Scene 1: The Subway Rattles and Screeches On
8:30am—104th Street Station
It’s crush hour on the subway, hands slapped on steel bars, knuckles pushed up against other people’s soft, sweaty body parts. The pudgy girl is 12, maybe 13, a head full of blond August frizz. I choose her because I like the way she dabs at the mosquito bites on her elbow with a Kleenex, now bloodied and worn. I will do this all day: pick someone, follow them to their destination, pick someone else, repeat. Right now, the girl and her mother are headed to a bakery on Broadway and 78th, only I don’t know that yet. So I am dipping my head into their conversation, prepared to get off at any stop. Is this creepy? It may be a little creepy. It was only meant as an experiment—to roam the city like a stray dog, from here to there and here again, a they-choose-my-own-adventure-for-me tour of New York. The subway doors open. A woman’s voice from the platform. ‘Move over or move off!’ she barks to people standing near the entrance. The pudgy girl, who was standing near the entrance, moves over. Her eyes sink to the floor. As the train rattles and screeches on, the pudgy girl says what is often thought but rarely heard on a New York subway.
‘Mommy,’ she whispers, ‘I’m scared.’ The mother touches her on the wrist and nods.
Scene 2: People Do Not Stare
9 am—80th and Broadway
The old crazy man enters a corner store, picks up a tin can of Pepperidge Farm cookies, and brings it crashing to the counter. ‘Rabblerum!’ he hollers, eyes wild and red-rimmed. Scotch tape runs from either cheek into his gray beard.
‘Rabbleroo!’ The female cashiers stare at their registers. The tattooed stockboy snickers.
‘He do this often?’ I ask one of the cashiers.
‘All the time.’ She is an attractive Asian woman. ‘Bang things. Break merchandise.’
‘What do you do?’
‘Call the police. That stop him.’
The old man wanders the aisles, assaulting more food. Honey Bunches of Oats: ‘Rabblerum!’ Nutella, Café Bustelo: ‘Rastaroo!’ He walks to the glass doors of the refrigerated section, pulls out a comb, and smoothes his hair in the reflection.
‘Excuse me,’ I say, reaching past him for a soda.
‘Rasterafteeman?’ His teeth are brown, rotted stumps.
‘That’s right,’ I say, grabbing a Diet Coke.
He smiles and nods. ‘Robsterobble.’
‘It’s delicious,’ I say. Hey, am I making a connection?
Then he screams and pounds his fists into the Ceres Fruit Juices. I make my exit.
Later I see him carrying two bags down Broadway. He rants into the air, carrying the bags a few steps only to let them crash to the ground. People pass and do not stare.
Scene 3: And Some People Do
9:30 am—Broadway and 80th
A black construction worker walks around the block smoking. His head cranes as women walk past. Different colors, different ages, different sizes, yet one similarity stands out: What we have here is a lover of the big ass. I trail him closely—who’s zooming who now sucka? —but he stops at a construction site to jaw with the boys, and I’m left stalling awkwardly for time.
‘How you doin’ baby?’ one of the construction workers asks me. I rifle through my purse, pretend to find my keys. ‘Where you goin?’ he asks. I pluck a stray hair from my purse and set it free, rummage through my credit cards for something, anything. Why can’t they leave me alone? It gives me a nervous feeling, a sixth-grade lunchroom sadness. Jesus Christ. Do I have a sign on my back or what?
Later in the day, as if to answer my question, a man will pull up in a car beside me. ‘Psst. You got a fat ass.’ Wait: Was that fat or phat?
For now, the construction worker strays from the site, takes another lap around the block smiling and shaking his head in appreciation of New York’s fine display of jiggly backside. At 9:45 am, he returns to the loading zone of Zabar’s, where sweaty men throw boxes from truck to sidewalk, from sidewalk to store. The man leans his face against the horizontal bars of the metal scaffolding and sighs.
Scene 4: The Inquisitive Child
9:45 am—Amsterdam and 83rd
The people who suspect they are being followed are either paranoid or doing something wrong. Over nine hours, I will follow 30 people while scribbling in a notebook and only one of them will notice me. I trail a boy and his mother to the Children’s Museum on the Upper West Side, his legs moving fast to match his mother’s pace. As his mother hands two canvas bags to the woman I suspect to be the nanny, the little boy wanders to my side.
‘You writing a story?’ His eyes are rimmed with dark lashes. ‘Yes.’ I jot the words down as we speak.
‘About New York.’
‘Oh.’ He considers this. ‘What are you saying?’
‘I don’t know yet,’ I say. ‘What are you doing?’
Scene 5: Late to Work
9:50 am—78th Street Station
The young woman rushes to catch the subway, her clunky black heels dragging on the cement. She wears a tight, tasteful black dress and carries a Gap bag. She gets off in Times Square and clops down the streets, running one hand down her belly as she catches her reflection in the mirrored buildings. There is already a line outside 1515, where vacationing suburban teens come to rub elbows with celebrities and lob shout-outs on that afternoon’s TRL, and the young woman buys something from a street vendor and hurries into the offices of MTV.
Scene 6: No Standing
Even in this heat, she wears the uniform: long-sleeved blue shirt, heavy dark skirt. She says the same thing to the men in the 18-wheelers and the women in the SUVs. ‘No Standing,’ she says. Gentle, firm, with her Jamaican accent.
In New York, ‘No Standing’ means ‘No Parking.’ Failing to recognize that can result in pain—like, say, a $150 towing fee and two hours spent in a noisy lobby whose general cheer is matched only by hospital waiting rooms and immigration offices. Don’t bother explaining to the women behind the bulletproof glass that ‘No Standing’ sounds an awful lot like something a person (and not a car) would do. This here is a job, lady.
‘No Standing,’ she says to the man in the Polar Springs truck, and when he gives her lip, she pulls out her pen. He relents. A 50 percent off sale at a men’s clothing store catches her eye, and she stands for a moment running her eyes over the sharp gray and black suits in the window. When she turns the corner, slapping her book of tickets against her palm, all the loitering cars scatter like pigeons.
Scene 7: Consumer Reports
11:45 am–3 pm—Midtown
People, there’s a problem. You are not getting on the subway. I thought we’d be halfway to Staten Island by now, and we are losing time. Everyone shuffling from office to restaurant, from one mega store to the next. Everything so predictable, so uninspired. The grandparents to FAO Schwartz—how did I know? The lunkheads in basketball jerseys to the NBA Store—I think you’ve bought enough there already. No more shopping, no more food. On the subway, people. On the subway now.
Scene 8: Take Me Far, Far Away From Here
3:30 pm—F Train stop
I will follow the next person who gets on this subway. I will follow the next person down those stairs and under the city and we will not come back up until that person says so. All right. Who’s getting’ on the subway? Who’s the lucky so-and-so? Hmm. Those Scottish boys are cute. Maybe I’ll just follow them for a few blocks. They’ll take me to someplace edgy and European, something I haven’t seen before…Wait, what’s this? Barnes & Noble again?
Scene 9: Escape
4 pm—Times Square
I pick them up close to the subway, two bald black men sweating through polyester baseball jerseys. Finally, someone headed home. We take the subway to 125th Street in Harlem, where all the monster Sex and the City posters have been replaced by ads for Barber Shop, the new all-black family film from the makers of Soul Food. Ice Cube, the man who once dubbed himself ‘the nigga you love to hate,’ stands in the foreground, smiling benignly, a handsome, heavy black man holding scissors.
Scene 10: The Subway Rattles and Screeches On
5:30 pm—116th Street Station
His eyes are not the vacant, eerily wandering eyes you associate with blind people. His eyes are brown and pretty. He stares at the ground, tilts his head toward music drifting from another platform. A violinist playing Mozart. The blind man holds the reins to a dog—later he will call him ‘Wolf’—curled at his feet and panting.
As the subway screeches to a halt, he walks with the dog to the platform’s edge and positions himself in front of the door. They are amazing this way, in their anticipation of motion, their common movement. What they cannot sense is the futility of their situation. The subway car is beyond packed, bodies that will not budge
‘There’s too many people,’ I say, because no one else will. ‘I don’t think we’ll fit.’
The blind man says nothing, but yanks the dog back to the platform and clenches his jaw as the subway departs. We stand beside each other on the next train. I can’t stop looking in his face. Can he feel this? Is he really blind? He doesn’t look blind. He looks handsome and kind. Maybe he’s only half-blind. He gets off at 125th Street, walks down three flights of metal stairs, his toes finding each edge before his weight bears down. He crosses heavy traffic, holding one hand out in a stop motion as he moves. How does he do this? Walk straight in a world black and breathing heavy, while I stumble onto the wrong train at least 50 percent of the time, show up late everywhere I go? Habit, of course, and predictability, the comforts that make New York livable. The blind man walks to the projects, a bland red-brick complex in Manhattanville. What he can’t see is the car parked outside, it’s hood peeled open like a tin can. What he can’t see is the sign outside, ‘Home of Proud People, Working Together for a Better Community.’ But perhaps he can hear the little kids playing in the park, the teens leaning against the fence, talking about nothing and everything. Sirens, traffic, the patter of footsteps heading home.
New York, New York
From Here to There
Stalking may not be in right now, but don’t let that deter you. Spend a day following people around New York.
Scene 1: The Subway Rattles and Screeches On