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.