Big Smoke

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


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A subway preacher started up, out of nowhere, past 50th Street on the uptown A. It took a bit to realize he was talking about the Book; his every third word was an expletive – not in language but in format – and the resemblance of drunken ranting was notable. He made a point of remarking, however, that he wasn’t drunk, and in that sense was at least nominally self-reflective. This didn’t convince the captive audience, whose reactions were divided between open annoyance and passive abidance.

What creates such a man? SHUT UP, he demanded, to a silent car, before waxing on about Obama and God and other entities beyond a mortal’s reach. It’s hard to imagine; or rather easy to form a narrative in a bleeding-heart liberal sort of way: Anybody who has heard stories of how the Great Depression can destroy a man’s soul can understand how such a broken creature can lash out so fruitlessly, can glom onto if not answers then rituals – rituals that promise a future that’s better than the present, like dancing and praying and self-flagellating for rain during a drought.

A homeless man stepped in the train on 81st Street. Halfway through his spiel, the preacher sallied forth, FUCK YOU! Directed at the man? Who cares? Life sucks regardless, right? It’s hard to humanize the man, either man, truth be told, but it’s also hard not to recognize the frustration at a general dysfunction that they embody and are aware that they embody. One can pay lip service about the need for social services and mental health programs, but the truth of the matter is the system creates the man, and the system is not going to substantively change. The individuals’ response is the institutional response: Abide until they’re out of sight, then continue on as normal.

A white man in a baseball cap entered at 103rd Street, sucked his teeth and muttered “fuck this” before heading to the next car. Vote with your feet! A political microcosm if ever I saw one. Like all humans, and I’m sure Stanislaw Lem would agree, I can only consider the story through a personal format born of my own experiences, and mine immediately harkened to the despair I felt at my last job: Toiling for a business that is callously making the world a worse place for just barely enough money to continue existing. Logic dictated at that point that my contribution to the world was at risk of being negative, and that society would be better off without me. It’s no wonder they fired me.

At 145th Street, the preacher ran out of things to rant about, or was simply tired of his own self, and piped down. Anger, at heart, is self-destructive, but then again what isn’t? Nobody gets out alive, or so I heard from some 90s punk mantra. Without missing a beat, two women started a conversation in the ensuing lull about their work: The sideshow is over, we can once more set up our walls against the world. It’s a good thing that defense mechanism is so robust: The precariousness of all our societal positions, for which it is uncouth to dwell upon, is a true humdinger.

New York is known, among all things, for fostering neuroses. All big cities are, though if America is to continue its supposition of being exceptional, it must own this preacher too. The flip side to freedom is how poorly it melds with desperation, and if desperation were a stock these days, I’d buy some.

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