The tests came back negative: Colete Lopez will be all right. She does not have AIDS, hepatitis, or cholera. According to the New York Times, the six-year-old, who attends first grade at PS 150, was stabbed in the leg with a hypodermic by a fifty-one-year-old man with no known address. Colete and her mother, Magdalena Lopez, were on the F train in midtown Manhattan when the man walked down the aisle, stopped in front of Colete, and, without a word, plunged a needle into the girl. Her attacker has a record of arrests going back to the sixties, and escaped from the Rochester Psychiatric Center in 1993. He is now in jail. Colete is back at school. She is going to be all right.
At Kennedy Airport a cabby grabs my wife and me as we emerge dazed and disoriented from the baggage-claim area. He probably saw our flight was arriving from Salt Lake City — i.e., hicksville. “Need a taxi?” he says, reaching for our luggage. What choice do we have? Everything is moving so fast. It is 10:30 P.M.
He leads us away from the Yellow Cabs to a Town Car, like the gypsy car companies use. Despite his radio and clipboard on the dash, I am suspicious. Will he rob and murder us and dump our warm bodies at the Gateway National Recreation Area, next to the heron rookeries? I sit up front next to him, my fingers on the door handle. It’s times like this I wish I owned a pearl-handled revolver.
The cabby’s name is Howard. Before quoting us the fare, he asks, “Do you live here?” — meaning, Are you locals who know the rules of the city, or merely rubes whose money is ripe for the taking? I tell him I grew up in Chicago — meaning, I might have friends who own pearl-handled revolvers and care about my welfare. Still, I hear the sound of a cash register ringing up a large sale with a receipt that says, “Sucker.”
“It’s thirty-five dollars to Brooklyn,” Howard says without looking at me. This sounds about right. Thirty-five dollars to continue living is just fine with me.
It seems we are at least headed in the right direction. The Gateway is on our left, where it should be, I think. I can just make out dark pools of salt water bordered by wavy pampas grass and thick reeds. Thankfully, Howard isn’t slowing down. I look behind me at my wife, who smiles. She hasn’t heard any of our conversation. Nor is she afraid. That’s my job.
Howard asks what I do for a living. I give him my usual story of being an editor-slash-writer with a journalism degree, and for some reason throw in the embarrassing revelation that I ran up huge student loans to obtain it. He surprises me by confessing that he, too, has a journalism degree and was once a radio-broadcast stringer for UPI, which I’ve heard has downsized most of its staff. He says his new career is OK (“I gave Paul Newman a ride once in this very car; he was nice”), and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. “I really shouldn’t smoke,” he says, opening the window, flicking a Bic, and inhaling in one motion. “I’ve had two heart attacks in the last two months.”
I turn in my seat and take my first good look at him: early forties but could pass for sixty, obese, hair in full retreat, calm in an unnatural way, as if any sudden movement might pop an aorta. His slow mannerisms remind me of a heavy man trying to walk lightly on thin ice, each step leaving more cracks behind it.
“Guess what I was doing when I had my heart attacks. Come on, guess.”
“Making love to two women?”
“No, I was gambling in Atlantic City.”
“Did you win?”
“I won once and lost once.”
“Have you stopped gambling?”
“No, I just have a different attitude.”
He’s enjoying his smoke, as if the tobacco were fresh from North Carolina. After each drag he admires the shrinking cigarette. We turn in to Sheepshead Bay and pass the El Greco Diner and the fishing boats. I finally relax. We are going to live.
At my father’s house I pay Howard forty-two dollars: one-quarter of all the cash we brought to New York. Our money is on its way to the blackjack tables of Atlantic City, where Howard may or may not have another coronary blowout. As I hand him the wrinkled bills, I have the familiar, sinking feeling I’m being had. The money vanishes, and we both pretend all is normal. Howard hands me his phone number and says to call him for the return trip.
Inside, my stepmom and her daughter laugh and tell me that a cab ride from Kennedy is eighteen dollars plus tip, tops.
During rush hour on the D train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, a young, slender woman clutching a coil of blueprints or art sketches asks a Russian woman reading a thick Judith Krantz paperback if she would give up her seat. The young woman says she feels faint. The Russian rises quickly. The sick woman slumps down and her head slowly falls to her lap. A black woman standing above her looks concerned and says, “Move back! Give her some room!” But at 8 A.M. there is no space on the Japanese-made subway car, which sways like a carnival ride, causing silent commuters to bump into each other.
The train passes a few more stops. The woman’s head remains buried in her lap. Maybe she is unconscious, or dead — not an unusual occurrence in a city of eight million. We focus our collective concern on her. She may have only a few inches of breathing space, but she has all of our attention. The Russian woman bends down and asks if she feels better. She nods, then looks past all of us. Her face is the same pale green as her scarf.
The train ascends from the dark tunnel and crosses the East River into Manhattan, past the dirty windows of Chinatown’s shady sweatshops, where human forms hunch over fabric and machines, their fourteen-hour workday well underway. Then, as if out of shame at what we have just witnessed, the train plunges back into the tunnel with a blur of amber lights, the walls close enough to touch.
At 42nd Street, the car half empties out in a rush. The sick woman glances up to see where she has landed. Her support group has abandoned her. Two stops later, at 57th Street, she takes a deep breath, scoops her hair back, and rises to join the mob of people swarming upstairs toward the streaming rectangle of morning sunshine.
A huge crowd has gathered at Rockefeller Center to see the annual lighting of the Christmas tree, which hovers and sways over the ice-skating rink in the plaza. Disney characters prance across the ice while the police observe the spectators, wondering which of us will pull an Uzi out of a Bloomingdale’s bag or toss a fertilizer bomb onto the ice. Last year, a homeless man set the tree on fire.
The cops all have short-cut, jet black hair. Their eyes — also black — dart endlessly: everyone is a suspect. The men have mustaches that curl down slightly, giving them a sinister look. The women also look as tough as gristle, but attractive in an S&M kind of way: leather jackets, handcuffs, and nightsticks. Light blue NYPD crowd-control barricades seal the throng inside. No Ryder trucks allowed. Not a homeless person within ten blocks.
Through this holiday medley of paranoia and mirth strides defense attorney Robert Shapiro, his immaculately shaved face turned up toward the weak winter sun. Shapiro’s suit is wrinkle-free, even this late in the business day, as if he’s been standing for eight hours. His hands are in his pockets and his manner is that of a man at peace, as if all the great struggles of his life were over, and all that was left was to watch the stock and bond markets, sign book contracts, and open mail. A middle-aged woman sees him, does a double take, and screams, “Oh, my God!” He is quickly swallowed up by the crowd.
A fourteen-year-old girl has escaped from her attic room in Paterson, New Jersey, where her mother kept her prisoner after beating her using a three-foot board with a nail protruding from it. According to the New York Times, one of the first detectives on the scene said, “The stench in the apartment made the officers almost vomit.” Six other children also lived there. Their mother, who is pregnant, and her boyfriend smoked crack around the children and “clearly indulged squalor in their cramped, fly-infested hovel,” where police found, among the stacks of dirty dishes and ancient fried food, a plastic bucket containing an inch-deep pool of urine.
The seven children were placed in the custody of New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services.
At Coney Island, not far from Nathan’s Hot Dog Stand, a man exasperated with his wife lifts his hands toward heaven and screams, “Even the dead you don’t like!”
The hefty man thumping the Bible on the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa yells at all of us to “get on the winning team!” “Jesus always wins!” he bellows, rushing at cars stuck at the red light and pedestrians carrying plastic bags drooping with seltzer and bagels. An accomplice waves abortion porn: large, full-color glossies of mangled fetuses. Cars honk and drivers gesture angrily at the man, who hawks dogeared passages of Mark and Luke and strides right into traffic as if he’s immortal, as if he could walk on water. He’s got guts, but he doesn’t know his audience: mostly Russian Jews who speak little English, if any.
The light turns green and Town Cars, BMWs, and the occasional out-of-place Subaru creep ahead fifty feet to the next red light. Across the intersection, a middle-aged woman sells mittens for two bucks, and silent, elderly women whose faces resemble dry canyons hold out cans of Black Sea caviar and two-hundred-dollar silk scarves. The young women wear miniskirts and cowboy boots, or furs of endangered Siberian sable and vanishing ermine. Men in leather coats and bushy fur hats stand around chain-smoking. In front of a Korean fruit-and-vegetable market, thirty green-throated pigeons fight for bread crumbs while a tiny, shivering dog strains at his leash, trying to get at the birds.
The giant tree in Rockefeller Center is about to be lit as my wife and I look for my brother David and his wife among the tens of thousands of faces. David and I have not seen each other in years; it is only our father’s retirement party to be held later tonight that has brought us together. I do not know what to expect.
After a half-hour of searching, I see them emerge from the snarl of bodies, as if a human sea had offered them up, as if it were perfectly normal in this city of millions to suddenly lay eyes upon your brother whom you haven’t seen in five years; to immediately be overcome with a flood of memories, decades old and pockmarked with dusty fragments of fragrance and light, some so vivid they could have occurred in the last hour; to wake from a forty-year dream and embrace your brother, to feel his body in your arms, to be responsible for his weight, holding tight, not wanting to let go, not wanting to return to that other life that did not include your brother’s body against yours, that life which now seems so empty, so wasted, so lonely without a brother, without confirmation of memory’s fuzzy details: What was I like? Do you remember our father leaving? How did you survive? Do you know why our mother beat her head on the front-porch tiles until she passed out? Do you remember her singing operas in the mornings? Were you as scared as I was?
All of this takes place in a fraction of a second, in the middle of the largest crowd I have ever seen. They are not moving, these people. I am barely conscious of them: the couple leaning against the wall of the NBC building and smoking cigarettes; the Jewish diamond merchants with their tumbling beards and elegant sideburns; the children riding on the shoulders of their fathers; the black-leather cops who frighten me, who will always frighten me. I am pressed against all of them, but they don’t exist. I hear their collective noise, but it’s no louder than the murmur of a waterfall in Idaho, or the large flocks of geese returning to the Columbia River in the afternoon after feeding in the nearby wheat fields.
Children scream and point. The noise level rises, bouncing back and forth against the skyscrapers. The tree is about to come alive with every color in the world. I feel for the first time in years that I am a member of a family. I fold my brother in, and he squeezes back in recognition. I want to tell him about the waterfall, the geese, about the wolves and grizzly bears, about the twenty years I’ve lived out West. I never knew how lonely those years were until this very moment. And I worry about what might happen if I let go. Will my brother fall backward into this sea of faces? Will they part and swallow him, and will more years pass until again I have no brother and the old life applies its weight? So I take my brother to my chest, press away the years, close my eyes, and say, “It’s good to see you again.”