An Urban Mosaic
A voice booms amidst the darkness, “You’re all here because you’re the best of the brightest, the crème de la crème.” These words seem to echo in the void. “You’re all here because you’re special.”
Let there be light.
Employee Orientation: Day One. An over-head projector illuminates the room. A man stands at the podium. He’s talking, using his hands, actually flapping, no, flailing. A lot. He’s calling on the seated crowd of disinterested faces. His waving locks of hair, slicked back. The power tie. Oh, the obnoxious power tie. Light, no, pale tangerine-colored tie.
“How do you distinguish yourself from the faceless masses,” he asks us in the darkness of the room as the Power Point slide changes.
The starched collar of the purposely faded blue dress shirt looks tight, doesn’t it? Too small around his neck, the Adam’s apple straining against it as he speaks. He’s going on and on about SWOT analysis. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, but who cares, right?
“If you ignore the downsides, you are the downside,” the man on stage, behind the podium says, pointing. He’s pointing at you. Is he pointing at me? “You become the failure, itself,” he tells us, the room.
Emerging from the wet heat of the underground, the stairwell became congested with human traffic, conditioning movements to crawl-like steps. 28th Street greeted me more hostile than refreshing, though, causing the exposed skin on my arms to go all prickly in the early April air. I inhaled with a sharp breath appropriate for pain. Shuffling, increasing pace, I struggled to distance myself, breaking free of the herd, despite any clear motivation to meet an ex at that café she loved so damn much and listen to her verbally berate me for the next hour.
Broadway was not paved down here. Approaching a crosswalk, I saw the old cobblestone of some lost, depressing decade peeking through the torn away blacktop. The city was probably planning on construction, repairs, soon, but for now conditions must have been rough upon the spinning tires of the honeybee taxi cabs and anyone else crazy enough to travel by car down here.
Transportation, no matter how you look at it, in all its forms, had the inevitable downsides. An elderly woman, wearing floral-patterned drapes as a sun dress sneezed on me this morning on the #1 Train. The light, moist sprinkles splashed my bare skin without apology, warning, or even acknowledgement. Eyes vacant, she didn’t miss a beat and continued watching the blur of lights sail by amidst the darkness of the tunnel.
Forget about light being at the end of tunnels.
Back on the street, the buildings rose up from the graying concrete, attempting to stab God.
In the darkness, there was a foreboding cold. This was years ago, before the slowed blood and aching heart, before the apathy and five-figure-a-month paychecks. The streets were lonely and still. The unforgiving night taunted and teased its victims. In the darkness, the faint feeling of warmth smoldered as a trashcan fire flickered to the strength of the December night and a group of strangers huddled together to fight off the frigid finger-tips of winter.
Warmth and joy were only elusive memories on the corner of Madison and 35th. Feelings like those are often difficult to remember, while it’s the heartache you never seem to forget. The silence, except for an occasional wailing siren, was eerie. New York City: if you could make it here, you’d make it anywhere. Sinatra said it, so it must be true. However, those who can’t make it are never heard from again. They slip through the cracks and fade away as the darkness and the cold devour them.
Somewhere, a small caravan of miss-matched vehicles snaked its way down the desolate streets. The tiny glow from their headlights pierced through curtains of darkness. Two mini-vans slowly came to a stop at some lonely corner as if giving in to the hopeless cold. But occupants emerged: middle aged men, house-wives, maybe a priest, a balding man who was slightly over weight, a woman whose glasses hung too big for her face, and a fourteen year old boy. They weren’t anybody special.
“BECAUSE” is sprayed, in rust-colored paint, upon the side of the building. The simplicity of the message holds my attention while someone from work is talking at me, not to or with me. Forming the word with my lips, I’m thinking, “Because what?”
“And I hate this place,” Kathy said while wiggling out of her jacket and taking a seat at the small table in front of the café, “this evil fucking city. It’s the only place in the world where you can live and still feel like a tourist with your eyes to the sky.”
I smiled, weakly, attempting not to establish eye contact as I run a finger across the epoxy surface of this outdoor table. For me, there’s something far worse about this place which I hate.
I’ve always tried to think of myself as being a people-person. But now I see that I’m more like a person-person. I hate people in groups and as I gazed around at the other desperate youths in this conference room on the second Basement of this fifty-something-story corporate building, in the heart of Manhattan, while this wannabe cult leader brands his brainwashing, I’m realizing, looking at all these pale faces in the summer time. The central air conditioning humming smoothly in the drop ceiling above my head. These people, listening, nodding, we can’t control our strengths and weaknesses. That’s half the fun of all of it, no?
Forget that saying about it all being fun and games.
The half empty bottles of Poland Spring glisten on all the tables, illuminated by the light from the overhead projectors. Single-serving snack bags, some containing potato chips and others pretzels, pushed into piles with empty clear ice-coffee cups in the center of the tables. The slide changes. There’s an image of a cartoon sad face changing into a cartoon happy one. Animated .gif files, you know? There’s something to be said for the ability to see behind the curtain that’s been draped in front of everyone’s eyes.
A man on the train tells me, “No one seems to stand still too long in this city. They’re always moving like this seamless flow. If you are standing still, chances are, you’re homeless, a tourist, or on a lunch break.”
There was a deli on the corner that looked cheap, not trendy or any of that illusory stuff. I wished I could have taken Kathy there since I was paying and she would be utterly repulsed by the fact that I took her to a deli, in the first place.
Suits on cell phones corralled outside. Smoke was everywhere. It billowed from their mouths the same way it escapes from guns. I choked, lost in thought and forcing out a cough to their annoyed glares. Hair slicked back with too much gel or mousse or something, their pinstripes and solids and pointed shoulders were just too broad to be real. Plastic tumors on the sides of their faces, they talked to their tumors. And the tumors talked back.
Forget what the Surgeon General says about serious hazards
Continuing down 28th, a little girl in a denim jacket let go of her mother’s hand and waddled towards a long school bus waiting at the curb to take her to some afternoon activity.
Scaffolding everywhere, it lined the blocks, shielding ground from the attacks of the sky.
Something smelled like Indian food. I could see the café up ahead with Kathy already waiting, her arms folded.
And yet, perhaps there was a reason, back then, why people like the ones on that corner, that night, clung to some hope. Something in the air changed and the forgotten emerged from the darkness and cold. A bright light returned to their faces with faint smiles. Someone remembered the forgotten on that cold winter night. Most people want to pretend that those people do not exist, that they’re invisible.
Gifts were delivered, not the toys and games you would give a small child on Christmas, but rather clothing, blankets, warm food, cups of coffee, toiletries, and a genuinely caring face. A man whispered, “Have mercy,” while a woman found tears in her eyes. Stories were told, and despite the crippling, cold wind and frigid frost looming in the numb blue-black of the night, there was a smile. Suddenly it became clear: here was the warmth, here was the joy, and this was their Christmas.
All these ordinary people had reached out and remembered the forgotten. They cared and they listened. And as they had an impact on those poor individuals, the poor individuals would change a fourteen-year-old boy’s life that night.
Retreating onto the gold-leafed the roof, eighty-six stories above the urban floor, the sun blinded me with the kind of white-hot light you’d associate with heaven’s glare. Throwing on my pair of Ray-Bands, I light a cigarette and rounded the parapet in an attempt to avoid the building’s security guards.
It is mid-August and with that in mind, the air held an unfamiliar flavor of stale urgency. I slowly pulled my self to the ledge’s rails, letting the wind blow smoke back into my eyes. From up here, at a height even with the throats of larger office buildings, I could see the dissipating haze of the summer’s day strangling at them with waning strength. The Hudson River, in the distance, crawled on its belly like a worm.
I realize now that the city breaks you. It beats you into submission. Back on the subway, people make these conscious efforts to turn their hearts off, isolating themselves from the rest of the world. People get hit by cars, crossing the street and no one stops, tries to help. They all just keep walking, talking, minding their own goddamn business. The longer you’re here, the more you forget about what really matters, about who you are, about how to be human.
You know that saying, the one that goes: “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there”? Well, I don’t know who first said this but I’m pretty sure they were talking about New York. It had such a polarizing effect on me: the books, movies, and trips from Westchester (which city natives, in all their solipsism, call “upstate”). I came to live here wanting the life I saw glimpses of in my youth: the dazzle, the rhythm running through everyone, the tall buildings and taller dreams.
Ironically enough, as I began my New York life, my first job in the city was at an insurance company called New York Life. My New York life. After a day there, I knew, deep-down, this would never be the life for me, I knew that I had been dreaming of a life that would never exist, could never exist, but it took two years to accept it, to do something about it.
Forget that saying about best laid plans.
The job turned me off from New York and any ideals it once had represented. I’m not sure if I have a soul, or for that matter if anyone really does, but if we do, then New York ate my soul. It did it in the same way it does everyone else’s: slowly and without feeling, like the way a predator in the wild does, the blood and gore hanging from it’s teeth, dripping.
In the winter, someone has written “BECAUSE” in the already tarnished snow. A cab speeds by, running the red light.
“Price determines prestige,” the man in the suit, behind the podium, on the stage, says as he climbs down, taking very deliberate steps to my seat in the aisle. “Think of the power inherent in the ability to create scarcity, to manufacture a future for millions of people.”
My head feels like its underwater and I’m not really listening to him. I quickly throw my glances at the group around us. I mean, look at them. None of us are ourselves, here. We’re just chimps in suits, completely inappropriate, out of place, and messy. These future junior executives, spreadsheet-makers, spell-checkers, cab-chasers are all merely reflections in the glow of the projectors. Reflections of others. Our parents. Our jobs. Our schools. Our friends. We aren’t anybody special.
Talk about a loss of identity as this succubus works at the inflatable balloon of our souls with grandiose promises of success and fulfillment in the form of monetary wealth.
Forget that saying about the root of all evil.
The blank, vacant stares. The nothingness of their eyes. The crowd, you included, right now, with your fake, forced smiles, slowly slipping. I can see the nodding of a handful of heads. And they’re all sitting behind these long tables, panels of my peers, with this long, drawn out expression. Other faces with bored, glazed eyes staring off into space, also nodding heads to simulate a captured attention. None of us really want to be here. We’ve got to, though. Some of us, most of us anyway, but I’m not one to comprehend the motives of other people.
The slide changes. Bolded dollar-signs are dancing.
Forget that saying about the road to Hell being paved.
But on my first Mid-Night Run, things were different and I thought, for just a moment, that a place could have a soul. I thought I was able to see it. I was the fourteen-year-old boy in a caravan of cars; the boy from suburbia; the boy who attended a private school and whose life revolved around little less than making an ass out of myself for people’s approval; the boy who had never given much thought to the lives of theses people only thirty miles away; the boy who felt changed; the boy who felt saved in a way Church was never going to offer.
I learned things that you’re never supposed to forget. I learned humility; I learned the stories of these homeless; I learned names and faces. Most importantly I learned how fortunate I really was and it just wasn’t fair. Apathy had crushed these people and swept them underneath the rug. “Out of sight, out of mind” didn’t apply here, it couldn’t. I vowed that I wouldn’t let it.
Forget the saying about ignorance and bliss.
These people were real, and so were their needs and misfortune. They weren’t invisible and they weren’t begging for money, but to be seen. All they wanted to know was that someone still cared whether they lived or died. Now that I saw it, I could not ignore it. These things change you, they changed me. When I saw the smile on an elderly man’s face as he held a cup of coffee in his shaking hands, I knew I would never be able to look away.
“Don’t you just hate it when you’re wrong,” the man with the tie asks, “Don’t you hate it when people tell you you’re wrong?”
I nod but am trying not to make eye contact, not to throw this dog a bone.
“An apology is the most powerful thing you can do.” He’s stopped in the room, physically pausing. My head is at his waist and he’s standing right next to me. “Some how, for some reason, people don’t want to do it.” He’s crouched and looking at me, waiting for me to, what, participate? I wasn’t aware this was going to be an audience-interactive afternoon. “To give up that power,” he’s looking at me and fishing for a response.
I gulp, turning to you. Are you asleep? Seriously?
“The control,” the suit tells me. “In Rwanda, the word for hello literally translates to mean I see you. To ignore someone would be the worst possible thing, then, you could do to a person.”
Pausing, he looks back down at me. “I see you.”
Those crazy people on the subway, the ones you try so hard to ignore as you stare at your toes, indifferent to their plight. Maybe they’re the ones who are still human, uncorrupted by frigidness of this place. They desperately seek out interaction, while everyone else is putting up their brick and mortar.
Forget Frost’s words about good walls and good neighbors.
We all sit there. Stand there. Sleep there. Read there. Silent, but somehow screaming. Plugged into an illusion, seeing what we want to see and not what’s really there. We’re so close, huddled in the baking subway cars as they hurtle down tracks at a speed that never seems fast enough. Music mashes from the blaring head-phones of people seeking distraction from other sounds of gnashing teeth. People taking up two seats, sitting uncomfortably on the raised lip between the seats, as if to avoid anyone ever really getting to close to them.
Forget about standing clear of the closing doors.
There has never been a time when we have ever been so disconnected from each other. Biblical Babel, maybe, but this is worse and cannot be blamed on some superfluous deity. No, we did this to ourselves.
We chose this.
The man on the corner with the sign asking for money tells me, “No one ever makes eye contact. The people are all so emotionally detached from each other. The trick is to stare them down. Force eye contact. Will them to acknowledge you.”
On the front steps, leading up to the main entrance of building, someone, probably a dissatisfied employee, maybe one who was recently let go, has graffitied a message in neon green. It says, “BECAUSE I CAN’T REMEMBER THE LAST TIME I WAS TRULY HAPPY.” Full-timers, technicians, temps, the CFO, the COO, clients trudge up the cement stairway, not noticing this aerosol confession.
Time passes or maybe it doesn’t, I can never really gauge these things. The difference between seconds and years is a matter of perception. All these eyes are looking at me, probably, through the darkness. And as they all sit, leaning maybe a little towards the edge of their seats to hear the next thing the man in the suit will say, I feel like the walls, the floor, the chairs, the everything is trying to eat me, consume me, pull me apart. Forces pulling in different directions, like being drawn and quartered.
Forget what Twain said about rumors, demise, and exaggeration.
The first session in our fun-filled day of corporate training concludes, the lights rising, transitioning seamlessly with the dimming projectors. I tell them I’m going outside for a cigarette or a piss, but I’m grabbing you and leading you out the door. “I may not have a clue what I want to be when I grow up, but, Kath, insurance salesman is definitely not one of them.”
Of what is it that I could possibly ensure, assure, anyone? Thank Human Resources for the opportunity, though.