Big Smoke

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

A Diorama

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“‘Sup,” he asked, having already passed me.

I was in a gregarious mood, having imbibed more than my fair share of alcohol, and walking just then past Duke Ellington’s former residence at an odd hour in the night, or rather I had misremembered that, having just seen his statue; he really lived in Sugar Hill, not Central Park North. “‘Sup,” I replied. He stopped. “How’s it hanging?”

“Not too bad, so far.” He smirked, and walked towards me.

“Look, man, I don’t want to bother you, but…”

I’d already palmed the dollar in my hand. “All I got, but you’re welcome to it.” Everything else was formalities.

“Hey, maybe I can help you out,”

“I’m just walking home, but thanks.”

Was he a guy down on his luck? Was he a guy looking for an easy mark? Who gives a fuck? It’s a dollar, and it made me feel good to give it. More importantly, did I look so out of place that I was marked? Whatever, the encounter was amicable enough. The city is full of – what’s the term – dialogues, perhaps, interactions that can be dissected, recounted, looked into through the lens of professional sociology. I’d just gotten back from an engagement of talking loudly through East Harlem with a dude who was particularly un-PC using the shield of his own brown skin, “why do they gotta have so many kids,” he lamented, audible from two blocks away. Could you talk any louder?

Come to think of it, if my erstwhile assailant could have helped me with anything, it’s where to take a piss in this godforsaken, benighted neighborhood where the Parks Department helpfully closed all the public restrooms at the ungodly hour of 5PM. Too late, I was already on the train, smirking at a blonde, sunburnt Teutonic man in his mid-thirties who, 70 years ago, would have been the poster child for the Nazi Party, drunk off his ass and tilting into the personal space of a middle-aged Black woman who was trying to play Bejeweled on her smartphone. She eventually moved to a different seat next to a high yellow girl with mini-afro and colorless lips, squeezed into a grey pencil dress and ballet flats. Soon enough, the whole train jumped at a thunk when the dude, in his stupor, headbutted the seat she just vacated.

I commented to the woman that I was waiting for that to happen, and she chuckled that it occurred because she wasn’t there to stop it. When he missed his stop and settled for the next one, half the car had to acknowledge what we had seen, but in the guarded, awkward manner of those sousing out the limits of commonality. To the girl’s left was an overweight white nerd with graying hair, just back from a comic book convention, chomping at the bit to make a comment. He looked at me, for I had laughed at the original spectacle, “was that a zombie?” “That was more than a zombie,” the Black woman replied, up from her game. The girl looked up and smiled for a moment before looking back down again. I recounted that while I had be that drunk twice in my life, I have never in my life headbutted a chair.

Enlivened by this impromptu personal connection, the nerd went on to striking up a conversation with a Latino couple next to me, who fobbed him off politely. This interplay – The older woman who was receptive, the younger woman who was reserved, the man who exuded a little creepiness, the drunk who exhibited god’s special providence for drunks – in six minutes displayed half a semester’s worth of sociology, to anybody willing to pay attention. Of course, I was also a part of this diorama, but lacking a true sense of introspection cannot pinpoint the exact nature of my own position. We are all gonzo journalists after a fashion, but then we are all actors ad-libbing the greatest stage play of all, while also being the audience.

Earlier in the night, in an overpriced Cuban restaurant, I asked my compatriot what he thought of the world and his place in it. “Fucked up” was the answer to both. Not a particularly edifying conversation, but there were more enticing distractions, like the Salsa duo with clean-cut dude on undersized guitar and boy-cut woman on congas and timpani. Everybody was swaying if not outright dancing except for one white woman at the bar fiddling with her phone. Here I was, paying almost quadruple for Ropa Vieja than I would have in Chelsea in 1997, wondering whose bright idea it was to fleece the yuppies and whether people thought of this food as, for lack of a better word, “high-brow.” Is your nation’s comfort food my nation’s haute cuisine? It certainly is if we consider McDonald’s in China.

Of course, to fool the locals you must first fool yourself, which means that the face we put on for the public is pretty deep in itself: If the restaurant ends up succeeding, a new paradigm is made. If not, well, this is New York and social reality does indeed represent a con game unsettlingly often. After all, the proprietors got me for almost forty bucks and the dude on the street only got me for one.

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