Every ride was pure novelty. Pure magic. Like riding an escalator for the first time. Or boarding the monorail at Disney.
All the colors of the rainbow forced together. Perfectly acceptable to lock eyes with strangers. Most of the time they avoided my gaze.
It took me just a few weeks to notice the stink. I began to miss privacy. The freedom of owning a car. Other commuters became obstacles. I stopped observing them and started staring at the floor or the wall or my phone.
One time I noticed a girl with Down Syndrome on the Q. She whispered things to the man next to her and he nodded and whispered back. He didn’t resist when she locked arms with him. I assumed they knew each other.
It was around eight on a Tuesday night. We were deep in Brooklyn and so the train was mostly empty. I chose to stand because I was anxious.
I was about to see my estranged girlfriend. We’d been fighting over inconsequential things that had become consequential. I was staring at the floor of the car, working a dozen arguments over and over and over again.
And the handicapped girl appeared in front of me, her arm outstretched like she was going to pull me up from a ledge. Like she was going to rescue me from some great catastrophe.
She must’ve been in her late twenties or early thirties. Unruly blonde hair. Slightly overweight and wearing a dirty sweater two sizes too small. There were little scratches all around her mouth. Like she’d had a cactus for lunch.
Her eyes were trained on mine. They were liquid. She looked right through me. Didn’t say a word.
I thought she was asking me to steady her. I told her to grab the pole. She shook her head and thrust her hand in my face.
I shrugged and said I didn’t know what she wanted. She said it looked like I needed a hug. And then she hugged me.
I held on to the pole as she buried her face in my chest. She looked up at me and smiled and told me her name was Melissa. She said she’d seen me in a dream the night before.
I patted her on the shoulder, politely encouraging her to let go. But she just buried her face deeper into my chest. We hugged throughout the rest of my ride.
The train reached my stop and I told her so. She let go. Said she hoped to see me again.
I realized everyone was staring. An elderly woman in a big hat was scowling. A couple of teenagers were gawking and laughing. A man in a suit stole glances from behind his newspaper. All of these people united by disgust.
I never saw Melissa again.
The L train serves millions and runs from 8th Avenue to Canarsie. I used to live off the Halsey Stop. It was crowded at all hours of the day. Filled with glassy-eyed commuters in the morning and inebriated hipsters at night. Took me thirty minutes to get to work on a good day.
I rarely got a seat. I didn’t like to stand in the morning because I was tired and dreaded work. And, I didn’t like to stand in the evening because I was tired and dreaded my shitty apartment.
Every once in a while I’d get a seat. And then some elderly lady would hobble on and and I’d feel obligated to surrender it.
One time an empty train car rolled to a stop right in front of me. Not a soul on it. The other cars were packed. I strolled into the empty car and planted my ass right in the center. Felt pretty proud of myself. Like I was getting away with something.
When the doors closed I caught the stench of rancid vomit. We accelerated and left Halsey and I considered walking between train cars to escape. But the MTA says not to do that. I was afraid I’d fall to my demise. So I stayed in my seat and endured the scent of upchuck.
It was the worst thing I’ve ever smelled. It was as though the perpetrator had collected the spew and cooked it in a wok. Or baked it in an oven. Or swallowed it only to shit it out again. Like rotten eggs and curdled milk and hot orange juice and other people’s cooking and feet. A stink so putrid it was visible. Hung frozen in the air like dragon’s breath.
I buried my nose in my sweater and found puke there too. My olfactory receptors were singed. Corneas burnt.
I changed cars at Myrtle-Wyckoff. It was packed shoulder-to-shoulder. I didn’t get a seat.
But I did have a view of the empty car. A man in a suit noticed all the space and goose-stepped right in. Sat center-car, grinning stupidly, like he was getting away with something.
Then the doors closed and his eyes bulged and he grabbed his throat. Opening and closing his maw like a bass gasping for oxygen. Stood up and paced around urgently on stiff-legs, looking for an out. The doors opened at DeKalb and he ran into my car.
He was green and dripping sweat and on the verge of tears. People inched away from him, eying him like he was a crazy man. He smelled like puke.
I surfaced at Union Square. Threw out my sweater for good measure, then went to work.
He was all arms and legs and Adam’s Apple. There was a parakeet in a vest perched on his finger. He walked very slowly because he was admiring his bird.
People watched him with curiosity and contempt. A lady in a leotard tried to pass him but it was crowded and he had his elbows out.
Suddenly Leotard Lady screamed and dropped her bags and startled everyone.
She threw her arms wide as if to bear-hug somebody. The Bird Man stopped and turned around and glared at her. Then Katie Holmes leaped into Leotard Lady’s open arms.
Katie swung her purse in a great arc and smacked the parakeet right off The Bird Man’s finger. He shouted, my bird, my bird! Katie was too busy hugging the lady in the suit to notice.
The parakeet fluttered around and screeched. The Bird Man plucked him out of the air and put him back on his finger. He yelled, watch where you’re going!
Katie Holmes paid no attention. She locked arms with Leotard Lady and they paraded down 7th Avenue like schoolgirls. The Bird Man continued walking north.
My friend came out of the bodega. I told her I’d just seen Katie Holmes. She said she’d just seen a man with a parakeet in a vest.
A large man in a slate jumpsuit stood at the intersection of 18th and Irving Place. He was devouring a bagel and lox. I watched him from the opposite corner. We were both waiting to cross.
He was at least six feet tall and his gut hung in the jumpsuit like a bowling ball in a hammock. His hair was black and grey and untended. He looked to be in his fifties.
He tore into the bagel like a hyena into a wildebeest. Clamped his jaw, shook his head back and forth and back and forth. Flashed the whites of his eyes.
The crosswalk signaled us to proceed. He stepped off the curb with his eyes on the bagel. I stepped off the curb with my eyes on him. At once fascinated and disgusted and jealous.
We passed one another. He pulled his eyes from the bagel to glare at me. Cream cheese was smeared around his mouth like rabid foam. My heart stopped and skipped and I knew that I knew him.
Alec Baldwin furrowed his brow and stared me down. Like a bouncer ready to punch. Rubber-necked to keep his eyes on me until he got to the opposite curb. Then he tossed the last of the bagel into his maw. Wiped his chin with his sleeve.
I watched him storm south on Irving Place until he disappeared in the fray. A car honked and I got off the road.
I bought an everything bagel with lox and went back to work.
He owned a three-bedroom on 110th and 8th. The apartment was dark and smelled like curdled milk. Antique nightstands were stacked floor-to-ceiling in the hallway, making it difficult to get around.
But the building had amenities like an elevator and a laundry room. It faced Central Park too. I wanted to live in a nice neighborhood.
Owen showed me the vacant room. It had a mini-fridge and a yellow lamp and black hardwood floors. There was a tall bookcase built into the wall. Owen kept his books there even though he’d been renting the room out for years. There was no lock on the door.
The room’s centerpiece was an oil painting of a red-headed woman. Her expression was constipated aggression. Her eyes followed me.
It was a portrait of Owen’s mother, painted by the room’s previous tenant, Javier. Owen said the painting looked nothing like her. He showed me a photograph to prove his point. Javier’s style was Impressionistic, but he’d managed to capture Mrs. Katz’ scowl.
Javier killed himself two years prior by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. All because of some temptress. Owen told me he thought Javier would’ve become his lover had he lived.
Owen introduced me to his current tenant, Keith. He occupied the room adjacent to mine. Keith was twenty-one and short and had a regal beard. Reminded me of a Tolkein dwarf. He worked in reality television as a production assistant.
I said I was checking out the vacant room. Keith nodded and smiled. Then he closed his door and locked it. The next and last time I saw him was three weeks later. He was buying Cheetos and Gatorade at the BP on the corner.
The living room would have been spacious were it not for the array of coffee, end, and side tables that lined the walls. I asked Owen if he was in the furniture business. He said no, I’m an aspiring novelist.
I remarked at the army of circus chotchkies that covered every surface of the room. He ignored the comment and asked if I was partial to marijuana. I said yes.
He lit a joint and told me that he was born and educated in New York City. Studied journalism. Worked as a freelancer then moved to Germany to be a documentary programmer at the Berlin Film Festival. He called it The Berlinale.
Owen loved everything about Berlin. Wrote his first novel on the steps of the Reichstag. He admitted to being a teutophile and was adamant that I relocate to Berlin should I ever get the chance. Berlin’s a great artist town.
He asked if I spoke any other languages. I said no. He put out the joint and crossed his arms and legs and furrowed his brow. Then he said the room was mine if I agreed that I would never ever ever smoke cigarettes inside of it. I agreed.
It was only after I moved in that he mentioned he slept in the living room. Said I was welcome to hang out in there any time, though. I asked why he didn’t sleep in the third bedroom. He said he used it for storage.
Owen went to bed at two and woke before sunrise each day. The whistling kettle sounded his morning routine. After a breakfast of toast and tea, Owen would pry open the door to the spare room, stomp in, and slam it shut again. Then he’d bang things around in there for a few hours.
Sometimes his voice came muffled through the walls. Usually sounded like he was talking to somebody. Occasionally sounded like he was weeping. I never asked him what he did in there.
One afternoon I found a peculiar grapefruit in the freezer. It had a face made of cowrie shells. It was sitting right in front of the meatballs. Staring at me. Later, Google told me that it was an effigy to the god Eleguá. Eleguá is one of the gods in Santería.
Owen left town at the end of each month. He’d travel upstate to dwell in his cabin in the woods. He said most of his best writing came out of those weekends of seclusion.
I made full use of the apartment the first time he left. I overcooked pasta in the kitchen and watched television in the living room. Even had a couple of friends over. They didn’t stay very long.
Owen returned early Monday morning. He woke me by banging on my bedroom door. I found him standing motionless in the hallway, clad in a trench coat, glaring at me like I’d shot somebody.
He licked his lips and chewed on some words then finally asked if I’d deliberately burned his tea kettle. I said I didn’t know what he was talking about. He led me to the kitchen and thrust the kettle in my face and pointed to an inch-long burn mark.
There, he said, that one. Did you do this?
I hadn’t done that and said so. His jaw gaped in disbelief. I went back to my room. Owen pried open the door to the third bedroom and slammed it shut again. Started throwing things all over the place.
I listened to him chatter and hum and cry for a few hours. Then I went to work.
That night I was home alone. I decided to check out the third bedroom. I pried open the door and crossed the threshold.
Inside, there were dozens of homemade cloth dolls hanging from the ceiling. Big ones and small ones and medium ones. Fat and skinny and deformed. Most were tattered and stained but a few looked clean and new.
They all had buttons for eyes. All dangling like lynched bodies. All staring at me.
I closed the door to my bedroom and opened the window and smoked a cigarette. I considered contacting Keith but didn’t have his information.
I came down with the flu a day later. Threw up my guts until I had nothing left. At one point I passed Owen in the hallway on my way to the bathroom.
He asked if I was unwell. I nodded. He had circles under his eyes.
I called out of work and had hours of hot, dreamless sleep. When I finally woke up I rolled over and checked my phone for messages and saw Owen standing at the foot of my bed. I sprung to my feet and startled him.
He ran out the door. I followed him to the living room. Asked him what he was doing in my room.
He apologized. Thought I would be at work. Asked if I’d been smoking in the room.
I said I’d be moving out at the end of the month.
I didn’t own much so it was an easy move. Managed to get my clothes and computer and hard drives to my new place in Brooklyn before the lease started. Couch-surfed for a couple weeks to avoid Owen.
I went back to his place on the 31st to clean the room and get my security deposit back. Owen watched me change the AC filter and dust and sweep the floor. Then I asked if he was satisfied.
He nodded, said the room was clean enough to show. Then he mentioned, matter-of-factly, that his birthday was tomorrow. He would be sixty-one. I wished him a happy birthday.
Owen handed me my security deposit. I wish it would’ve worked out, he said. I was hoping you’d stay for at least a year.
I thanked him and showed myself out.
Cecil Poole-Alderley was short and fat and had Asperger’s. Looked like an obese Alfred E. Neuman. He must’ve been 10 or 11 years old when he attended my hands-on-camera class at the NYC Tween Summer Filmmaking Workshop.
Most of the campers were the progeny of wealthy Upper East Siders. Many wore designer clothes and watched Lynch films. A lot of parents missed the graduation screenings.
Cecil was ten minutes late to my class on the first day. Just waltzed through the door like he owned the place. He surveyed the seating options from the front of the class for a painfully long time. Then he selected a center spot in the back row.
My opening routine was to ask the kids questions to get to know them. Do you want to be a filmmaker? Do you make movies at home? Cecil was quick to answer all the questions in the negative.
I asked him why he signed up for movie camp in the first place. He said that his mom told him that he had two choices that summer. Make friends or go to camp. So I picked camp, he said.
The class erupted in laughter. I laughed too. Cecil Poole-Alderley managed to win us over in one stroke.
On day two, I broke them into groups of four to conduct the first camera exercise. They were to implement the rule of thirds. Afterward, we reviewed each group’s work on the TV.
Cecil managed to photobomb every shot. He contorted his face like a stroke patient and flicked off the camera. Over and over and over again.
The class laughed in torrents. I laughed too. Then I told Cecil that he wasn’t permitted to flick off the camera or anybody ever again. Not ever. All the while I was biting the insides of my cheeks to keep a straight face.
On day three, the class shared their movie plots with me while Cecil poked at his iPad. Getting him to focus was too much. It was easier to let him play Angry Birds.
I told everyone, write what you know. Most of them chose to make films about detention. A handful selected topics such as love, theft, and cell phones.
Cecil was the last to share. He said he hadn’t thought much about his script. I told him he should get to writing because he’d be shooting in a day. Cecil considered my point and said he’d do a film about detention.
On day four we did lens tests in Bowling Green. I had them in groups of three on the grass behind the benches. They had an hour to complete the test.
I paid the most attention to Cecil’s group. They were the first to finish, despite Cecil’s lack of interest. He spent most of the lesson whacking the fence with a big stick. When they wrapped I told them to play with the camera until the other groups were finished.
That’s when I noticed a couple of thugs with large snakes arrive in front of The National Museum of the American Indian. They had three ten-foot red-tailed boas and an eight-foot Burmese python. One guy wore a snake around his neck while his partner put the others on the ground to slither around. Passersby were gawking and taking pictures.
I turned back to my students. Cecil was gone. I ran around the park and he was nowhere to be found. Then I saw him through the fence, with a boa constrictor around his neck. I told the rest of the class to stay in the park and ran over to the snake guys.
It took me a few minutes to unwrap the snake from Cecil’s neck. I told him that he was in a lot of trouble because there were no reptile waivers in the NYC Tween Filmmaking Workshop paperwork. I would be notifying the program director of the incident.
One of the snake guys commanded me to pay him five bucks. Apparently they were charging five bucks for passersby to handle the snakes. I was unwilling to pay, even though it was a reasonable fee considering the scarcity of large constrictors in lower Manhattan.
The following week the kids had their screening. A couple of TAs told me that Cecil was nightmarish during his shoot. Very demanding and anal and ultimately unhappy with his film.
A few parents showed up to watch the screening with their kids. Cecil sat alone in the back of the room. His venture capitalist father was at a conference in Hawaii. His fashionista mother had to work late on a new line.
Fifteen movies about detention screened that day. They were horribly shot. Terribly acted. Technically untechnical. By the third movie, the audience was lost. Parents and kids were shifting in their seats and chattering and not paying attention.
Then, Cecil’s film started. It was called Detention. The images were desaturated and set to a hellish ambiance. The audience fell silent.
A boy and a girl were seated in an empty classroom. The Boy threw his pencil at the Girl. The Girl threw her book at him in retaliation. He slapped her.
A fistfight ensued. Boy grabbed a pair of scissors and stabbed Girl over and over and over and over and over again. It was shot as masterfully as the shower scene in Psycho.
The camera tracked Boy as he dragged Girl’s battered carcass through the classroom. He shoved her into a closet.
Then an adult, presumably a teacher, stepped in. She noticed Girl’s bloody hand wedged in the crack of the closet door. Boy chased her through the classroom and choked her to death.
Boy made a run for it. Reached the double doors and dashed through Lower Manhattan. The film closed with him waiting for a ferry.
The audience was pin-drop quiet. Then they gave a standing ovation. I loved and loathed Cecil Poole-Alderely, at once.
Cecil waited for his ride in the lobby after the other kids left. He was playing Angry Birds. His nanny arrived thirty minutes late.