Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'


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She has a Look: Capital L, unequivocal, I’m-gonna-remember-this-person Look. It may yet be independent of her fashion. Fashion, thus surmised, could complement looks, but perhaps cannot supplant them. This isn’t to say that there was any lack of trying: Those neon green spray-on pants cut up like old pantyhose over zebra print leggings scream “I’m 14 years old and just discovered Ricky’s” or perhaps a childhood raised on 90’s era MTV. The pants have nothing on her, though.

A lifetime of riding the subway late at night makes one a people-watcher. It’s free entertainment of a sort that may not be kosher during rush hour – where horse blinders and mean-mugging are the name of the game – but yet becomes something of a necessity when one lives out in the ‘hood, the subway suburbs, out there where the fashionable haven’t discovered… yet. On this night I was lucky: Both the local and express hit the station at the same time, which meant the express was still running. I had budgeted exactly twenty dollars for the evening and, two drinks and a half a dozen games of pinball later, my last buck went to an African rock duo keeping a grooving beat on the platform not terribly unlike Fela Kuti before I boarded.

I sat on one of those seats that looks down the length of the car; it gives the sensation of hurtling through space, if the sound of space were a 110 decibel racket on steel drums. There’s something to be said about the New York Subway: Every other system tries to be decorous, dignified and civilized. Their trains hum, their starts and stops are soft, they give this antiseptic vibe like they’re afraid of reminding their passengers that, yes, you’re on public transit and no, it’s not just for poor people. Not New York. New York does not give a fuck. That rock duo’s beats were kept up long after we left them behind by the dueling local and express trains, ca-clack ca-clack, ca-ca-clack, ca-clack screeeeeeeeeee

The race was on, and in watching this, I met the gaze of the girl across from me. She was also people-watching, in her staid way. She was, for lack of a better term, Amazonian. Broad-shouldered and tall, yet somehow uncomfortable in her largess. Knees locked together, hands in her lap, a red beanie under a black hoodie locked into place with hairties. She was, if not hiding her size, then conceding that it could not be hidden. The image was striking. A living force cowed by an unseen hand, bright-as-fuck pants aside. I could, of course, be reading too much into it, but that in itself is a facet of people-watching. We’d left the local at a local station, but somehow met it again by dawdling at the next two express stops.

Three Dominican girls got on, past a taped off square on the platform where men in hi-vis vests had ensconced themselves in anticipation of the 11:30 maintenance shift, chattering away in that staccato New Yorkese that somehow makes people of all tongues turn into marathon auctioneers. It’s no wonder why merengue is as fast as it is: Any slower and it might as well be a waltz, to keep up with these people. We pulled out of the station along with the local across the platform and once more the drum section of the MTA kept pace of the race. The trio switched to English to recount in dramatic tone a quotation of a mutual acquaintance, slowing their frenetic elocution to extend and elongate this morsel of an anecdote, just as the train itself slowed to a crawl through a local station, as if the hare were giving the turtle a chance just this once. Five stations down and this local might actually be beating the express!

As the local was making off with the race, the tunnel itself throbbed with a hum that movie directors love to attempt to duplicate as shorthand for ominous foreboding in sci fi thrillers and disaster porn. Men working. A diesel train was taking up the express track in the opposite direction, a reminder of just what is necessary to keep things running all those nights I could do little more than pour myself from the bar across a turnstile and match up the right letters. Down in the dark, below the windows of the train, armies of workers were diligently keeping the city alive. The trio resumed their hurried narrations of anything and everything and the express picked up as well. Apparently, they were the harbingers of our rate of progress. Go, girls, go: I will not have a local beat me home today. The indignity!

Amazon across from me had a habit of noticing whenever my gaze was in her direction, so I made a point to look elsewhere. Harlem was next, and way back in 1990 I could, just by dint of clothing and color, make a reasonably accurate assumption as to which stop any particular straphanger would depart. It’s a sign of our times (and progress) that such is no longer quite so cut and dry. In that stead, I made a game of guessing who would get off. The first man to get up was a Black man of that indeterminate seniority between middle-age and forever, clad in an oversized black leather jacket, flat cap and bifocals – they didn’t deserve to be called glasses, such were beneath them – and the second was a pot-bellied Black man with shoulder-length Jheri curls and four inch cross earrings, carrying a fake fur coat that was simply too hot for this spring weather, as if Rick James had sprung from the grave and promoted a clothing line.

The next four were white men. I wish I could say more about them, but that’s what my mind’s eye saw. They were fashionable – One had a peacoat, skinny chinos and black dress shoes, another a popped-collar windbreaker, skinny jeans and Nike high-tops – but remarkable only in the sense that, while they wouldn’t necessarily be gracing the pages of an Abercrombie or American Apparel catalog, they were just about as forgettable. Fashion cannot, indeed, create a look. It can magnify, distort and dissemble, but it cannot build anew from, well, whole cloth. I suppose it may be a facet of my own prejudices, but I myself am a mixie and identity is something I attempt to souse out in everybody. They had little, in my observation, in the way of such: Off-the-rack people with off-the-rack looks.

It occurred to me that Amazon may be a mixie herself. She was a freckle-faced Latina of indeterminate heritage, and running parameters on that presumption made the stops fly by – we’d finally left the local in the dust a mere eight stations after we met it, and with it the last vestiges of the lingering rock tune – and betting against myself that the Central American man who had lolled asleep in Harlem would drop his newspaper in two stops wasn’t cutting it (he dropped it in three, natch). Her size suggested American Indian – she reminded me of a Mohawk girl who could crush my head in her biceps – her skin tone yet pale. Another urban mutt like myself, flotsam in the great sea of humanity crunched together and popping down and up from holes in the ground like prairie dogs.

But perhaps fashion could make the man. A Black man in his twenties got up to leave with his girlfriend in Washington Heights, sporting a tweed blazer, a flat cap, and these reverbed-out-to-the-nines cowboy boots he rolled up his blue jeans just to show off. They had their own twang: You couldn’t look at them without hearing an acoustic guitar riff; they gave you rhythm just by being. Or it could just be that he could pull them bad boys off. I don’t think that I could. I have four leather jackets, including a heavy leather biker jacket that makes me feel like Axl Rose, but I can’t pull it off. Not if I’m honest with myself.

But what is honesty worth, anyway? Does Amazon pull off the unlaced sneakers or the day-glo punk attire? Does it even matter? She has a Look, whether by chance or by design or by sheer force of will, and my commute, if not the world, is all the better for it.

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