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Walking Homeward by Way of the Fulton Mall

Walking Homeward by Way of the Fulton Mall

You’re just a person. And now there’s seven billion. If you work from 9:30AM until 5:30PM with an hour for lunch, you only work seven hours a day. So easy is your life! Riding the elevator as the CapTiVate screen gives you infobits, and beauty tips as it advertise your descent. The shiny steel doors open. Your soft rubber souls peel you easily forward along the smooth gray marble. “I will!” assures the off-duty guard to the on duty guard. Why does the off-duty guard, have two knee-braces and a walking stick? Or isn’t she a guard at all, but just an acquaintance of the guard? And what is it the one will do and the other needed to know she’d do? But there’s no time for speculation because two big glass rectangles at right angles form a giant spinning paddle, and you must grab the handle on one of the faces, pull yourself into the turning quadrant, and–at exactly the right moment–toss yourself out onto the dirty cement sidewalk. But that’s a dramatization, and actually this too is easy.

Head then across Court Street. Walk along the flat strong pavers behind the Brooklyn Borough Hall, upon whose majestic whitestone pyramiding steps (half a pyramid, then flattened off as a stage for doors and pillars beneath a Roman triangle) people sit, mostly in pairs, sometimes alone, mostly younger–what I most noticed where two attractive you women in the 20something, the pale face looking down into a phone or a book and talking to the red oak with the precise face and hawk nose, who looked my way when I was still a young man and the spring sun had only just begun to somber-down and spread-out.

I’ve seen them sell various on their tables on Joralemon between Court and Adams, and then even more so all along the Fulton Mall. Children’s books, DVDs, Afrocentric jewelry, cabbie caps, vials of odors, incense sticks, CDs of secular and Christian soul music played loudly from a boombox and sold cheaply–especially if you buy five.

People stream past the passerby, we all pass each other by. We’re all going somewhere. Except for those waiting for a bus. Otherwise we’re walking past the stores or we’re walking into or out of the stores. Or restaurants. You can get McDonalds, or you can get Burger King, or you can walk a little further and get another Burger King. You can buy Halal from the street carts, or just hot dogs from the street carts–hot dogs that I don’t even know are Kosher. They probably are. The street cart that most interests me is the one duded up like a seatrip wrapped in the Union Jack and where you can buy fish and chips just like the Queen probably eats. I never buy anything from it, but I always think, “I’m going to have to get that some day!” Some day, some day, ah, you’re someday song has pulled me along long enough!, Fulton Mall.

With a rolling-brick (how now these long strings of brick that, between columns of windows, dangle the classic storefront?) Macy’s where all the salespeople and most of the shoppers are black. Where you can buy socks and underwear and sneakers and blue jeans and dress shirts just like you did back home, except now instead of most all the salespeople and shoppers being white, they’re black. And also the building’s older, and so snazzier and glossier than the mall-Macy’s where you spent your cotton-ball youth.

Ah well, let it pass, let everyone passeryouby. And find yourself on the other side, forgetful, drowsy, almost unraveled, and all, if you’re to be believed, because you’ve only got one pair of shoes and have worn them down and they are not bouncing your feet the way they should and this not from poverty but sheer laziness, a laziness that will not end but will in fact only continue and so spread and worsen, as you head, not to the Atlantic Terminal Mall to buy shoes (that’s where you actually buy shoes, since they have a DSW there, and you can’t think what else to do with your feet), but down into the ground, into the subway, into the easy way home.

I’ll ask you first this:

St Patrick’s Day

St Patrick’s Day

On the subway, in a blue dress shirt and black cotton slacks, a youngish man sits up straight, gathering himself together. It is a little after 5pm, so I guess he’s leaving work. He sits up straight with his eyes shut and his hands on his thighs, composing himself. The train is not crowded; it heads from downtown Brooklyn to Manhattan. Directly across from this short-haired, square-jawed, square-glasses white man (with a dab of peachy tan in his complexion), a Hispanic tween sleeps against her mother, both in dark coats and slacks, with black hair, cream-tan, flat heart-shaped faces, small noses–reminding the white guy of native South Americans. Next to the mother sits a white man with short hair bleached in the front, dark in the back, and combed forward fitting close to his skull like painted lines. He wears tight-fitting black jeans and a dark gray (faded black?) leather jacket opened, revealing a shirt forgotten by your narrator. His complexion is pretty pale with a touch of ruddy and looks a little dry and weathered; his head–though of an average size and thus no “helmet head” is shaped a little like a helmet; his nose rounds around like a falcon’s beak; eyes set in hollows. 40ish? A black bookbag between his legs. Black leather high top Doc Martins laced only at the bottom (not the uppers, which flap open jocularly). Dark red-painted fingernails; an earring that is a short, thin silver chain from which a few smaller, short silver chains dangle–so something like a silver elephant tail, but smaller and without the magic powers inherent in such fantastical charms. Next to him, clamoring on the steel tubing handrail/guard that separates the end of the plastic subway bench from the doorway, is a small girl. She’s maybe four years old. Thin, wiry, with reddish hair braided in two pinktails and garnished with blue fabric flowers; sporting thick-framed clear plastic reddish framed glasses; in green sweats with long pockets and a light red coat made of a series of plush burial-mounds wrapped in tent-material (a common enough coat nowadays, reminds me a bit of a Samurai’s wood-plate armor). The man who now sits straight and meditates to himself had looked with arched eye and pursed lip at the dangerous fun of the four year old, but then decided to ignore matters that don’t involve him and that are probably not really super dangerous. But the man speaks and the blue-shirted observer listens:

“Der rote Mann da–siehst du? Er tut genau wie du, und daneben sagt es, dass es verboten ist.” [“The red man there–see it? He’s doing what you’re doing, and next to it it says that it’s not allowed.”]

“Was? Welcher Mann?” Twisting her torso and head around while still woven through the tubular guardrail. “Der rote Mann–gerade da (pointing, leaning into his shoulder like it is a rifle that he’s siting). Er macht genau wie du, und daneben steht, dass es verboten ist.” [“The red man–right there. He’s doing just what you’re doing, and next to it it says it’s not allowed.”]

After a few more twists and questions, the child climbs down and sits next to her father, saying “Und was sagt jener, Papi, was sagt jener?” [“and what says that one, daddy, what says that one?”] while leaning like a vine on a trellis against the guardrail/seat-end. The man explains the posters that line the top of the subway car across from him and his young daughter. One says (and he demonstrates by opening his legs wide and then bringing them together, and concludes by acquiescing to the law and taking his bookbag–which he had strung between his open legs in this uncrowded subway car–up onto his lap, which he makes small) “du sollst nicht so sitzen–da nimmst du zu viel Platz; du sollst lieber wieso sitzen.” [“You shouldn’t sit like this–when you do you take up too much space; you should sit like this instead.”] “Zu viel Platz nehmen? Platz nehmen?” [“Taking up too much space? Taking up space?”] echoes the urchin. And so on, with several other signs–these signs you see where the people are outlined blockish figures behaving a little impolitely in the subway and that all come with gentle reminders and calls-to-action for subway decorum, for common human decency, for give and take, compromise, and the communal spirit. At some point the kid climbs back up and kicks her leg back like a dancer so that her small pink leather hightop sneak bumps into her dad’s arms: “So macht der rote Mann”. [“That’s what the red man is doing.”] This red man, for those who have not spent much time studying the subway etiquette cartoons, is spinning around the center pole with his leg out, and beneath it the MTA admonishes: “Poles are for safety, not your latest routine. Hold the pole, not our attention. A subway is no place for showtime.” The sign addresses this safety issue: kids and young teens sometimes do dance routines to hip hop music in the subway cars, spinning around the center poles, hanging from the ceiling poles like bats, and otherwise putting the public at risk; before they make the young man in the blue dress shirt shudder with unease, these young hustler-performers gamely proclaim: “Showtime! Showtime! Put your hands together people, it’s showtime!”

The man in blue, who speaks German but only for fun, exits at 2nd Avenue. He’s meeting his girlfriend to see “Anomalisa” at the Landmark Cinema. She’s told him that this is its last night, and so they have to go. So here he is, on Houston, near Forsyth, drinking a happy hour malbec and jotting down what he recently observed.


Accuracy: somewhat.

Diner meeting

Diner meeting

Big fat man in shimmer-shine polo;
Walk and slosh from side to side;
Strange lined threads shake and spray
the yellow diner light.

Little head blond round and wise
Aging tortoise mouth and eyes.

Slap back, handshake-hug
a short, jive suit fellah–
a dark skin boy in sheer flattop;
these two guys: men upon the scene.

“Can you believe this?
Yuppies flood’in the place!–!”

Slide together in a booth
To meet across a faux
blue marble tabletop–
plastic over composite ply.

Old school blinking cool.

Earlier, to the tan kid
sprawled along old countertop,
who’d said it was like that here five years ago:
“83 homicides!–83 homicides the last year I’s here!”

Earlier earlier, to the 50-and-some
broad dropjaw overarch nose
local team sweatshirt counterman
leaning forward–arms as struts,
palms pushed against his countertop:

“What’s happened to this place!?”
And Then:
“I worked here 25 years ago–
neighborhood’s completely changed–
who are these people?”

The 90 year old woman, with still a dab of slav
at the bottom of her Brooklyn,
who lived for 60 years down the street a bit,
who stays now above the diner
a small place she shared
with her son,
who’d worked at the diner
before he died–
“but he died”–,
said, after open-arm head-back
“neighborhoods completely changed”
and wrapping weakly ’round frog-faced
“who are these people?”:
“I think its nice.”

Further frog-pout,
and an unconvinced,
but peaceable unconcerned
mountain-sloshing shrug.


The diner

The diner

Round orange padded vinyl bottlecap swivel-seats, the vinyl worn and sometimes torn, on metal pistons line the soda fountain. An old woman, 5′ tall in a black sweater-shawl and zebra pedal pushers (that show leg to mid-shin) sits at the end nearest the gap between the counter and the grill area. She wears old black leather walking shoes with thick gray socks pushed down and folded over, squeezing her pink swollen ankles an inch above the line made in her splotchy legs when the socks were an inch higher. She rests her toes on the little aluminum-edged wooden runner curling, her arms crossed on the linoleum countertop, around the counter like a question mark. Her straight white hair is cut short and it looks uneven, a little matted; she’s organized it with little metal barrettes that shove it off at odd angles all around her head, reminding one a little like rough whitewater. Her face is small, wizened, graying, with a long nose and small brown eyes set off to the sides. She looks very old and, with her worn-out clothes and slightly greasy hair, a little disheveled.

The old woman talks to the men working in the diner, men of about 50, a little paunchy, with big noses and heavy, forward-set jaws that make you think “maybe Slavic; maybe Italian; maybe neither”. One wears a sweatshirt of a local pro team and faded blue jeans; the cook–who is generally mostly obscured behind the half-wall separating the kitchen from the counter–has on a boxy white button-up short-order cook shirt. There’s a youngish (30s?) man waiting tables who, since it is not at all busy (maybe 8 customers in this large, sprawling diner), also spends a lot of time milling around the counter area.

That waiter is dressed very casual. Jeans and a faux-jersey made of a light sweat material. A Mets baseball cap, worn flat-brimmed. Tattoos all over his arms; also showing on his neck, rising up from his chest. Short hair. Olive-skinned, broke-backed nose; wide in the face in mouth; “Mexican” you think, remembering some college kid you knew for a minute over a decade ago, a fellow student, originally from Guadalajara. The waiter speaks softly; if he has any accent it is light Brooklyn; he kids around with the five year old eating the plate of tiny pancakes drizzled with syrup. At some point, as the pale young brunette boy and his pale young blond mother are about to leave, you catch this fragment of the conversation: the waiter, smiling with a distance in his eyes and a tug at the corners of his mouth (he’s been facing their table, in front of yours; leaning a little back, and right now turning in towards you and a bit down), says brightly, jocularly (with arms up and at chest level, making a relaxed goalpost): “but the intention was there!”

Leaning back, putting the weight on the back leg while tossing light-hearted words and twisting to playful ducks. That sense of a lean-back, relaxed, joking sparring match–you realize you think of that as a Mexican/maybe-Hispanic-in-general male conversation style, some cultural tendency that you think you’ve noticed before. Or maybe you’re making it up.

The diner is full of paintings that reference the diner, pictures of notable moments in its long history, and articles about it. You crane to see (through the rectangular metal staves–there’s a railing between the path along the counter and your seating area) what looks to be the cover of a foreign language magazine that 50 years ago featured the diner–way back when it’s founder still lived, still smiled bald and moon-faced, arms across his chest, wearing that signature soda jerk button-up short-sleeve with a flopsy bow tie. You try to read the words, battling against the staves and the glare of white light on the picture-frame glass.

“Are you trying to talk to me?” Says the old lady, swiveling a little ways to meet your gaze.

“No, I was just trying to read that poster.”


But then she smiles in that leaning-forward, ET manner that little old ladies are famous for, “60 years.”

“What?” you say.

“I lived here 60 years.”

There’s a whirring sound (a blender?) a little ways down the countertop, making it hard to hear.

“Oh. … That’s a long time.”

“Yes!”, with a little nod, her chin sharp, brown age spots giving her face a touch of reptilian. “Do you live around here?”

You tell her the street you live on.

There’s quite a bit of “what?” said as you try to hear her over the blender; you learn that she lived a few blocks away for 60 years but now lives above the diner: “I live up there” pointing at the high embossed-tin ceiling, “upstairs.”

After a bit she says, “My son ” and you can’t make out the rest.

You say, “What?”

“My son used to work here.”


“But he died.”

“Oh, that’s too bad.”

“Yes,” with a little nod, a slight frown, pausing, swiveling slowly back to the counter area.

You feel in the wrong; that wasn’t the way to put it; you were impatient or something; somehow off; it wasn’t the thing to do.

A little later a young man–early 20s maybe–, olive of complexion, hair that reminds you of a samurai warrior, in gray sweats that ride a little low, showing a poof of sky blue boxers, sits on the stool next to the old lady. He tickles her a little, gently, on the arm just below the shoulder, while he–long-armed–leans back playfully the other direction. The tickling which makes her cuddle into herself like a small child–but just a tad. Later you look back and he has his hand in hers, opening her small gnarled hand up from the inside; this too he does playfully, tenderly; she seems to notice it only absentmindedly–perhaps she looks a tiny bit embarrassed as she looks down at the diner countertop.


Accuracy level? Somewhat: remembered afterward and allowed the flow of ideas to fill-in spotty memory, looking to get the gist.

The man who gives out flowers

The man who gives out flowers

2 of 2 occurrences marked by the author on the coldest Valentine’s Day in NYC recorded history.

It was on Valentine’s Day at about 9pm on the C train, heading towards Brooklyn, clacking all the way and screeching in the turns. A black man about 60 reclining back, long legs spread wide on either side of two giant bags full of recent purchases (a small appliance in one; an inflatable mattress in the other) stacked one on top of the other. The train wasn’t very crowded, so no one cared that he took up so much space. Dressed in a nice coat, with nice black slacks and nice walking shoes. Blue knit cap. Takes a Corona out of one of the bags, opens it quick and starts drinking, hiding it in the open bag between swigs. His underjaw juts a little too far forward. He is tall and though starting to age a little in the face and getting a little paunchy in the middle, still looks pretty strong, sturdy, vigorous. He looks forward beneath his knit cap with a slight pursed smile–like both his eyes and lips purse forward a little in a gamesome smiling.

A heavyset gumdrop-shaped (while seated anyway) black lady; 40ish; light brown skin; with big thighs in tight green sweats (of a substantial fabric and probably with at least tights beneath–there was a heartiness to the outfit that reminded one of a thick layer of blubber). A thick brown jacket coat, open for the train ride and with a light blue hooded sweatshirt beneath. Leaning forward with her elbows on her thighs, one hand holding a nice new athletic backpack, the other holding a clear cup with some milky coffee drink. Looking towards the rubbery subway flooring; tired half-opened lizard eyes; mouth a little compressed, forcing her round, full cheeks out a bit more. A tired person, done for the day.

The man across from her pulls a bouquet of flowers out of one of his bags and presents it to her, gesturing it forward as he asks if she’d like them. Her face lights up. She smiles big and overawed like she’s about to burst out with delighted laughter. But she doesn’t laugh. She accepts the flowers with a big smile. Smells them. “Thank you! Thank you!” He gives a little nod and takes another swig of his beer, which makes her big grateful eyes wobble a bit, but not drastically. “I’m going to put these next to my heart tonight–when I sleep–I’m going to keep them next to my heart.” He, with half-shut cool eyes and a knowing half-smile and half backwards-nod (as in you nod backwards–assenting) says, “be well.” She has a mild Brooklyn accent. She repeats her plan and he repeats, “Be well!”

He finishes that beer and begins another (he drank the last beer in about a minute). She is still smiling over at him, and so she notices the quick beer progression. She’s sitting up a little more now–still leaning a bit forward but no longer with her arms on her shoulders and no longer looking down–looking towards him with a shy, blink-away-and-return smile. Now she pulls her shoulders back and straightens up and looks up and over to him, her gaze arching: “I don’t like beer” she says smiling thin, shaking her head a little from side to side. “Me neither” he says with a pouty smile. “I used to drink that–when I was a teenager–but …” He nods slight, judicious. She turns to one side, looking now down the fuselage, not quite across. At the next spot she looks around from side to side, as if she isn’t sure if this is her stop or not; then she gets off, thanking him again as she leaves, “thank you papi, thank you papi, thank you!–!”

At that stop a tall pretty early-40s thin black woman with high cheekbones and an elegant, shoulders-back, chin-up ease strolls on the subway. She stands by the pole by the door–diagonal to the man with the flowers and the beer. She’s left her faux-fur-lined hood up. He takes out another bouquet and offers it to her. She smiles but with a skeptical twist in her lips, small nose, big eyes: “No!” with that fixed smile through knitted brow and ironic eyes that one gives to a perhaps harmless but still dubious proposal. He, with a slight forward-shrug, puts the bouquet away and sips his beer.

He got off when we got off. I saw it.

Witness: AMW, dramatic recreation: BW; accuracy we can vouch for: not all the details, but something like this.