It was the promise of words that would have kept him from sleeping in till noon every day, assembling copious amounts of Top Ramen with the escape of an oddball flavor that, miraculously, would wind up in the Panamanian grocery store across the street. The finitude of words: vast but not endless, representing man in one corner, the universal systems in another. Unlike numbers, infinitely perfect but lacking the personality of the senses, memory; and sound, melodious yet dancing evanescently, beyond grasping, words seemed so damned human: resilient, playful, whole. The whole alphabet was a chummy cipher forming identities. Each word, if understood, appeared like a campaign yard sign on a bright, green lawn. Nothing but that lucid word stabbed into the earth. And you had to think, maybe words weren’t really against these systems though. Maybe, in truth, they were some nexus between sound and numeral, the key and the figure.
* * * * * * * * *
But words make no promises. They’re lies strung together by emotions, the gaps in history that need the convenience of filling, like newspaper lines the insides of walls, Sunday story, get it while it’s hot. No, words can’t hold for long, their grip loosening with every second now, falling fast, faster. You hear them splintering like an ever widening web of datum and they become guttural and primitive with empowering firmness. Just cursed sounds to pictures we never choose to see, can’t unsee. And now they’ve become maledictions to summon attractive apocalypse, tools of the next world war, or lack thereof. Like soldiers in another crusade, each word is absorbed for an invisible moment where maybe no word will be safe, no idea pure of any intention but one. We cannot speak of love without speaking of romance, of hope without agenda. Words have become transmuted and they tow the line of the heaviest words, words like individual, Earth, freedom. Words have been barcoded, and while their meanings may morph, they each have an oceanic net of symbols quietly fusing at the watering hole of our collective unconscious. Words make no promises, just as dead men tell no tales.
* * * * * * * * *
He has this dream of a park where every one individual speaks in a different language, languages that do not exist. Each language is spoken with assurance and confidence with heads nodding to sharp repartee, thoughtful gazes attentive, strident jibes that interrupt, even mid-sentence laughter colored with empathy. The entire park is noisy with rebuttals and concordance, though when he tries to communicate he fails, his partner quickly frustrated and disinterested in his intelligibility. When they speak to him, he can understand their words, each of them. Their babble is eloquent and wise but he can’t articulate this to them. They walk off and soon strike up a side-splitting conversation with the first interlocutor they come across. He continues to search the crowds of picnickers, of kite-flyers and soccer players, hearing nothing but speech that rivals Hamlet. But the food is terrible, as they try and cook together, sharing recipes, trying not to reveal their bafflement while the soccer game is a free for all as every on-field scream turns a head, and the ball is stolen by a rapacious defender. Only the kite-flyers seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves. Make no mistake, everyone seems to be having fun, but he can hear the incongruities of speech and action, and it’s difficult to see their collaboration as anything short of embarrassing. Nevertheless, the kites fly with the wind synchronized with the zephyrs and occasional gusts that send them spiraling down only to be recovered and again sent aloft. Forgetful of his failures, in each dream he continues parsing the BBQs and pylons for someone who will hear him, hear his thoughts.
As a child on a scooter rushes by screaming, he wakes from the last of these reveries, glancing involuntarily at his phone, to see he’s been dozing for close to an hour. He had forgotten how exhausting days off could be.
Trying to fight off the stupefying haze that follows all naps, he rubs his eyes to get a better picture of the world around him. He remembers he’s by the basketball courts between the Lower East Side and Chinatown. It’s midday and everyone seems to be mastering their shadows as they’ve shrunk to subservient blotches between legs. Behind him, in one of the basketball courts, two Chinese couples have appropriated the blacktop, and they’re blaring mid-tempo Chinese music, classically ornate but still poppy and accessible. One couple, younger and more attractive dances, while the other watches, speechlessly smiling. Solomon is seated on a bench between two avenues busy with traffic. High up to his left a billboard for Verizon has been defaced by some individual’s hand, but the loops and characters are illegible in contrast to the calculated red and white of the ad’s gravitational pull that defies ignoring. The pale concrete in front of him is open and clean and people are always walking by, moving between neighborhoods. Chinatown to his right, LES to his left. It’s for this reason that everyone he sees looks to have been suddenly transported from either the Bund or Williamsburg. The Chinese all have a similar aura emanating from them, pensive with lips pursed, minds thankful for their labors past and present. The young hipsters, mostly heading out of LES, seem busy with intent, not helping but to smile at the dancers on the court. They move more quickly than the Chinese, pursuing something that hangs right in front of them, within arm’s reach, while the hard Asian faces seem to have escaped the pursuit, having found it, or having never seen it.
Feeling a touch less groggy but still harboring a brain wrapped in gauze, he watches a girl to his left step onto another park bench getting a better view of their lively movements. He turns around for just a moment, noting the cutesy innocence of their formal foot patterns, moving he was sure the same way in the Han Dynasty but to another tune. She bluntly faces in their direction, smiling thoughtfully, raising a bulky camera to her face, and snaps a few photos. Solomon doesn’t try to make it known he’s looking at her, so he isn’t sure as to how many pictures she’s taken. On the benches between them are a few lethargic blacks wrapped in several layers even though the temperature is somewhere in the high 60s with the sun out. He glances again, and sees her step down from the bench, continuing to observe the courts to her right while moving across from him, recording their beauty over the nodding heads of the homeless. The two make eye contact as she passes, smiling. Obviously, he looks away as soon as they meet, and then looks back again but too late. She keeps moving forward. He looks back in her direction, and observes her quickly turning around at the intersection, her eyes glancing at something behind her but he’s already looking up and to his left, gracelessly. She crosses the busy avenue with a small throng and heads directly down the street that heads west. Solomon follows her for several blocks where she resolutely totes her laden camera until out of sight.
She wore a baseball cap, not one of those hats you buy at the mall where the brim is smooth and clean, with some kind of ironic (he didn’t know what was truly ironic anymore) word emblazoned on it. Rather it looked like a hat your dad owns and you start wearing it to look cool, still associating some jumbled memory from childhood to it, it’s value increasing, swelling with time. It even had one of those metal clips that you fed the strap through in the back, an addition that he felt was dated, but intriguing enough that it caught his attention. Her figure was slim but not ostentatious. Her shoes, the same as his, were weatherworn, white turned to gray from the accumulated miles. What he could recall from her face, that one second of anxious connection, was vague and it irritated him that he felt smitten at something he did not see. The face was the core of the being, everything else, mere accoutrements. The rest of the body was simply context that leant import to the delicate distance between eyes, the softness of lips, the choice of the nose to swoop upwards like the French, or to hang heavily like a Roman. Man, that would have sealed it. To have seen her face. He remembered that it was beautiful, but it was still unbearably unclear, like the thought of your first time, rushed-blurred-over-whelming. You can refer to those brief moments of ecstasy but without the proper documentation that bears retelling. So you make up what it was like, because the lacuna simply won’t do and the mind forces you to occupy it, obfuscated by memory’s error, the image nothing but the copy of a copy, ad nauseam.
Facing the haunting afterimage, he fretfully thinks about what to do next with his free day. It’s Tuesday so the New Museum is closed. It’s after three, so guards in most museums would begin suspiciously eying the visitors strategizing what rooms to clear of aesthetes first. He can’t spend any more money either. He bought a falafel sandwich, a smoothie, a postprandial cappuccino, and a spur of the moment cannolo. He feels guilty enough as it is to eat up his funds, on his day off. The calculations he’s processing make him shudder as he adds the amount he could’ve made if he had worked. Between his two job this is his first day off in a month, and he’s supposed to be having fun in Manhattan. Why did it feel like a chore?
So he does the only thing that actually gives him a semblance of purpose, he takes off to his right, into Chinatown, directly down the street facing him.
It isn’t so much a choice. If he leaves it up to choice he wouldn’t have done it. Because the intuition is firmer than choice, liberated from the dense grids of logic that instead of bringing him to his senses force a strict paralysis. He’s yet to experiment with this emphasis on the active, but is eager to find where it will lead him today, in life. All he knows is that the alternative of choice invariably leads to a slew of options all sliding into prolonged distractions situated on the road to something.
He waits at the light and crosses when told to. He walks four blocks and takes a left. He’s in Little Italy, joining the crowds of tourists scanning trattoria menus and trite souvenirs. A gaggle of Chinese tourists pass him by as heads down Mulberry Street, maintaining their inveterate bliss as they pass their umpteenth hawker, someone in the party always interested in something for sale. In the next block a tour group of Italians file down the street in no particular pattern: sandals, shorts, luxury sunglasses. This must be some trip to them. Coming to a richer country to see their own culture presented by people who can barely afford a trip to the Poconos let alone trans-Atlantic disporting. He wonders who’s really more Italian, something that should be easy to answer.
He passes the cafe where he bought a decent cannolo earlier and enters again to buy another. It’s still good but a bit of a let down, a little less appetizing than the first seeing how he isn’t even hungry. He walks more slowly while preventing gobs of the Taste of Italy from falling on the oddly immaculate sidewalk. Isn’t this city supposed to be grimy? He notices how Little Italy seems like more of a museum than a legitimate neighborhood and he isn’t sure how he feels about it. Where’s the border between life and the attraction? He wonders if this extends beyond Mulberry Street and into the rest of Manhattan maybe all New York where when you move in you buy into something, a grand spectacle that the whole world watches and you proudly lead on. But who…?
When he gets to Canal Street the close-knit feeling of “Old New York” synonymous with the gaze of the tourist, dissipates and the inundating flow of traffic from the Manhattan Bridge rolls through his mind, now glittering.
Instead of heading towards home, he takes another right, travelling towards SoHo. Here the sidewalk is as crowded as ever, vendors hawking tawdry New York souvenirs and cheap Chinese themed knickknacks. Most people don’t buy anything but there’s a feeling of exploitation going on here and it’s ineluctable. Just by existing in this teaming mass, Solomon feels a complicity, staring at the slave wage commodities, aggrandizing overseas despots, subsumed into the untapped market. There’s a suffering on both sides of him and of course he doesn’t approve of it but nobody does so how does it keep happening? He doesn’t feel like he has to buy to buy into it. And who ever said he didn’t buy anyway.
He has searched the crowds, that is undeniable but he hasn’t had a glimmer of hope for several blocks. His faith has led him past looking with desire into the eyes of the college-students toting their families from Ohio to the wonders of the city, or the independent business-woman knowing what she wants. The masts of Tribeca look like thrones from where he’s walking. He keeps his distance, eventually crossing Broadway and down a historic street. His phone starts to ring and he continues walking, only checking who called after it stops. Once it does he sees that it’s a girl that he used to be roommates with and talks to once or twice a week, one of the three people he feels that has some access to his soul. The phone buzzes again in his hand, and he’s notified of her voice message. He puts the phone back into his pocket and trips on one of the anachronistic Belgian blocks that set the street.
Already his mind is in a different place. He feels like a different person in the few miles he’s gone. How can anything matter with our protean beings? Should anything matter if we can’t ever make up our minds? Should we just ride out our consciousness with flippant desire and hasty decisions, hoping they don’t kill us?
He’s walking down Mercer street with the one-way traffic intermittently passing him by in either a taxi or a delivery truck. High up in one of the lofts he can hear a muted trumpet wailing, some Miles Davis tune but he can’t tell if it’s acoustic or a half-century old recording. Solomon sees a brown-ochre sign affixed to a street light about SoHo and reads about the cast-iron buildings that typify the area. Does anyone really read this? A few tourists take a picture of the sign but it’s not the same. Maybe the sense of something different is enough? Why should we know the reason on why any one place is special?
Cast-iron designs were much more practical than brick buildings and allowed for the ornamentation without the cost of masonry’s individualized replacement. The cast-iron parts were produced en masse granting building owners a much more pragmatic solution than rebuilding with limestone. The belying strength of the metal granted construction to allow for loftier rooms and more illuminating windows that opened to the already tenebrous streetscapes of lower Manhattan. Using the still indomitable metal of the future, the iron was thought to eschew any need of extra stone support, the bricks replaced by the smelted ore of Brooklyn’s foundries. But when put to the test, fires would force the iron framework to buckle and the water pumps of the Hudson split the once magnanimous web. Forced to conform to changing safety codes, cast-iron fell out of favor, and with the advent of steel, these buildings became endangered things of the past, replaced by a perfect, irreplaceable content that solves a millennia long dilemma, quite possibly forever.
He passes a few art galleries with desultory couples mooning from work to work, each piece seeming to be a different medium, individualized in form but with the same uninspired content. He comes closer to the plate-glass windows and looks at sculptures, mobiles, canvases, films, photographs, dioramas, statues, woodblock prints, light installations. Each delivers something fantastic and eye-catching, popping with color but from the few by the window, they seem void of meaning, something that merely excite the eyes with its latent sexuality, ship masts that have bulbous heads, nippled swells, a generally lurid iridescence. Each piece doesn’t speak to him so much as speak to everyone, screaming to be heard over the noise losing the calm that grants value. Jesus, he thinks, Melville circumnavigated the globe escaping from the world with cannibals, and I come here hoping for the same. Maybe, he continued, it is.
Solomon pulls himself from the enticing art and takes off his glasses and the streets fall under thick robes of translucent silk. Faces become dream-like and the historic facades around him transmogrify into walls that bleed into the next block. He rubs his eyes to no avail. He sees what looks like some kind of urban art on the side of a building far off, red graffiti with a rainbow emblazoned with a word, a phrase underneath. He puts his glasses back on and reads a command: TASTE THE RAINBOW clear and lambent against the ancient masonry. Luckily, he thinks, science gives him this vision, to see things clearly outside of his imperfection, so that can partake in the wonders around him, to see with relentless clarity. At home, he doesn’t wear glasses. He can read without them, read a poster without them, study a face across a table with relative ease. It's when he embarks on journeys like today that he relies on their documenting perfection to clarify the world around him. He walks a few blocks and sees a storm to the East, saturated clouds purposefully moving towards the island. He checks his phone.
It's not his choice but he’d rather take the train now and avoid the swell of rush-hour. It’ll be bad enough as it is. He feels disappointed again but luckily it doesn’t make him sad anymore, so it’s not disappointment anymore, but something else. Something less painful.
* * * * * * * * *
By the time he’d got to Canal Street it was too late. Forced to stand and immobile with the tight hem of passengers around him, the train set out to make the crossing over the East River, passing back home to Brooklyn, five stops deep.
One elbow was pressed lightly into his side, and another continued to bump into his waist at random. Solomon wasn’t sure which way to look on the subway. To look ahead was to stare. It was nearly impossible not to look in front of you on a crowded train without the assumption of some kind of mean-mugging going on. As soon as you would, the other person would continue to look back at you, and you could see them (through your peripheries because why would you just stare at someone on a train) staring at you, and then you look at them, with the slap of a slight that says, “That’s right, I wasn’t even looking at you anyway. Now look away.” all tacitly understood through some antediluvian wiring of the brain. So whenever he was on a train and wanted to avoid the hostile staring contest, he chose to look up. Instead of studying shoelaces, and contrived tears in designer jeans, he looked at the advertisements that lined the subway car like holiday bunting.
Initially he hated it: stupid, deceitful, artificial, capitalistic, evil, all the bywords for the definitive antagonist. He used to make use of the advertisements as a way to entertain himself, to point out all the falsities and reasons as to why such-and-such an app was inutile, why a certain commodity expanded already gratuitous markets. But he couldn’t doubt their presence, he had to note them every time. Most importantly, in his memory, albeit with much hatred, he remembered them. And when he became conscious of this, he hated it. Hated their power. And then he forgot about them. Their stalwart presence always in his view, silently etching away a lapidary message. Soon they passed into the unconscious, and the images tied to words simply became changes, welcome to the tedious odyssey between borough and borough.
And today, a new banner unfurled like a Norman banderole above the multitude. A breast augmentation ad of two actresses (well, the same actress) side by side, white, wearing white tank tops, heavy mascara around their eyes, flat chested, each holding two different sized fruits in front of their breasts. One pouted childishly holding two oranges in front of her nipples, while the other beamed clutching two hefty cantaloupes before her chest. Still dumbly hazy with the exhaustion of the day, he vacuously stared at the woman on the right, using his imagination on her to kill time.
He scanned the other advertisements as well but felt unsatisfied of notifications of private education, affordable lawyers who ensured lucrative returns, passive suggestions to subway etiquette. He looked up, but made sly glances at the other occupants. The weather was nice but most of the passengers dressed conservatively, a few still brandishing scarves and fur-lined coats. One woman, Hispanic and heavy chested, texted with concentration and Solomon took a few looks at her c-cup cleavage to alleviate his boredom.
Soon light filled the train as they came up onto the Manhattan Bride, and the majority of the riders took out their phones for the temporary cell service. He couldn’t look out the windows to see the harbor and downtown because of everyone in the way, and didn’t want to draw any more attention to himself than he was already self-conscious about. But he did anyway, just for a second, and instead he thinks he sees the same girl, the one from the courts.
He can’t say for certain, but it looks just like her. Her head is faced down, but the both have shoulder length hair, auburn. He remembers a jacket but not the details, something like a college sweatshirt maybe? But for sure he remembers the shoes. The thick throng that surrounds the two of them obfuscates any attempt to pierce the mystery, and Solomon patently waits on the ready. He feels more comfortable about looking across the faces. Over the water. At the height of the skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan. The water looks nice from here, even though he knows its fucking freezing. The whole city looks inviting, a few trees along the docks, even are budding, which he hadn’t noticed before. The girl’s face – it looks – similar – but. He has to see it. Or at least the shoes. Solomon attempted to look nonchalant and stares back at the ads, occasionally peeping at her invisible halo.
The train is deadly silent, and he notices with the strength of an epiphany. Has it always been this quiet on trains? In fact, he thinks that this is the most quiet it’s even been around so many people. Voluntarily. No authority or cause to remain silent. It’s a public place, not a concert hall, or place of assembly. It’s a disciplined silence and it turns what could be a scream into a whisper.
Pretty soon the environs fell away as they cross the Manhattan Bridge and sink into the earth of Long Island. The train hummed deeply with the strict freedom of the tunnel’s tracks and stopped at the 7th Avenue Station. Only a few people get off at the stop between the envied neighborhoods of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, debouching riders dancing with the other passengers as they attempt to squeeze by. But Solomon sits down at the spot he’s been eyeing since crossing, replacing the high heels with his converse. He hadn’t been thinking about sitting but he takes what he can get when handed to him, trained in the art of choice.
And the train pressed onwards down the only road the two of them knew about. He felt proud of himself as they journeyed together. Proud that he feels as if he can go on. Not be held back by these petty desires that have no obtainment. He realizes that each day makes this transition easier, and today (for whatever reason the day’s hidden signals have relayed) he’s made a big step, skipping a rung in the ladder as he climbs ever faster.
It’s about pursuing the inevitable, the obtainable, the present, the here. He’s not sure if he can call this a catharsis.
He’s not sure what to call it. But it’s enough to make him feel he could pursue the obtainable and make a man out of himself, finally create definition with each maturing step up the ladder, ready to accept not to brood, to progress not to brood.
Having drunk from the waters of the Lethe, that Greek word for rebirth, forgetful Solomon chooses not to sleep and to wait obediently for his destined stop to arrive.