I had occasion to travel into Manhattan this morning, something which happens very infrequently these days, and the experience has left me wondering why I find it necessary to even do so at all. If you ever wanted to test your belief in the future of New York City -- let alone America -- against reality, then I suggest that you take a trip from New Dorp into Manhattan, and back. Within this short distance -- about 20 miles one way, as the crow flies --you will come into contact with a variety of people, sights, and smells, that can almost convince you that you've been dropped into some Insane Asylum specially designed to engender hatred of your fellow human beings.
My journey began at the train station. The Staten Island Rapid Transit is a relic of the New Deal and the retreat of industrialism. It's pretty much all that remains of the Great Days of Rail, when Cornelius Vanderbilt made his personal fortune shipping the products of the Industrial Revolution across Staten Island between New Jersey and the Rest of New York. If it wasn't for the Depression, even the two tracks that remain (Tottenville-to-St. George-and-back), probably wouldn't even still be here. Check out most of the inconveniently-located stations along this route and you'll find dedication markers galore, standing mute testimony to the Public Works Projects and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Most of it is now rusting, and falling to pieces, and probably, the ever-more-frequent applications of new paint (there's a graffiti problem here) is the only thing keeping most of it together.
It reminds you of the Communist-lite Five-Year Plans that Obama probably has in store for us.
Anyway, the train. "Train Etiquette" in New York City pretty much requires one to enter a Zone of Ignorance. You find a seat and do your level-best to tune everything out. Don't make eye contact. Mind your own business. Pretend there is an invisible wall around you, and stare off into space as best you can. It's much safer that way.
But the modern world now makes this impossible. If it isn't the ubiquitous ringtones of a million cell phones, it's the clueless people who use them. The ones who insist on yelling into the phone, oblivious to the fact that everyone can hear their end of the conversation, and assuming that we actually want to.
One phone ringing becomes the signal for fifty others to do likewise -- and really, just who COULD you be speaking to at 7;30 a.m.? Most of the conversations seem to go along the lines of "What are you doing?-I'm-going-to-work-Yeah-that-sucks-Did-you-see-the-Game-Last-Night? Fuckin' Duke!" sort. followed by the furious thumb-action of a flurry of text messages, and before you know it, the phones are blaring another symphony of electronicized "Fur Elise" and "I Kissed a Girl", and the process begins anew.
It's no wonder that people no longer know how to talk to each other anymore; all communication has apparently been reduced to a series of three-minute "Seinfeld" (About Nothing) conversations -- with portable e-mail, and a torrent of tinny sound effects.
The worst of these one-sided conversations are those where some Hairspray Queen in four-inch stilettos and barely-a-skirt that makes her lacy butt floss available for public display, begins the most dreadful caterwauling imaginable; she's yakking with a girlfriend about her rotten boyfriend -- you instinctively know he's probably named Lou Ragu, or Vinny Baggadonuts -- and his love affair with his hair gel and SL500. You don't want to hear this. However, the little dramas of her life (such as it is) find their way into the public realm, because, dammit, there are no boundaries anymore.
You can deal with this, up to a point. It's a matter of redoubling your efforts at self-containment and dousing your curiosity. You MUST shut them out, or else you'll punch them in the nose. But then the train slows, the doors open, and the Annoyance Factor is turned up to 11.
The Catholic School girls get on the train.
There is nothing louder and more obnoxious in all of Creation than a herd of teenage Babyfat in plaid skirts and saddleshoes. "Herd' is the proper terminology; they seldom travel in packs of fewer than 8 or 10.They board the train, take up station in front of the doors, and giggle, yell and screech. Oh, and then their cellphones come out, too, and they juggle yelling at each other and the person on the phone, simultaneously. You begin to wonder when the hell this train will get to the Ferry, so that you can get off and rest your ears, but that's exactly when it seems to move even slower. More young girls get on at the next stop, and then at the next come the Young Boys.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Because if there's anything worse than a gang of young girls behaving badly, it's a gang of young girls behaving even worse in order to impress some yobbo clad in a ton of hairgel and pimples. The Boys get on, and after the initial wave of Axe Body Spray smacks you in the face like a wet towel, and you resist the urge to vomit into your own mouth, the Fun and Games begin. This involves the girls getting physical -- pushing each other around and hurling vulgarities. The Boys egg them on. The rutting frenzy increases in ferocity, the girls getting ever-more physical with one another, and then...
A young girl winds up in your lap, the back of her head bopping you full in the nose. She didn't mean to end up there. She was pushed by her "girlfriend" who was "only fooling around". She's embarrassed -- and looking at you like you're some Sexual Predator, or something. You're angry. You make your displeasure known by reminding the children (Wildebeest) that a moving train is no place to shove each other, and that civilized people don't behave like a pack of hyenas in a public place. You get a desultory "sorry", and then a stare that could curdle milk. The "apology" is insincere; they really resent you for asking them to behave themselves.The Embarrassed Girl, her momentary humiliation quickly forgotten, punches her assailant in the arm, exlaiming "Jenna, ya fuckn' asshole, look what you made me do!".
The train stops. The Wildebeest exit, but before they go, the Pimpled Sir Galahad will take the opportunity to fire off a "Fuck you!" in your direction -- just as the doors are closing. I'm certain that Jenna-the-Fuckin'-Asshole, and Girl-in-My-Lap-With-No-Sense-of-Shame are mightily impressed by such manly bravado. Somehow, Yeah-That-Sucks-Fuckin'-Duke and Hairspray-Queen-With-The-Narcissist-Goombah-Boyfriend actually have the clueless temerity to remark "these fuuckin' kids got no fuckin' manners".
The train arrives at St. George, and The Rush begins in earnest. The Rush is the mad dash to make "The Boat". Seven or eight-hundred people at once all try to race each other to the exit and to The Boat -- which isn't leaving for another 15 minutes. Naturally, they all must stop for a $3 cuppa with whipped cream with enough caramel to choke a diesel engine, and then batter their way through the doors and across the ramps to the waiting ferry, spilling at least half of the sugary poison on Me. I guess it's difficult to negotiate a ramp with an oversized Prada bag in four-inch heels in a close-packed crowd while you try to juggle coffee and handbag while reaching for your never-stops-ringing-cellphone all the while. The idea that you have to answer that phone right-fucking-now overrides your situational awareness, or your sense of logic. That CALL MIGHT BE IMPORTANT, never mind that invention they call Voice Mail.
You've successfully made your way onto the boat, and try desperately to find an isolated seat where you won't have to deal with a crowd of Goombah Stockbrokers, Wanna-be Goombah Stockbrokers, Union Electricians with huge, heavy toolbags they can't control, Construction workers still carrying yesterday's concrete dust and industrial grease on their work clothes, and the Three-Very-Large-Black-Women-Who-Insist-On-Walking-Side-by-Side-at-a-Snail's-Pace blocking the isle,slowing the flow of traffic behind them, and emitting a constant warble of "I heard dat!", "Chile...!", and "ummm-hmmm".
You manage to find a seat in a corner on the lower level of the boat, towards the stern. Everyone's up front, hoping to get a jump on the Stampede that won't begin for another 20 minutes. There's not many people around, and the noise level is tolerable.
And then Yousef and His Band of Merry Men show up. There's three of them, and they are quite content to sit right in front of you, even though there's a bevvy of seats available a short distance away. I can deal with that. Except for the smell. I can't abide THAT SMELL. I can't even describe it, but it's apparent that Yousef, Ishmael and Mohammed (there's always at least ONE Mohammed) come from a country where soap is either an incredible luxury, or a device of the Infidel designed to lure the True Believer away from the Path of Righteousness. The breeze that comes through the window ensures that all the Disgusting Aromas of the Middle East -- without the flies -- is your's to enjoy for the next 20 minutes. There are, by now, no other seats...except the ones directly across from the Men's Room.
No one sits in those seats. For a start, the stench of a public restroom, especially one on A BOAT, is overpowering. The sickening combination of smells -- urine, and the antiseptic sweetness of scented, yet-industrial-strength urinal cakes -- is terrible. For some reason, Men in a public bathroom seem to regard it in the same way they would The Woods, and that's before you factor in the difficulty of maintaining steady aim on a rolling and pitching boat. Anyway, there is an unwritten rule amongst male ferry riders -- or there should be if there isn't -- that states One Must Not Sit Across from the Men's Room Else Others Might Think You Gay. It makes more sense on a guy-to-guy level, trust me.
The Boat docks. The Stampede begins. You make your way through it, trying desperately not to touch anyone inasmuch as possible to avoid "trouble". And when you finally break through to a more open area where the crowd may disperse, there HE is.
HE is a vagrant. In fact, He's the same Vagrant you've been seeing around the Ferry terminal forever. It might not be the same man, but it's always the same type. Toothless, drunk, smelling like an Ostrogoth on campaign, begging for change, extending a filthy coffee cup Or cigarettes; if they can't get change, they'll settle for cigarettes. Campaigning-Ostrogoth-Vagrant-Man leaves a cloud of stank in his wake that makes Yousef and Mohammed smell like a flower garden. It's probably a combination of Thunderbird-induced diarrhea, and the thick, crusty layer of dirt, sweat, and the pus from suppurating sores that cover his face and hands.
You only want to conduct your morning's business as quickly as possible, and Get The Hell Back Home. You pass the still-empty hole that used to be the World Trade Center, fenced off from the narrow, cluttered-with-trash side streets that lead to it, pushing your way as best you can through Hordes of the Clueless and Selfish, and those with no sense of Decency or Propriety, from all over the world. If it wasn't for the cellphones, you'd probably never even hear your native language being spoken.
On your return voyage, the Tourists must pester you, too. Excusing themselves in broken English as they jockey for position along the Ferry railings and windows to snap pictures of the Statue Of Liberty, their children running freely, screaming, everywhere. Some woman emits a stream of noise you recognize as French, in a voice that makes your scrotum shrivel, as her little sack of hyperactivity decides that trying to scale the protective barrier between himself and a 30' drop to the briney deep is a worthy activity to carry on behind Mommy's back.
The Italian tourists (you can tell who they are because Italians can do nothing without creating a tremendous racket) parade back and forth, leaving the typical Roman Essence behind them: body odor and vast quantities of Hugo Boss. The Germans march from one end of the Ferry to the other in Regimental Formation, only with Tour Guides, and the Japanese bury you in a swirling storm of absolute gibberish and boisterous laughter. We should have bombed all three countries a lot more when we had the chance.
Your train ride home is, remarkably, without incident. It's actually quiet. Twenty-five minutes of utter bliss, by comparison to this morning's ordeal. You exit the train, and then...
The parade of Central American women bringing their enormous broods of sickly-looking children home from the local half-day Kindergarten. No one speaks English. Everyone spits. The children run the gamut between sullen and filthy, and hyperactive and dangerous -- especially the one swinging the tree branch he obviously found on his walk home, brandishing it like Errol Flynn. He manages to whack you on the back of the leg as you maneuver around the little knot of little people that manages to take up the entire sidewalk. You wave your finger at the little bastard in reproach, and Mama spews forth a massive stream of Spanish obscenities as she yanks the little guy back and forth by his arm. You feel sorry for him; he didn't mean to do it,and if Mama hadn't been busy regaling her counterparts with the epic tale of she got her sandals on sale at Pay-Less (The Lunatic speaks Spanish, you see) , it mightn't have happened.
Of course, if she had taken the tree branch away from him in the first pace, it wouldn't have happened at all, but there I go again; expecting people to actually look after their children and exercise some sort of critical judgement.
I know, I'm an asshole, right?
This is New York in the year 2010; a decaying infrastructure, inhabited by people encased in either a cocoon of protective stupidity, unconcerned, or even unaware that their stupidity is on view for all to see. A place so overrun by insanity, that I almost feel like Winston Smith at the beginning of 1984:
"This, he thought with a sort of vague distaste -- this was London, chief city of Airstrip One..."
I'm never getting on that fucking train again, if I can avoid it.