NYC Journal #10 — Friday 4/24/2020 — Recalled to Life
On Friday, April 24, 2020, Walter Samsa bathed and dressed, ate 50% whole wheat rye bread with organic no-stir peanut butter and grape muscat jelly imported from France, and, zipping up his puffy red vest with his black scarf tucked in but puffing out like a robin’s breast (robin black breast??), throwing his black Jansport over his shoulders, and grabbing a 6” umbrella in one hand and an old white dress shirt (with the bottom third inexpertly cut off) folded up in the other, he left his apartment.
Rainy, low-40s, gloomy, air heavy.
All throughout New York City all year round, some nontrivial portion of the sidewalks are covered by sidewalk sheds of corrugated metal sheets atop rusty I-beams supported by steel poles with flat square feet propped up on an uneven number of 12”X12” pieces of 2”-thick wood. The roofs protect pedestrians from any stray building material. They also serve as a platform for the workers to stage this or that facade work from. To keep both debris and workers from falling onto the street or sidewalk, they have tall walls (maybe 4 foot tall, on average). These “scaffolds”, as they’re sometimes named, are boxes with plywood walls standing thirty feet over the sidewalk.
Walter stopped under a green-walled construction shed.
He set his old rust-stained blue umbrella down concave-up on the sidewalk and lay the slightly-shortened, de-collared but still ringed around collar-area, old offwhite dress shirt on the inside of the umbrella. Folding its bottom up and top down, he created a 6”-tall band, which he centered around his nose/mouth/chin area, and then fastened into place by tying the shirt sleeves behind his head. During the tying process, the wind kicked his umbrella, stutter-skidding it a few feet ahead. He scooped it back up and went back to the rain, which had been patiently waiting outside the shed’s shelter. And he was off! Ready to abide by current subway-riding regulations.
He noticed that the fabric’s sheerness created a bit of problem: it got sucked up by his nostrils and covered them, interfering with their essential function. He adjusted it so it poofed out a bit more around his nose. Then it seemed to work pretty well, though he’d have to pull up or otherwise adjust the makeshift bandit-mask several times during the next twenty minutes.
Thirty or forty people standing or on benches scattered along a couple hundred feet of subway platform, waiting with him in the dank basement-world for the screeching train looming light.
Did he make a mistake? He noticed a bum sleeping in the car on his left hand side and also one sleeping in the car on his right hand side. But since there were already other people in the car on his left hand side, with still others now boarding, he thought the better option was to join the sparser car on his right hand side. Was he wrong? It’s one thing to be able to say: “things would’ve gone better if you’d chosen the car on the left hand side”; it’s another to claim: “you should’ve known to choose the car on the right hand side”.
It wasn’t that bad, but it did turn out that by choosing the car to his right, he had chosen to travel with one homeless man stretched out on a bench diagonally across from him, and another—not initially perceived—sitting upright with broad hands on thick thighs, surrounded by a loose semi-circle of strewn boxes and bags, several benches down. The car remained otherwise empty for the four stops Walter had to journey, and the seated man yelled at him the entire time, with the reposing man occasionally chiming in with a sleepy refrain of the more vulgar taunts.
But whose fault was this incident? For didn’t Walter Samsa initially swivel his back against the back wall and his feet up on this bench by the back door? And didn’t he pull out a notebook, set it on his lap, and begin to make notes while studying the sleeping man? And aren’t these actions likely the cause of the other man’s words:
“Don’t do that! I’m not high! I’m not looking at you! Somebody asks! Looking at me like I’m a piece of shit. I’m not a piece of shit!”
Here Walter bends over to be able to see the yelling man, “Are you talking to me? I can barely see you from here!”
“Don’t talk man. Like I’m a dog! I ain’t a dog! You look’in at that girl, you watch’in her—and you ain’t gett’in no pussy! No pussy! (it was here that the other opened his eyes, gave a little laugh, and then chimed in, “Ain’t gett’in no pussy!”) Ain’t nobody fuck with me, man! Ain’t nobody!”
[There was, as previously stated, no one in the car but these three men. Had they passed a female at the last station? Walter had been preoccupied with his immediate environs, and so couldn’t say.]
Walter Samsa dreams of a career in capture-journalism. He imagines himself catching precious moments as they float past, retaining them, boiling them down to their essentials, and reanimating them in prose. And so he’d thought to himself:
“Well, this is not my preferred subway car, but I may as well verbally sketch this man. Aged perhaps 40, dark-skinned with matted hair forming a bouncy many-fingered solid sometimes tamped down and sometimes rejecting oversized parka hood, reclining to his full height (5’10”?) on the light blue subway seat, his oversized, canvas square-cut navy-blue coat looking new but a little spattered with dirt. Wearing dark slacks a little wrinkled but not grimy and bright yellow socks with puffy white geometric shapes all over them. Lank build. Thin of face, with sunken cheeks and sharp features. What looks like a giant black purse or an ornate bowling-ball bag stuffed to overflowing with I don’t know what all under his seat. And right now he places a very dirty (lots of black (oil?) and brown spots all over it’s crinkled yellowed base) dish rag on top of his face.”
How did Walter Samsa think observing that homeless man and writing down his observations would help anyone? What is the use of being a writer? What is the use of Walter Samsa writing what he’s writing?
The yelling man was tall and stout. He wore a puffy coat and a knit-cap with a little built-in brim. Walter couldn’t see him very well. This man coughed quite a bit. But they were fake hollow forced-air coughs, meant to disquiet Walter. Of course both men have been riding the NYC subway without fare and without masks all during the pandemic, and so of course they’ve been exposed to the virus. But they’re not currently sick. If anything, the man coughed-out some coronavirus antibodies.
Walter wondered this: Why didn’t he smell anything? His sense of smell had long since been restored. And usually if a homeless man lays around with his shoes off in a subway car, it creates a stink. Is it the mask? Or is it owing to the relative cleanliness of this homeless man?
The yelling man also said that Walter was a spoiled baby. Is he right? How close is Walter to being homeless, to wandering the unforgiving NYC streets alone, hungry, shunned, smelly, tired, vulnerable to the elements and pandemics? Just a couple inches this way or that and any human switches places with any other human: is it like that?
Stephanie Zambrano was the only one there to witness his 9:30AM entrance. She was wearing sweatpant pedal-pushers, a thick light-green long-T-shirt, and white lowtops. The roots of her hair were coming up gray, though the mass of it—brushed up and back to fall on all sides like a harried mane—remained a very dark brown. “Waalll-ter!” she exclaimed. They chatted a minute. It was established that he’d been away almost five weeks. The receptionist came in with a blue surgical mask on. She walked into the kitchen, greeting him on the way. He followed her in and said, “about these masks”. She said, “I have to give you one.” A little while later he said, “Why is mine white and yours blue?” She replied, “Oh, this is one I grabbed from home; I have a white one too.” And then he had to ask where people got masks like that these days and she told him her father had gotten a box at the pharmacy before the whole thing really got going.
Why does Walter do this job? It’s too stressful for him.
There’s too much yelling.
And sometimes you yell with ferocious certainty only to find out that so and so never answered your calls because your colleague had been dialing the wrong number, which meant that so and so hadn’t been blowing you off so much as failing to pick up a phone not his own.
What else happened during this working day?
At the nearby vegan grocer, he was greeted by a young smiling man holding out a box of plastic gloves. He put on the gloves and nodded to the man. Now they were twins! Both with masks and clear plastic gloves. It was as if everyone was the same person, a person in a sterile nosebridge-to-chin face mask and clear plastic gloves. This one much-copied person leaned over the shelves as a tallish thin lithe-limbed young woman with darky curly tumbling hair, rearranging vitamins; and leaned patiently back as a broad beefy-limbed young man with heavy hand on the top box, holding the tilted-back two-wheel hand-truck in place while a short 40ish man with a white coffee-funnel-like face mask and clear plastic gloves meandered annoying long over the sprouted-wheat breads; and—as a young woman with big eyes and nervously-bowed eyebrows—hoisted a bag of groceries over the plastic dividing line, pushing them at the 40ish man who’d just purchased the frozen sprouted-wheat bread (yup: he ended up taking back the much-contemplated fresh sprouted-wheat loaf!), a $10 jar of organic no-spread peanut butter, two $5 avocado and hummus sandwiches on sprouted-wheat bread, and a $5 organic applesauce.
Why had that short male 40ish medium-build, with receding hairline and never-quite-perfect sprouted bread, incarnation of the masked- and gloved-one thought it appropriate to go on and on about how he’d not used his debit card for so long he’d forgotten the pin! ?? Why? Should people be proud of him for having been sick for so long? And proud to have him, fresh out of some sordid squalid quarantine, choose their establishment as the first place to use his rusty old debit card??
A man with a booming jovial voice calls Walter on his office line. No, he’d not seen his email. The girl at the office had told him Walter wanted him to call him. You know what? They’ll send somebody Monday morning. Nothing easier! Regular route guy! First thing Monday. If that’ll put Walter’s mind at ease! Anything to help! Glad to help! You have yourself a great weekend! Walter hangs up the phone, feeling frail and neurotic and recognized as such. In truth, he’s getting very tired. A full day for his first day back was maybe a bit much.
Walter worked from 9:30AM to 5PM.
He wore a mask except for the five minutes it took to eat an avocado, hummus, tomato, and lettuce sandwich on sprouted-wheat bread. And for the occasional slurp of iced tea (decaf green and black). And for those few minutes he spent eating spoonfuls of peanut butter. And when he first walked in and only had the embarrassing button-up dressshirt mask, which he shoved into his bag moments after the heavy wooden office door had latched behind him. Of course, at that time, the place was almost completely empty.
The office was cold, with the wet humid 40ish cloudbank outside air somehow infiltrating. He wore a sweater and at times his scarf. In total four out of thirty people made it to the office that day. But many computer screens moved as if they were alive. They were inhabited remotely by the accounting department from their homes in Long Island, Queens, and New Jersey. The most boring ghosts conceivable, meticulously haunting spreadsheets.
Walter S. caught a train from Borough Hall around 5:15PM. There were maybe a half dozen other commuters in his train. Everyone wearing face masks—blue surgical or white dust or medical, for the most part. Everyone except for the guy who got in at Nevins street with his white corrugated face mask down and a pizza box in his hands. He plopped gratefully onto a bench and set the medium-sized pizza box on his thighs. (Everybody had at least half a bench to themselves for this ride.) A very light-skinned young black man, a little below medium height, a little muscled past medium build, with a beard sketched around the perimeter of his square-oval face, and a straight mustache likewise drawn (you know: a precisely trimmed ⅛” thick beard: just enough to have the clear outline of facial hair, but not at all poofy). He wore a light jacket open, slacks, and working boots with thick gray round-edged soles. Once situated, he opened the pizza box. Looked like BBQ chicken (chunks of white chicken with BBQ sauce slathered all over the top). He folded a slice lengthwise, bent over the open box, and shoveled a third of the piece in his mouth.
Walter was by this time beginning to realize that he had used up every bit of the “feeling great!” that he’d 10AM bragged to the receptionist. He envied the man’s energy. He wondered vaguely about the impact of subway snacking on the coronavirus spread. Could it possibly be having a statistically significant effect?
Walter Samsa went to be before 6PM.
He got up after 8AM.
His first day back had been very busy and quite tiring.
He felt like a little boy in a story book who has a busy day and then goes to bed.
Privileged little boys in story books who are allowed to rest after a hard day’s efforts.
He doesn’t like the title “privileged”. It sometimes seems to get thrown around in a mean and dismissive way. As if everything good that happened to whoever gets the label was stolen and everything bad the result of the labeled-one’s patheticness. But it is nice to be able to go home at 5PM when you’re all tuckered out and your lungs are back to feeling squishy. It’s nice to have a quiet bed to go to and not everyone does.
Why did it take him exactly five full weeks to return to the office?
He’d lie and bed and hear the Prokurist say,
“Hoffentlich ist es nichts Ernstes. Wenn ich auch andererseits sagen muß, daß wir Geschäftsleute — wie man will, leider oder glücklicherweise — ein leichtes Unwohlsein sehr oft aus geschäftlichen Rücksichten einfach überwinden müssen.”
[Hopefully it’s nothing serious. Though I must on the other hand remark that we business people — unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately — are quite often compelled, out of professional considerations, to simply overcome a little sense of unwellness].
Walter Samsa worked dutifully from home the whole time!
He would’ve probably gotten better quicker if he’d really spent all day lying on his sofa — as slanderously charged by some not-to-be-named field worker!
What about racial descriptions in New York City?
“What’s he look like? Is he black, white, Spanish, what?” says the 30 year old pale white kid with the Staten Island accent and the green-lined tattoos. He’s pacing around on his cell phone, a marked chub running through his ranginess.
“That dude hits on every woman! You know? That’s what I’ve noticed! Light-skinned girls, dark-skinned girls, white girls — he don’t discriminate!” says the 30 year old light-skinned black kid with the Bronx accent and the multi-colored tattoos. Leaning over veiny forearms on the low countertop, looking unstoppable in tight polo shirt around carefully-crafted musculature.
Walter S. circumlocutes around racial descriptions whenever possible. He counts as “white”, isn’t from New York,is too old to be 30, and is afraid of offending people.
Author: Franz Kazoo
Editors: JOS, BW, AW