Unpublishable: Fragments From An Underground Notebook
I lived in NYC for 2 years after college. My first job was at a bookstore in Penn Station, deep underground on the LIRR concourse. Most people I knew had internships high up in skyscrapers, and there I was getting $8 an hour 150 feet below street level. I kept a journal of a kind, on a yellow legal pad that was supposed to be for official store use. At the end of my shifts I’d tear out whatever I’d written and bring it home. After a while, I got fired for, among other things, impersonating my boss on the phone after an especially salty customer service incident. I was 23 and I thought I was untouchable. I submitted some of the lengthier passages to some small online places but no one ever bit, and in that manner peculiar to metropolitan creative types in their early twenties, I told myself that these editors were all fucking stupid, fuck these people, they didn’t understand my gift, I’ll show them all one day. (I still have not shown anybody anything.) Across the top of every entry, I wrote “MARCH OF THE DAMNED.” Here’s one of them.
– d.d., January 2018
Eighth Ave is a basin of a canyon – sitting on the steps of the post office I feel at the edge of a slope that reaches its base on the pavement in the shadow of the Garden.
The black glass of the skyscraper at Penn Plaza is foreboding and commands something like respect – mountainesque – the smaller surrounding buildings mesas – vehicles great fish negotiating the current. Somewhere around here is the Empire State Building: New York’s building, it remains out of sight, obscured by the Garden’s walls.
Little vegetation and a few small animals – pigeons mostly. Though the strong wind of the canyon makes the garbage animate. For a man more country than city, there’s a comfort in likening tall buildings to rock formations. I only wish they were covered in less text. These mountains are defaced by Panasonic, Friday’s, WaMu, Duane Reade, and The Bag Man.
I can see only 2 american flags, and strange they are not flown by the government building on whose steps I sit.
The sun sets on 33rd. I am probably being watched. There is a camera that belongs to the NYPD somewhere around here, as a sign kindly informs. Night arrives in an instant, the neon and streetlamps flicked on by the benevolent hand of a crepuscular god. A dome of silver clouds slides over the sky, almost automatically, like those retractable roofs found atop stadiums. Night in New York: this is how the city’s meant to be seen. The day starts in reverse: everything truly begins after sunset and comes to a close before sunrise.
Streets too are beds for people who often have stale Reserve on their breath. But streets are also places where holy images float past, like on 32nd and 7th when the girl with the white hair floated past me, half of her face colored by shadow. I could start a religion based on this fleeting image and probably convert a few people.
The overwhelming sensation, the fear, that I’m walking in place, in the opposite direction of a highspeed moving walkway. Though there’s always the possibility that I am going the right way and it’s the mechanism that’s moving backward.
I see taxicabs advertising European capitals and wonder if they’ll take me all the way.
But on the darker end of the spectrum are the sensations and experiences fraught with horror of the Byrnean How-did-I-get-here variety. There are the fried chicken places whose mirrored walls reflect inner sadness, whose bright lamps seem to suggest that everything shone upon is greasy, unhealthy, and for sale. I can’t stand to look at my own reflection.
In the corner by Tracks is an R&B combo, replete with tragedy: “Guaranteed to make you cry” – the whole ridiculous getup. There are two pretty black women with leopard skin dresses and knee boots and an unfortunate inability to harmonize. A nondescript bassist, as they often are. The bandleader is a bonethin ratfaced castrato with a paisley shirt, black bandana, and black baseball cap, imploring his audience to Step Right In And Cry. I feel I must comply.
All the more tragic is that the backdrop illuminating the drummer, perhaps the least sad of the group, is a row of Golden Arches. This is the stuff that needs testimony. And I, the chronicler of this fucked underworld, will report these tragedies, for they are beautiful. The tales of physical, emotional, and spiritual disfigurements: of thee I sing. Why me. Well I – I am all of those things. I am the New American Grotesque.
I am the businessman emanating the gastric, faintly fecal smell of one who has just dropped a serious load in a public restroom. His hair and his hands are wet, one loafer untied.
I’m the long-legged girls from out on the island, tramping and stamping around, loping inelegantly across the granite, deep orange tans, the miniest of skirts, tight tops, teeth extremely pearly, all making the weekly pilgrimage to upscale Manhattan. It reminds one of the semiannual antelope run or some shit. And when they return it’s like an awkward stampede, their feet hindered by spikeheeled shoes and drink – moaning laughing crying puking screaming or passed the fuck out. It’s something beautiful that I look forward to as much as a star shower.
I’m the man with a mass of occipital flesh bulging over his collar like a muffintop.
I’m the man doing pushups in a barbershop.
Feedbags of popcorn, tongues darting deftly in and out, reducing thousands of years of human achievement to the quick victory of snatching an errant kernel in record time.
None of that animal magnetism you always hear about: this is pure Freak Magnetism and for better or worse I attract the most repulsive people on the planet. Maybe that is my gift: big-hearted love of scum.
And then there’s me, the real me, trying hard to look profound in the bistro seating area of a cafe in Penn Station. “What’s he thinking about! He looks haunted!”
Then there are the ruminating wads of gum, thick-cheeked pink-mouthed girls pondering questions of the ages while chewing and snapping.
There’s the eyes skyblue, heavy rouge, bags and bags and bags of bags, the bag lady indigenous to 7th ave.
The teenage girls with sandaled feet all rosy with overuse.
The smell of twice-smoked butts, commonly found near bums, a scent that trails sadness in its wake.
Drifting off to sleep last night on a Queensbound J I came close to the edge of understanding.
Sleepy Lester and Delta Dave, blues heroes of the underground.
The sandwichmonger’s song: Freeeeee Sampoooooo Philly Cheeeestayyyy
There’s the man moving in a pissed off march, arms swinging like a demented marionette, muttering oaths, grey-haired, asshole, fucklorn.
Is there an opium of the people that’s actually good?
There’s a sweat-gray hoodie, JNCO shorts, black basketball sneakers, cotton socks rolled to the ankles, and a head of hair like shaved wheat.
There’s a man shaking a tambourine to ward off the muzak – beating the drumhead like some spirit healer, trying to exorcise the underground of its soulless drone. Then he’s shaking a handful of coins like dice, jingling them to invite more silver. He gets nothing from an old man leaning on a column, anxious to board a train whose very operation he despises – he shrugs grimly at the man with the change. The old man shifts his weight to the opposite leg and turns his neck to the left, steeling himself against the next beggarman.
There’s a man who, every time he enters the store, says at me, “My get-up-and-go got up and went. You’ve heard that one before!” He never buys anything.
Nobody ever buys anything.
I don’t build a house without predicting the end of the present social order – F.L.W.
The less a job pays, the harder the work, the more impressive the spectacle – Bronzini
Standing utterly still, waiting for the disembodied voice to say All Aboard. Frittering time away, jitterbugging in your heart, tap toes because you can’t stand to be motionless anymore, tap keys on a phone, scroll through ancient texts yet to be trashed, tap into some kind of universal suffering. All Aboard. Mad rush for the gate. People are almost stampeding. Not almost: this is a bonafide stampede. Happens all the time. Happens with enough regularity to verge on the ritualistic. Tap tap tap. A clerk taps a pen on the counter. Fry cook taps his spatula on the flat top. Rent-a-cop taps the skull of a sleeping bum.
On seeing a woman with a dog jutting out of her purse: who’s to say she didn’t just rob a pet store?
“C’mon man! I’m Jesus Christ.”
“Motherfucker I’m Jesus Christ too.”
Down here, people talk about the weather in reverential tones. They all ask: How is it up there, in an awed hush, as though fresh air and sunlight are luxuries that have to be labored toward, like an expensive car or a vacation or paradise. You tell them it’s okay, a bit overcast and slightly humid, and they’ll close their eyes, blissed out with their image of the outdoors. Elevating small talk to the sacred.
Some are legitimately concerned about the continued existence of Outside – is it still there? – and in this case their tone takes on that of a parishioner inquiring about a sick relative. Except down here there is absolutely nothing in the way of spirituality. No miracles, no sublimity, no fellowfeeling. Only Travel, Commerce, Filth, and Pestilence: the new horsemen. The only people showing any sign of humanity are the workers behind newsstands and short-order counters. Look at any other worker and you won’t see the same thing. You see defeat. Resigned failure. Lifeless industry. The kind of cheerless service you’re likely to be subject to in a K-Mart, only ten times worse. These people have had it.
Down here, no one is pursuing happiness, they’re fleeing from it. Things have become severely fucked when panhandling crackheads make more than the hourly minimum wage. They come to me, they say, because I’m the only one who’ll change their coins into bills. They’ll tell you how blessed are their lives, and yours too, if you would just take a look around.
Take a look around down here. Relentless grays and blacks coat the interior of the terminal. Oppressive nothingness. I look around and see so much of nothing. Every surface has the appearance of the ashed upon. There is only one way to describe the color scheme, which is damp ashtray. You take a look around and think: carcinoma. The only growth opportunity down here comes in the form of tumors.
And as your lungs and god knows what else begin to grow cancerous burrs, you find that you have internalized the muzak that is piped in relentlessly down here: a fate possibly worse than real cancer. This is something beyond the expertise of the oncologist. Once you have heard the muzak rendition of “Sir Duke,” you are unable to think of the original. The muzak version attacks the idea of the song in your head, maligns it, and becomes the only “Sir Duke” there ever was. You can feel it all over. There can only be one version of “Sir Duke,” and it’s the one whose tinny orchestrations bring to mind an abandoned pair of earbuds warbling at full blast. You can feel it all over, people.
Do you not hear my cries?
Do you not get my texts?
Do you not see the jellied light of 8th Ave?
There are people whose cracked and graying skin blends into the street.
Wind makes glass and steel buildings peal like tubular bells. This is a bit ominous. I’d rather play a skyscraper like the rim of a crystal glass: humming along a giant fingertip.
I feel like a raving maniac, only mute and unable to vocalize mania.
And I’m sure too that my body is made of ineffable rows and columns.