Saturday, September 1, 2007

Port Authority Station, 4:30 am

I was dragged back down toward sleep in time to be thrown roughly into New York. The Lincoln Tunnel’s antiseptic light surrounded us, deceptively, for a few minutes, before the warm, brutal streets of the city emerged around us. Into the labyrinthine Port Authority we roared. I was amazed to see people propped and drooped in tired posture outside the metal and glass doors which usually keeps passengers away from the rumbling of the buses. It was 4am. They had spilled out by pressure from the inside, and I could see hundreds of people waiting in lines snaking about the interior of the terminal, in weary resignation.

Moving inside, weaving through and around tableau of conflict or fatigue, annoyance or belly-shaking laughter, I worked my way up to the information booth where a young white man berated a young black man for all the ills of his trip so far. “You don’t run things?” he said, “”Well then, who is your supervisor? How can you not know if the second bus is coming??” Scott and I found the line which, indistinct as it was, merging with other lines, was a paragon of order compared to St. Louis.

I made a run for the street in order to find a particularly cheap phone card. As I darted through one passageway to the other side, I was pulled up short by the bodies of sleeping men. One old man, hatted, slumbered chin to his chest against a pay phone. He sat on a milk crate, and leaned back against it. His hands drooped over his thighs. A younger man lay on his side next to him, oriented toward the wall, his belly spilling out white. I felt like I had slipped into a passageway back through the Great Depression. But instead, the machine of the economy was churning forcefully ahead. This sort of scene was normal for the poor. Every morning Port Authority looks like this.

When I went up a floor I found all the normal ways in and out barricaded off, except for one staircase. It looked like an emergency, but no one hurried or looked alarmed. People slept on the floor. I ascended to street level and was suddenly in a world of hoods and thugs, police and menacing taxi drivers. I went outside and crossed 42nd street to the 24 hour pharmacy. A keen stench hit me right in the middle of the street. It was dark, and the lights of the movie theatres and sports bars still sparkled brightly. In the store an older woman was berating a young man. “Tell me you didn’t know that!” she was shouting. “Tell me you had no idea! How many times did I remind you?” his face was only inches from hers. Who was menacing whom? Who were they and how had they become entangled, one old and white, one young and black, and silent, here at 4:15am in the blank light of the pharmacy, right next to a clerk and customer completing a normal, indifferent, transaction. Finding no phone cards I ran back across the street.

As I navigated through the police and thick necked station staff toward the stair case I was surprised at how ad-hoc and half-assed the “security” seemed. A quick “Got a ticket?” the men would ask, challengingly, while selectively waving others through. How similar to the figures of trouble are the guardians of order; how helter skelter and willy nilly these “procedures,” these “regulations,” these “mechanisms.” It is all seat of the pants tyranny. Iraq must feel like this and far worse, with the thugs equally represented in the police and the militias. Every morning is like this, I marveled, and yet here and now it feels totally fresh, unreckoned, unready, absurd. I wormed back down through the bodies bent in their postures of torment and the others, awake and wondering how they had stumbled into this. Before getting back into line I bought a sandwich from the snack bar. The man in front of me was buying a hot dog, or trying to. He laboriously counted out his change, and then scattered it, and pinched up each coin yet again. The cashier pursed her lips, trying not to look at him. She too was wondering how she had come to be here, with drugged up demons and smelly old men. I felt how close I was to him, wondering that I could see the acne on his neck and his oily hair, and yet be so far removed from his world!

Back in line with Scott, at gate 82, I saw the same man, still fumbling with his money. Everything was far from him, even his pockets. The bills played tricks on him, squirreling out from pockets and under the hang of his shirt. “Hey! You’re losin’ your money!” called out the black women from the line, and each call would twist him around again, to bend all the way to the floor to pluck up the errant bill. We hooted, we couldn’t believe it. He was made of plastic, twirling and tottering about in an endless effort. The money tormented him, sneaking out even after his efforts to stuff it back in. His shoulder bag got tangled up with a rope, which pulled over the pole, clanging it loudly on the floor. He righted it but could not free his bag, like a newspaper on a fence.

There were tensions in the line. “She is tryin’ to cut in!” came voices. We boarded, and waited long past the scheduled time. A large contingent was on its way to Foxwoods casino. “I wanna say Bingo!!” one woman chanted several times. Then the bus started, and all the tension flooded right out of us puppets, and we fell asleep, heads swaying like heavy flowers on turns.

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