city life

Living here in Flatbush deep in the heart of Brooklyn, I'm miles away from the excitement of Manhattan, but neither am I spending 40-50% of my salary on rent.
The people I'm staying with, in fact, have refused to take any money from me. "Wait until you get a job and you're on your feet," they say, making me feel like I'm part of the family. I have my own room which overlooks a wide street filled with 3 story houses and big leafy elms. The neighborhood is largely middle class and Jamaican or West Indian. Two short blocks away is a subway station and open air market. The vegetables and fruits (incredibly huge apples, in particular) I buy here, along with the mild September weather helped ease any California homesickness I brought along.
I call the woman I'm renting my room from Aunt Gertrude, but she really isn't related to me. She was my Aunt Carey's roommate from college and they had maybe spoken to each other twice during the past twenty years. The third time they spoke, my aunt asked if I could stay with her. Luckily, she said of course, and had a spare bedroom for me to use. She's a short, stocky woman with a very New York attitude -- her daily complaints about New York's sports teams and the mayor are biting, direct and quite funny.
She is a token clerk for the subway and delights in telling me horrific stories of life underground. Rats the size of small dogs, toxic sludge dripping from the ceiling whenever it rains, electrical explosions that fill the station with eye-watering smoke and the infamous eau d'urine smell that wafts gently thoughout the maze of underground tunnels. Trapped in her bulletproof glass cage, she keeps watch over thousands of dollars of token receipts. Would be robbers have tried everything to get at the money inside. They've tried to set fire to the booth. The MTA installed a halon fire extinguishing system. They've tried breaking down the door. The door is six inches thick and closes like a bank vault. Someone even kicked in the air conditioner and tried to grab her legs to pull her out. She hit him with a fire extinguisher and broke his arm.
Her favorite subway fare thief, however, was the guy who for a week, stuck a paperclip into one of the turnstiles, allowing the gate to turn, but preventing the tokens from dropping into the collection pail below. After ten or so people would go through, he'd saunter over, in full view of the booth, put his mouth over the slot and suck -- extracting $10 dollars in tokens, then running up the stairs and out of the station. Under explicit instructions not to leave the booth, my Aunt Gertrude could only call the Transit Police, who'd arrive ten minutes later, too late to arrest the guy. The thief did this for a week straight during her shift, until she decided she'd had enough of it. The next night, she brought a bottle of fiery Jamaican Jerk Hot powder to work and poured a liberal amount in each token slot. When the guy showed up, his put in his paper clip and waited. After ten people went through, he went over to the turnstile, bent over and inhaled. My aunt said he turned beet red and ran around in circles, flapping his arms. He finally ran up the stairs, screaming for water. She never saw him again.
The subway does figure largely in most New Yorker's lives. When I first arrived, everyone was concerned over a tourist murdered in the Rockefeller Center station. Next was the morning rush hour track fire under the East River that trapped a thousand people in a train filled with smoke, suffocating two people to death. Then there was the drunk homeless guy who fell onto tracks in front of a train and lost an arm. He sued the MTA and received $9.3 million. Things are not all that bad, however. The trains don't look like the graffiti covered ones of the late seventies. Teams of workers stationed at the end of each line scrub off every seat and sweep each car at the end of a run, spraying some kind of toxic stain remover whose smell is a combination of the worst industrial bleach and pinesol. Although the stations are in bad shape, the management has tried to make the system more 'user friendly.' Benches to sit on, more transit cops and public address announcements that include train connection info and explanations of delays.. The best announcement I heard was the one on a Brooklyn-bound #2 stopped at Wall Street during rush hour. The conductor said his standard apology for the delay said we'd be moving shortly. He then added, "Those of you still on the platform, please step away from the edge so we can see the signal. . . especially the guy in the blue suit picking his nose."

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december 1999