I can feel the nicotine; I clench my toes, relief. My clothes are clean and uniform. I pick out the standard; black t-shirt, black jeans, and black lace-up boots. I push gel through my hair, and check my shave. My teeth are yellowed from years of smoking, deep lines run up and down my lips. She said, “You look good for your age. I love your mouth, the fullness of your lips.” I smiled without thought; I took her in, there wasn’t the space, or pause to play games. She alone held my attention. “Thanks.” I said, but I wanted to say more.
My hands are thick and calloused with tiny cuts around my nails. They’re constantly wet from ice and spillage; citric acid prevents healing. Women admire them with story telling, marked by liner and shaded by colors. Men look at them too, insecure, but with bigger paychecks. I acknowledge, serve, entertain and ignore the patrons, rotating twice, even three times, in and out of cycle.
I live on the fifth floor of a six-floor walk up, post-war building in Spanish Harlem. I take the Green line, #4 train from 103 Street, for twenty-five minutes, six days a week, down to 14th Street and Union Square. I make my way down the five flights in my building, and onto the sidewalk. They represent the surface of the worst, the telling of what lives above and beneath.
There’s shit stains from city dogs, hotdog water from lunch carts, and traces of rodent, human, feline, avian, and insect urine. In blizzards the sidewalks cake with black frosting, in downpours, they run with liquid filth like sewage in pipes. And on warm sunny days, the fresh air from floral patterned mini-skirts redeems; and street-vendors sell exotic fruits, and they become tolerable again.
I wait on the edge of hell- the platform- a few layers of crust under ground for the train. To my left and right are foreboding tracks, like the arms of an addict. The light approaches but few see, familiar words are spoken, “The train’s coming!” and “Hurry, I see the train.” We line up, jockeying for position, some take the lead car, and others rush towards the back. Everyone has a method for securing a place inside the opening and closing doors.
The cars fill with a variety of smells, cheap lotion, after-shave, and dirty skin. The smell of day old sex lingers between coffee, and dry breath. There are women and men with bags, brief cases, and backpacks. Their skin and sexual preferences differ; I have a story about each of them. Strangers enter and exit with newspapers, books, phones, and ear buds playing music-all as distractions from one another. We’re huddled together, uncomfortable, an elevator ride of distance, a suspension on the verge of misery. Sweat forms, rolling down my back to the crevice where my body divides. My jeans are tight, as someone brushes by. I turn, “Sorry.” I hesitate to say as we bump, and I elbow into the pale woman next to me. Her face is green and nose pointy, she disgusts, and bores me. She’s like the rest of the uptight, middleclass wasps riding the train, in their wool herringbone, and righteous looks. She probably lives alone, or with a shitty excuse for a dog. She eats lean cuisine Monday-Wednesday, and varying bar foods the rest of the week. Except for an occasional “nice” pasta dinner on Saturday night with friends, she’s as predictable as the rest.
I have to be at the bar by 9:00AM, a 9:00AM-7:00PM job without the suit or desk. I take inventory and stock the shelves; order new bottles from cokehead alcohol distributors who cheat on their wives. I line the bar with roll-ups of utensils’ and napkins, cut fruit for drinks, and wait for the crowd to come. A girl enters, a newbie, her clothes, and uncertain look. I turn my attention away from CNN’s Sport Center, and nod. She walks up to the bar, “Hi, is uh, Mike, the manager here?
This is my first day working. I was told to ask for him.” I said, “Yeah, he’s in the back.” I can’t place her accent but she’s not from the Tri-State area. Like the rest, she’s come to perform.