“It’s not skyscrapers”, the rugged taxi man says, cigarette between the lips in a crooked mouth. He leans back on his yellow cab against the backdrop of the sky lit over Manhattan. “It’s dream scrapers. You see that space between the towers? It’s dense with dreams. Those steel pinnacles scratch the sky for dreams. They replace the old ones with new ones. The failed and the dead with the new. That’s what’s happening.”
This didn’t happen, but it could have.
This is still the afternoon of 31 March. I still feel overwhelmingly gratified by the outcome of my first public school appearance, as though I’ve touched upon something divine. Seated behind the glass table in the industrial loft, I try to explain the feeling to my girlfriend on the other side of the Atlantic. She quickly diverts the subject to whether or not I succeed in staying faithful in the physical sense.
“But no love. I am simply not attracted to American women.”
She smiles incredulously. “How can you say that? As though they’re a different strand. I don’t believe you.”
But I do mean what I said. “I’m not.”
“Because there’s no mystery, no depth to deal with. Nothing to work with. No surprises. Nothing to discover and no limits to be tested. Everything is clear-cut and obvious. I love subtlety, but I still have to meet the first American woman who knows anything about seduction.”
“You should write about that.”
I will, soon.
After dark. This is my second A-train from Brooklyn to Harlem. The longest journey in the world is the one between Brooklyn and Manhattan. In an empty wagon, a tall and young homeless man in shredded clothes comes sitting next to me. “Sir, you got the time?”
“In the morning or in the night?”
“Thanks”, he says. He saunters on to the next wagon.
It’s eight indeed. I curse myself. I will miss free dinner at Wellington’s Saint Mary’s church. Somehow I got stuck on my bed watching Brazilian porn recorded during Rio Carnival. For the untamed fun of it. When the first signs of hypothermia emerged, there are problems with the heating no one knows how to fix, I put on my jacket and scarf. An action that might as well imply an exit from my bedroom. So I left. This diffuse state, due to enormous amounts of time and resources on my hands, and a lack of being looked upon, sometimes defines my predicament.
The train shakes on and I scan the seats. Porn. Yes. Please let me elevate you to something somewhat more noble. Follow me closely now. In architect Rem Koolhaas’ breakthrough book “Delirious New York”, he traces the sign language of Manhattan’s architecture back to the birth of a large-scale amusement culture for the masses on Coney Island. The most advanced of the delirious theme parks on the Island was called “Dreamland”. In the largest dome of the world at that time, the creation of the world was reenacted in sixty centuries. A large craft floating on a canal took spectators from one stage to the next. After beholding creation, the spectators shuddered at the sight of destruction, an enactment of the apocalyps as described by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The last spectacle was the circus, featuring the “greatest aggregation of educated animals on earth.”
In that dome, an underground network of tunnels enabled one single cast of animals and actors to make their way from one play to another. What these tunnels look like and what happened inside, would always remain a secret to the spectators.
The longest journey in the world is the one between Brooklyn and Manhattan. The closer we get to the center of gravity, the more the wagon fills up and the louder and more desperate the pleas for help.
“Dear everyone. Dear fellow human beings. My name is Jane Cully and I’m a single mother with two small children, raising them on my own. I would like to work. Sadly I can’t. For eight years, I was brutally beaten, locked up and tortured by my ex-husband. I needed surgery eight times, the ones standing or sitting close to me can see the scars on my legs. I can’t hide them. I never made enough money in my life to be able to afford health care, that’s why I am now turning to you…”
Jane Cully is approached by a woman in an elegant green winter coat. “Why hello Jane. How have you been? I haven’t seen you in a while.”
The beaten woman clings on to her act. “Good day to you too”, she hesitates with embarrassment, “I hope life is treating you well”, and when the doors open at the next stop, she ducks out. Jane is replaced on a whim. “I am hungry and I like to eat.”
The man is tall, fierce, young and big. Blue jacket and heavy boots. No one reacts.
“I am hungry and I like to eat.”
Still no reaction. Apparently he likes to eat.
“I am hungry and I like to eat”, his anger is building up now. A black girl in front of me fixes her gaze on her shoes. The Asian woman next to her firms her grip on her book. “I am hungry and I like to eat”, the young man now shouts. And again. Each time louder. “You miserable motherfuckers, I hope you burn in hell.” He steps out of the wagon and spits on our window. His saliva breaks on the shield behind a Bengali mother in meditation, her head the perfect middle of the spit web. The next instant a dwarf without legs passes by in a wheelchair, a large American flag sticking out of his backpack. He shakes the pennies in his paper cup like lepers in Europe must have clacked.
Doors open for me on 125th. I run passed the bearded lady singing spirituals and walk through the shadows of the blackest housing projects in Harlem. Of course there is no more food for me at Saint Mary’s and when asked why the delay I can’t come up with an answer. The volunteers of the homeless shelter have a new arrival to the city of dreams. An unnerving sight. Baffling.
“This is one. Look. One.”
“Hi hi hi.”
“Can you say that, one? This is two.”
“Please, can you say three?”
The man hails from West Africa. He doesn’t know any English. He reacts to the volunteers’ efforts with some intermittent giggles between heavy texting. Or is that a game he’s playing? I try to help but to no avail. He doesn’t even have the decency to feign interest.
I am hungry on my way back. I promise myself never to watch porn again. I also decide to relinquish on my idea of a photo reportage on the life of ants and grass in Manhattan. It might turn out too insignificant. I should start writing soon. But right there, in the tunnels, underneath the stage of liberty, I am torn out of my quiet contemplations by a shocking event.
To be continued…