Do you know the way to Flushing?

There was an old man at Delancey Street/Essex Street station in the Lower East Side. I’d just come from Williamsburg across the river and had gone through the turnstile to exit when I saw him gesticulating to me from the platform side through the barrier, like he was in jail. He was holding a piece of paper and on it was written:


He didn’t say anything and so I assumed he didn’t speak English. At that point my knowledge of the subway system was not what it later became and I couldn’t help him. But his confusion pained me so I looked round and saw an MTA employee a little way off collecting trash in a corner and I raised a finger to the man, which said, in my mind at least, ‘Hold on, I’ll try and find out’. I went up to the cleaner and said ‘Excuse me’ and then repeated it when she didn’t respond. I thought she still hadn’t heard me so I tapped her very lightly on her shoulder. ‘Excuse me’, I said. ‘DON’T TOUCH ME!’ she shouted, so loudly and angrily that people who were passing turned to look, as if I’d committed an assault. She didn’t turn round but just went on sweeping and picking up the trash. At that moment another passenger came past. He was tall and wore a brown raincoat, even though it was a warm day, and he walked with a limp. He was really quite young but seemed from a past era somehow. He said: ‘She don’ ceer.’ His accent was pure New York. ‘So what d’you wanna know?’ I said the way to Flushing. ‘For the man back there,’ I said, ‘he seems lost.’ I looked round and so did he, briefly. The poor old guy had either not understood me or had lost patience and was wandering the platform with his sign, holding it up to people like a refugee but no one paid any attention. The man in the raincoat shrugged and limped on and up the steps, clearly not caring either. People were pushing past me so I followed up and out into the sunshine. The limping man went west down Delancey and I turned into Essex Street, the side street, heading for Alphabet City and I took the lens cap off my camera so I’d be ready for any photographic chances that came my way. The incident soon evaporated from recollection in the warmth of the day. But I didn’t consider the memory lottery that makes some events stick in the mind and become part of your interior landscape, however insignificant they may seem at the time, while most are lost forever. So later, whenever I saw the name Flushing on the subway, or on a road sign, I thought of the old man with his piece of paper and the memory, unresolved and irreducible, would go round in my head just as he had done on the platform.


The End of New York

The 7 train went along beneath 42nd Street, calling at Grand Central Station, then under the river. It became more and more crowded and soon people were standing but I had a seat because I’d got on early. After we broke cover at Long Island City in Queens I kept twisting my neck to see out of the window, looking like such a visitor. No one else was interested. The passengers formed the most multi-racial group of people I’d ever seen in my life and mostly they were young. At Hunterspoint Avenue the ground widened dramatically, filling out with Long Island Rail Road tracks and after that we climbed and rattled along a viaduct over the street. At 46th St/Bliss St I got out just to take in the view properly, and because I liked the name. I didn’t leave the station, I just stayed on the platform because the view was so good. All around unaesthetic Sunnyside looked beautiful in the sun: stores, warehouses, apartment buildings, the ground high up there so that the clear blue sky was immense. On days like this you want to take all the beauty you see and the joy of it and make it into something truly solid and enduring, but it can’t be done. Not even photographs come close. I looked back west and saw the drooping lamps along the platform recede and the rusty rail tracks that dipped then rose again. In the distance the Empire State Building, oddly solitary. Manhattan being so far away now made me think about how I would have to leave and go back home before too long and that it would be a sad day. I looked over the platform wall. There was a steep drop and a parking lot not far away. I took the next train a little further down the line to Jackson Heights because it was a name I recognized and if I went there at least I could say I’d been. And I wanted to walk some of the way to where I was going. I came down out of the station and went east along Roosevelt Avenue and the whole way the train line was above the road, rusting green-painted steel, riveted pillars and girders, making it a world of shadows below. Periodically side streets allowed swathes of sunlight to cut through the gloom from the south, to my right. Otherwise the low brick buildings cast their crenellated shadows halfway across the street, sometimes merged with shadows of cars. Above I could see the sky through gaps and chinks in the viaduct metal. I felt hungry and told myself that if I found a diner that looked appealing I would go in. But I didn’t find one and eventually the feeling faded. The stores didn’t make sense to me anyway. Not the fact that some had signs in Spanish, more the visual language of everything, what seemed to be the clutter of it all. I couldn’t understand it. Eventually after a long time walking, endless block after block, I reached an area of clapboard houses and it was a suburban world for a while, claustrophobic because of the incongruous viaduct still covering the street. A train rattled by in the direction of Manhattan and I noticed a store sign that suggested that I was now in Corona. Then at last there were trees and open space, a bridge over a freeway, and it felt like the very end of New York. I walked slower. The train line still ran over the road but it was more like an ambitious piece of sculpture now with the space all around, and it was sparser with more gaps for the sky. I crossed the road when there was a gap in the traffic because I could see Citi Field Stadium, home of the Mets, my destination. I stood there for a while at the fence, in the stillness, noting its vast parking lots, which I knew was where the original arena had been, Shea Stadium. The site of the Beatles’ triumph of 1965 was now an empty expanse of tarmac. There was no one to be seen. I listened, almost as if I expected to hear a faint echo from half a century ago of teenage girls’ screams and thin trebly music. There was only the sound of the cars on the road and a train stopping at the station and starting again. The glories that exist in time are fragile and brief and everything exists in time. I remembered reading that the stadium’s head groundskeeper wouldn’t allow the Beatles’ one small van to be driven to the stage across the turf for fear of damaging it so their two road managers had to carry the equipment. And now all that space did was hold cars. There’s irony everywhere if you wait long enough.