Subway cops seem to eat less donuts than street or car cops. Maybe it looks unprofessional. Maybe the subways smell too bad to eat anything. There is a New York City subway platform smell peculiar to summer but you can catch a whiff of it in winter as well. It’s a heady mixture of human piss, mice, rats, sweat, body odour, coats that have never been cleaned or just been dry cleaned, newspapers ( they do smell) and fatigue. Fatigue has a smell of its own. It’s a work fatigue, it’s bleary eyed crud in your eyes early morning commute fatigue. It smells of office, school, or cheap soap. Christmas gift set perfume, and too much of it. Every so often, there’s a little kid who smells of crayons. This is one of my favourite smells, kids who smell like new crayons. But it is rare, I smelled it a lot as a teacher and it wore thin after a while, but it was a novelty to smell a kid on the subway, a kid who smelled like crayons. I would always want to go and sniff the kid, but that would certainly have got me arrested.
But that’s not what I was almost arrested for. The cops didn’t use the word arrest, as in cardiac. They said, “bring you in” as if hauling you in from the sea.
It was my wondering vaguely on the streets of New York years. I lived in Brooklyn, but had no privacy in my shared flat, so I prefered to wander the streets, and I looked lost, though I rarely was. Not in the geographical sense. I was a bit pretty in a thinking man’s woman sort of way, and I wore tight dresses, and looked spaced out, so I attracted a lot of male attention. Most of it was just rude stuff said in Spanish, or “meera, meera” with hissing noises. SoI was somewhere, I think in the West Village, near the school where I worked, and an achingly pretty, translucent boy wearing all white, all clean white clothing, came over to me and said , “Excuse me, are you lost?”
This happened a lot. But I was rarely asked this by someone so pretty. I was transfixed. He was junkie thin, but did not look like a junkie. He didn’t look restless, nor nodding. In my experience, junkies were one or the other. I stared at him and said,”In what sense?”
“Lost in what sense? The wider, life sense of lost, or just can’t find where I am going to right now sense?”
He smiled thinly. “Like, now, are you lost right now?”
“No, I know exactly where I am. I am trying not to go home for a bit. Not til it gets dark.”
“What happens in the dark, in your home?”
“Not lots. I read, make something to eat where you just add water, and maybe sit on the fire escape to smoke. Sorry, is this more than you want to hear?”
“No, I don’t get talking to people all that much. I was living somewhere else for a while, and now I’ve moved to New York and I don’t talk much to people.”
“Where were you living before?” I thought he might say Wyoming, or Idaho. Just somewhere far I’d never been.
He paused, “In a , a place. A, a, facility.”
This was an odd word. “Correctional? Prison? Hospital?”
“Not really any of those, but a bit like all of them.”
Oh great, he was beautiful and mad, my favourite type.
“The thing is, I want to meet some normal people, and I was wondering if you might come over for dinner. It would be better than what you eat, the stuff you just add water to. I think. I haven’t cooked in a while. They did that for me.”
“Um, OK. Will there be other people? This won’t be like, a kidnap situation. No one would pay the ransom and you’d have to kill me and probably wind up back in a facility.”
He shook his head vigorously, and he really was not a vigourous sort of guy. He took out a slip of paper and a pencil and asked if he could use my back to write the details. I said sure and tilted over. I felt the pencil scratchings forming letters on my back. It felt great. He finished, handed me the paper, and walked away, drifted more like. Like a vision.
The paper had an address in Chelsea. It said Thursday night, Eight o clock. And there was a phone number.
Later that night I rang him, after my just add water dinner and cigarette on the fire escape. I said, “I don’t even know your name.”
He told me his name and I just can’t remember it anymore. Which is really strange cos I remember everything. It messes my head up. So I’ll call him Paul. l love the name Paul. I loved a Paul once, but not as a lover.
So come Thursday night , I put on a tight green dress, it was wraparound, the fashion then and it suited me. I wore these shoes called candies. They were hard to walk in but looked great and made a great clicking noise. I took the subway to Chelsea and stopped at a shop on the way to buy ice cream. It was a Nordic ice cream and I could not pronounce it without sounding like I had tardive dyskonesia. I had this sometimes from the stomach ache medicine I was hooked on. It made it hard to form words sometimes. But hardly anyone could say this ice cream name without sounding like they had a disability. The shop was freezing cold and was staffed by one, turning gently blue girl. She asked me what flavour I wanted and how much of it. I got a big pot of blue ice cream. It matched her fingers. I liked the look of her blue fingers grasping the cold metal scoop. Maybe her fingers would drop off. That would be a conversation starter, at the dinner. “I went to this ice cream place and the girl had frostbite, so that’s why there are fingers in the ice cream.”
Her fingers did not drop off. The ice cream was very expensive. I hoped it tasted blue.
Eventually, I got to the apartment. There were several people there, milling about. No one was drinking. There were no cooking smells. There was not much in the way of furniture. There was a bathtub in the middle of the room with a board over it. I think this was the dining table, if we were to dine. The people all looked about my age, early 20s, and a bit lost, like me. Except one. She was more sturdy, and had a brisk way of moving, and wore an upsidedown watch pinned to her blouse. Like a nurse. She was a nurse. This guy had a private nurse. There was a record playing and I knew the record well because I played it all the time myself. It was Johnny Thunders’ So Alone. A very good record. I felt an immediate bond, but had no desire to talk, just to listen to the record.
I look back on this now and think I could have been killed, or brought into a cult, or a facility, but we just milled about, sometimes making chit chat, sometimes not.
I didn’t get to speak to Paul at all. His nurse never left his side. Maybe it was his nurse. Maybe she just looked like one.
This went on, this non activity, for some time. Most normal people would have left by then, I guess about ten, or at least asked for dinner.
Someone did say, “Will we eat?” and Paul said, “Oh, I’m so sorry , I forgot the food.” And I said, “I have ice cream.”
Paul found two spoons, I guess there were eight of us. We sat round the bath and ate the ice cream with the two spoons. It was rock solid. Very cold. It had no flavour, except blue. We could only dig a bit out at a time. It became too arduous and we gave up and let it melt. I went out on the fire escape for a cigarette, though in those days you could smoke in anyone’s house without asking. It was just cooler out there.
After a while, it struck me that I would not get to talk to Paul, and I was not much interested in the other people, and I had work early next morning, so I made my excuses and left. I never saw any of those people again.
I went out, down the stairs, and walked through the very wide streets of Chelsea. There were a few men lurking about, what we used to call rough trade. They had moustaches and tatts and muscles. It was a gay scene, that part of town. Kind of near the Hudson. They did stuff near the Hudson. What, I don’t know.
IT felt creepy, and I needed colour, light, noise, big yellow taxis. I walked over to 42nd st and it was just so alive. Seedy, with guys in bad suits, women wearing short skirts and fishnets and corsets, big neon sighs flashing about live sex. As opposed to what? Dead sex? So there I was , soaking up all the best shit and grit and bright lights bigcity stuff, and then I tired of that and headed down the subway steps.
The subway smelled really, really bad. I lit a cigarette to surround myself with a different smell. This was my first mistake, my second if you count going to the guy’s apartment in the first place. But within seconds two transit cops were on me like a rash. One grabbed the cigarette. I said, “I would have given you one if you had asked” That was another mistake. He smirked and said Oh yeah, a wise guy, a wise girl. You know its illegal to smoke in the subway.”
I did know this, but I forgot. Lots of people did it anyway, but not with cops around. I felt hard done by. I said, “You know, this is 42nd st. You could go upstairs and find a real crime. A dealer, a pimp, a dealer who is also a pimp. This is really a minor offence”
They smirked. They asked me to show them some ID. I didn’t have any.
“Anything. A driver’s license?”
No, I take the subway, or walk.
So they said they had to establish who I was so they could write the ticket and could they call someone to say I was who I was. The only person I could think of who wouldn’t flip out was my mother. So we went to a phone on the platform and the cop asked me for a quarter. I gave him a quarter and he called my mother. He didn’t say anything scary, so that she would think I’d been in an accident. He just told her the situation, and that I was being rude, and if I continued to be rude they would “Haul me in” He listened a bit and then said, “She wants to talk to you.” and he handed me the phone.
She didn’t let me have it, as most mother’s would. She said, “Cops are not nice people Michele. They work with the bad guys all day and start to appropriate some of that behaviour. So just be nice and do what they say. You can’t go to jail. You have work in the morning.”
My mother is really sensible. I nodded and said OK. I said night night, sorry for the hassle. The cops wrote some stuff down on a ticket and said all this legal stuff really fast. The only word I heard was caution. I got on the F train back to Brooklyn and made it to work on time the next morning. I’ve never had a brush with the law since. Or eaten blue ice cream. I still think my mother is one of the smartest people I know. The last time I was in New York, the subways still smelled bad.