Walking out to the buses this afternoon, I noticed two elementary school-aged boys chasing each other around happily. As my eyes tracked up to glance at them, I spotted an empty dime bag on the ground. It looked like it once had really crappy weed full of seeds and stems, the sort of stuff I used to smoke in the back of the very building I just exited. The circle of life is mundane like that.
On the bus, I am surrounded by old women with shopping carts clogging the aisles. I would damn them to eternal hellfire in my mind, but they could all easily pass for my grandmother, so I stop myself. Incidentally, my grandma called me this morning to scold me for being a selfish fuck-up, and also to bring the chairs over for Thanksgiving. It was just and kind and crushing, because there’s nothing like grandmotherly disapproval to speed up the onset of soul death. I am thinking of what it would be like to eat a bullet as the bus pulls up to my stop. It’s not a pleasant thought to consider. Then again, is there anyone out there who can recount the experience so my curiosity can be sated? I doubt it, and the fact that I find it such an interesting question makes me squirm.
The sky is a mottled patchwork of grays, and the flecks of rain I felt when I left my apartment are more insistent now. A pre-recorded message blares out from the wireless dealer’s storefront onto the sidewalk: NO CREDIT CHECK. GET YOUR BEST DEAL ON CELL PHONES HERE TODAY. WE HAVE THE LATEST MODELS. COME ON IN TODAY. The message is very similar to the one offered further down the block by an actual man handing out fliers and scratching his stubble as he talks rapidly in a high-pitched voice: cheap phones, great wireless plans today, check it out, here you go mama, yeah we got that good shit for you ma, free sign-up today.
Walking without purpose lets you notice things. The unique smell made by cuchifrito vendors selling stale empanadas while perched directly in front of Dunkin’ Donuts. The suspicious look you always get back when you make eye contact with someone. The way this street remains bereft of hope, even as it oozes ambition and the sense that everyone and everything here is on the make. These hustlers, wearing WE BUY GOLD signs, selling bootleg incense and books with titles like Bitch, they’ve at least got a gimmick. I don’t, and that’s a problem. But their parents, maybe even their parent’s parents, hustled here too, rocking big collars and conks and leather vests. Their retired, died without ‘making it’, and so it will likely go with their children. Why? Why here? Why does this place have such a strong pull? Why can’t I escape?
Now I am surrounded by women, some with babies in their arms, other leaning on folded-up strollers. As a childless, clean-shaven young man in moderately priced clothes, I stand apart both visually and physically. I’m leaning on the wall in the corner, spaced out, and everyone else is shuffling dutifully on one of the many lines they will stand on today. This is my last stand, though, as I now walk glumly toward the social worker with the flip-do and explain my situation, my lack of income, my lack of a benefits, my need of health insurance. Of course I’m at the wrong office. As I walk out to face the world again, even taking my eyes off of the ground to check for oncoming cars takes effort. The rot is palpable.
The rain is steady and cold now as I walk under the El, drifting toward an address that I know—I’m convinced—will lead to more humiliation for meager results. A left turn, and a small sign in Spanish that says urges people to reserve their roast pork for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year now before they run out. Pernil is worth an appointment, after all. Then it hits: the overwhelming stench of chicken grease from a block away. If I were ignorant of its taste, I would be nauseous. It’s a Kennedy’s, obviously. As I walk by and see the 3 piece deal (one thigh, one leg, one wing) listed at $1.50, I instinctively check my pockets. A single dollar bill. A $20 check. A $100 bill that is useless to me at the moment save for its potential comedic value. What if I tried to use it here? There’s probably not even $98.50 in the register, and this establishment has double-thick bulletproof glass. Even the banks around here don’t have this much security, but this is a place where such paranoia passes for normalcy.
I’m walking slowly toward the other office, turning down a block with gorgeous Victorian rowhouses that strongly remind me of Kensal Green in London. The intact, brightly painted facades made this street seem dislocated from time and place. Am I really back in London, wandering in the rain with a smile on my face at all the Lib Dem election posters and right-hand drive vehicles? Then I squint, and the boarded up windows come into focus. There’s one building with a gorgeous moss-colored facing and scorch marks all along the roof ledge. That’s more like it. The entire block’s an unfinished restoration and whoever was funding it ran out of money. Or they’re just old buildings, and someone wanted insurance money but hired a chump to do the deed. Regardless of how this became what it is, all I know is that I have to keep moving . The sense memory of hurriedly walking with a gaze fixed ahead past the burned-out buildings and street people never really leaves you once it’s there.
Empty lots dot the cityscape now. I can see my destination at the top of a hill of buildings, but there’s a handmade sign on a fence that catches my eye. It has black stencil lettering on a primer white background, but I can’t read it at first. It doesn’t make sense until I look at the empty bottles and boxes littered about the lot. I want to laugh, but I can’t muster the amusement. This is home, and it brings to mind illiteracy and terrible puns about pigs in S&M outfits trying to break into empty lots in the ghetto. I don’t even know where to begin–and that’s part of the problem.