I can reproduce it by heart. I don’t hate “balla” the first day I see him. What I hate is that his moment of small triumph turns into our hundreds of repetitions, just like the Who’s rebellious challenge, “we won’t get fooled again!” is reproduced over airwaves decades later, a conservative crust over change and time simply for its fixity and perfect repetition. To be sure, each glance at Balla or each hearing of a recorded song is not the same experience, for we are not the same people. But still, why should we be forced to live with the static excreta of their moment of creative ecstasy? Shouldn’t artists, like campers, leave a place as they found it, even down to bagging their shit and carrying it out?

For a while I enjoyed “Team Bitches,” who often affixed their glitzy names around the collective identity (“Diamond,” etc). I told my friend Anne I wanted to start a Team Grinches to go into textual dialogue with them. Then one day men with long paint rollers moved down the tunnel, erasing all. And I have seen no more of Team Bitches. I imagine that if each one of them lives up to their common creed of bitchiness, it is not a group that would hang together long, like a Commune of Assholes. For a few days we walkers of the tunnel breathed in the refreshing emptiness of the tan walls. In places certain types of market bled faintly through the pain. Yet each time I entered the tunnel I knew that this day might be the day the spell is broken. It did not take long: a crass and mundane scribble near the steps leading up to the street appeared.

I was more annoyed that the writer had wasted the drama of breaking the emptiness with a careless effort, as if the first person to mark a snowy meadow takes an absent minded piss rather than throwing himself down and making an angel. Or even pissing out a ragged star, at the very least. As if a monarch symbolizing the end of a dynasty were killed by a nobody while no one was paying attention, in a fit of spite, his life snuffed out just because it could be (and becoming mere violence) rather than because it appeared right and necessary, the greatness of the role honored by the momentousness of the death. There is a lack of respect. If we are to give up this soothing blankness, shouldn’t we give it up to someone who cares enough – who shows the intentionality, even of obscenity – to paint a dick or an outrageous tag? Can no one match the challenge of that moment? This last time, apparently not. A lot of small minds gradually made themselves known in rushed and forgettable markings with barely a hint of style. sp@z. ca$h. team killas. kraAzy.

Before the veering over there had been one tag that challenged me, recognizable as a string of letters, descending like a staircase, but obscure as to which letters exactly they were. There was flair in the writing, and an accumulation of time in the practiced way it flowed enigmatically down the wall, like a staircase. I never decoded it. Then it was gone and its parent never passed that way again.

One night a couple of weeks ago the tunnel was permeated with the aroma of jasmine. It made such little sense, one tried to pay it no attention, making it vaguely magic. A week later I was outside one night on the hill between my place and the tunnel and I saw heavy white blossoms ladening junk trees under the steel frameworks holding up the backs of buildings. I felt the heavy scent. What queer science had migrated the scent into the tunnel one night, and not the next? I have not once smelled roast pork or longaniza sausage in the tunnel, even though one glimpses them through the sweating windows not ten yards after emerging from the tunnel’s mouth. I have never smelled fumes billowed from Broadway’s trucks and buses. The delicate scent traveled, traversed these far more aggressive odors, and infiltrated the tunnel. In the winter the slopes yawning under the buildings are rocky wastes, and the branches of the trees catch clothes and trash thrown by kids out of back windows. From this waste this fragrance grows!

The tunnel is a tyranny of the eye. It hides nothing and exposes everything. One enters and sighs, thinking well: this is how things are to be , and nothing more, for at least the next two or three minutes. There are no possibilities to be seen. The round horizon of light bobbing there in the distance might as well be a telescope, announcing the movements of every person to enter the tube. The tunnel is a telescope one is forced to walk the length of. Bit in this confinement of and to the eye strange things happen, despite one’s exasperated congestion that nothing can and will ever happen there. this dirty tube, too, is a waste, a waste enclosing you.

Only boys make the aesthetic connection between the tunnels’ visual simultaneity and an automatic sense of speed. They appear at the top of the ramp on bikes and descend, careening past people grudgingly walking and whipping past one. Not only is speed implied and demanded by the visual collapse of distance into a single circle of light, but speed is heightened by the closeness of the walls. Speed is sped up on the skin and around the ears with a roaring wind that blows even around walkers. I can imagine on a bike plunging inward the wind must be deafening. The tunnel generates wind, perhaps through temperature differentials.

Yesterday I walked outside and felt I was in Jakarta or Taipei, a sunny torpor over everyone. At the mouth of the tunnel a man leaned against the stair railing, body bathed in the chill current blowing stiffly onto the sidewalk. I plunged into it. As I neared the inner end, however, this chill wind slowly petered out, replaced by a desultory, warmish flow smelling of subway tracks.

A couple of intellectual kids have toyed with the tunnel, evident in their scattered leavings. “I found myself in a tunnel of light,” “art (ificial)” or “today I planned to get so many things done. I walked around, thought about life, and finally decided to just go fuck myself.” Or there was, “Is this pitiful shit the best you can do? How about some art? Yes, that’s more like it,” next to an embroidered design done in red marker. An earlier message exhorted readers “somking dope is good 4 you.” Another, ironic statement chastised taggers with “stop this taggin up you’re a disgrace.” This message calls to mind the very different tone of snobbish incredulity I read in a Columbia stall: “Someone at Columbia tags up??”

No one ever voiced such classed put downs at the “Dear Columbia, you suck – FU,” or the “Aussies suck mad wang,” or the “I hate my landlord,” or the “Fuck hipsters” – “But be sure to wear a condom!”

Squabbling roils the tunnel walls, put downs appear in a writing over or a crossing out, with a “Balla is a pussy” to kick it home even harder. We walkers have to live with these moments of aggression frozen into hundreds of trips up and down, up and down. I am happy for the impulse, however; I identify with it not out of any knowledge of Balla’s character, but as one oppressed by the stasis and repetition Balla consigned us to that moment one night when he saw no one was around.
I appreciate the graphic gestures or stylish misspellings these kids use to distinguish their letters from the standard – the “z” standing for “s” in “Wadsworth Family Gorillaz” (after a nearby street) or elaborately Polish “Miisz Flirtatiousz” and “Miisz Seductive,” the pitchfork piercing a letter or arrow shooting up from one; the halo above “Angel,” or the sniper scope crosshairs through “Dope.” The “$” standing in for “s” is as ubiquitous as oversized bank notes printed on boy’s shirts or stitched on their jackets these days.

The uses of the tunnel are legion. It took me a while to realize that the tunnel was only one segment of pleasure for the boys on bikes: roaring down the cool tube followed the swooping descent down Fairview Avenue from St. Nicholas, under the buildings teetering on stilts, through the scent of flowers, through the wave of Dominican meat perfume. At the end of the tunnel they slow, round the corner into the station, and turn left, lining up for the elevator back up, up to St. Nicholas. With the elevator there is no need to ride up the hill. Chinese food delivery men in their cipherous clothing of total indifference to style and on bikes banged up and wrapped in duct tape navigate the tunnel more slowly, also looking for a ride to the top. Outside the tunnel’s entrance stands a sign: “Bicycle riding is prohibited in the tunnel.”

The result of this oppressive confinement to the eyes is the common wish of all but the mad or the youthful to minimize excess movement or gesture. The tunnel magnifies everything in its telescopic form. The meandering course of children’s walking is less tolerated by parents, constantly tug them closer, glancing back at the echo of footsteps nearing. As in the subway people scrupulously avoid paying attention to others, simply because we are fixed beneath the microscope of one another’s senses, and know far moer than we need to even without trying. Children’s dawdling, their attention to candy wrappers, their bobbing curly heads, go against the tunnel’s stern command. A bum lay several nights in the middle of the tunnel atop cardboard, buried beneath coats. A glib panhandler set up a much more unsettling post in the same spot, giving walkers no way to pretend not to have seen him, or heard the quarters jingling in his hand, or the wheedling come on. A man off in the head stood staring into the wall, gesturing. Pretty women comfortable on the street suddenly have no where to hide.

Dominican boys fill the tunnel, four or five abreast, dragging their feet with a pleasure deaf to efficient and proper functioning of the space. I have had to wriggle through such groups on occasion. One night loud claps echoed past me from behind, and an older man ahead of me stopped and turned, and looked disapprovingly. After each clap he would turn his head, muttering “sons of bitches.” “Idiots,” I commiserated as I passed him, hoping my tiny solidarity would satisfy him, appease him, make him drop it before something happens. The tunnel does not want to turn the confrontation inherent in its telescopic form into the open. Keep it moving there; keep it moving folks.

A tire that had lain for days in the tunnel was finally put to the use I had seen in it. A kid raised it, kicking it into movement. It bore down on his friends. I laughed. It ran through dirty water. They shouted. Someone’s gonna put this tunnel to use, bring its spatial logic into the open with play. These very kids may have been the mysterious Daft, or Blaze; Toon (with two eyes), Fla$h, Teazer, Sin, Lady Havoc, Lil Sunshine, Msz Glamor, Sham, Lil $, Laze, or Ladii Sparx.

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