WELL, WELL NEW YORK CITY
DAMN! Black as the inside of a CoaI Mine.
I was headed home from my corporate job in Midtown Manhattan – just another young guy in a grey suit. Boarded the subway at Grand Central Station bound for the last stop on the Flushing line. Getting on the train as it came from Times Square was an ordeal. There was always a mob, and everyone surged forward on the platform as the train came out of the tunnel – the first car spreading the dust like the reverse on a vacuum cleaner. You really didn’t want to be in the front row – toes on the yellow line – since there was always the chance of getting pushed onto the tracks just as the train arrived – the cars rumbling by about six inches from your nose. Too far back and you had to wait for the next train. Those in front would lean and wind mill backwards against those pushing forward. Over time I learned to back push and wind mill with the rest of the horde.
As we rolled under the East River, the train stopped – brakes grinding and squealing, and, of course, the lights went out. Sometimes happened, no big deal; in a moment the lights would come on, the train would lurch forward and in 30 minutes I’d get off and walk the ten minutes to our high rise apartment – 11 B, 42-55 Colden Avenue, Flushing, New York. Heart of the vast middle class.
It was belly to belly, pressed against another fellow traveler, one arm down, the other hanging to a metal strap – blank subway face on. Before the lights went out I was able to read the back of a New York Post held by my fellow commuter. No problem since the newsprint was two inches from my nose and we were touching belt buckles. In fact I could tell what he had for lunch – a hot dog heavy on onions and peppers. The wait in the darkness went on – five minutes, then ten, then fifteen – sweat began to trickle down my neck. The smell of Muscatel – a savory inexpensive wine favored by lower echelons of the unemployed – wafted throughout the car. Muscatel is the fermented remains of black grape skins stomped to death by gum booted Albanian peasants.
This fruity sweet odor emanated from the direction of a rather soiled, scruffy gentleman wedged in ten feet away – I‘d noticed him when I was squeezing on board. All of a sudden, he gasped, choked and began projectile vomiting – partially digested Muscatel with chunks of other unsavory elements. Since he was wedged in, the vomitosis went directly on those in front of him. People screamed, panicked, shoved and clawed one another – pounding and tramping – all in the dark. The vomit smell began permeating the car. Others began to choke and then heave liquidated lunch – total chaos erupted – no idea where to lean or shove. Nightmare City - my belt buckle companion did have the decency to hurl his partially digested dog in his newspaper. After ten more minutes of basically fighting for my life and wondering if my stomach was going to hold, the lights came on, and the train began to move along with a thundering of curses and threats. I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing in New York City”?
But I was in New York. The Big Apple, Rockefeller Center, Times Square onNew Years Eve, Wall Street, Marilyn Monroe standing over a Subway Grate, Best Deli’s in the world, The Empire State Building. So What’s Not To Like?
Having lived there in 1967 and again in 1971, I’ll tell you there is “lots not to like”. Endless soot that turns your shirt collar black before noon; rude, thick necked, squatty residents with confused looks and unintelligible speech such as “Get outa heer” and “What’s dis”. Sweat stained armpits in the summer; freezing feet, hands and face during winter as arctic winds blew through the skyscraper canyons. Rushing to the market to load up on milk because of a rumored strike and watching garbage pile up during a real one. Bending over as you went by the 125th street station so as to not catch a stray bullet coming out of Harlem. Phony expressions of delight over the food, the entertainment and the city’s ambience – all overpriced and of dubious value. I decided you either need to be very rich to enjoy the big city, or, to be very poor so you could leach off the umpteen free social services. In between it was Survival Mode all the way.
As a newly minted MBA, I was an eager beaver when I joined TWA in 1967. Why did I join this company for the astonishing salary of $833 per month? Simple – I wanted to travel and I wanted to travel free, so I turned down decent offers from Exxon and Boise Cascade. To show you what an effect my efforts had on the company, the stock was $68 when I joined and had fallen to $8 when I left in 1970. TWA was my first real job, other than grinding out construction work in the summers as a member of the Operating Engineers Union. I first lived with roommates down in Washington Square at the height of the hippie era. But as a Mormon boy, the New York Single Social Scene baffled me, and explaining why I didn’t drink or smoke did not seem to impress the few girls I met.
Getting to TWA meant walking to the subway and I soon found that wearing my contacts was impossible due to the pollution in the air. I looked like a suit wearing tearful Dracula. In winter, I showed no shame and wore earmuffs with a metal expansion band and rubber slip-ons over my shoes. My job was an Assistant to a Vice President of Marketing – I actually have no idea to this day what I was really supposed to do other than analyze data. My Boss Roger didn’t particularly like me, was in his sixties, had been single all his life and had more than a few peculuarities. However he did loan me enough money to get married. I found how valuable I was to the company when they ask me to forecast worldwide revenue for 1968. I came up with 940 million. The word came back from on high that the company wanted to be a billion dollar company and to redo my numbers. It was an early lesson, well learned – give people what they want and don’t argue unless it’s a matter of personal principal or integrity. I forecast a billion, they did about 920 million the next year and no body said nothin’.
Marriage brought new living circumstances and we ended up at the end of the IRT subway line in Flushing – an area just past the 1960 World’s Fair – high rise apartments occupied by straining corporate climbers like myself. The first thing I explored was the garbage disposal process. You took your bags of garbage to a chute down the hall and chucked them in. There was a warning not to put in any pressurized cans like hairspray or shaving cream. Being somewhat of a Curious George of garbage chutes, I tossed in a bag containing a couple of cans still under pressure. Whoosh! As they hit the incinerator 11 floors below, the cans of course exploded. The flames came roaring up – me intently peering in. Result – my eyebrows and hair immediately singed, face blackened. Last time I tried that, but now I understood where all the black soot came from.
I was excited to show my bride the apartment I had rented; especially because it had a balcony – only later did I learn no one ever went out on the balcony – always crusted with soot and dust. We could also hear strange sounds in the walls – maybe just noisy neighbors? Nope, we were informed that there were rats running between the walls. It was somewhat unnerving to lie in bed and hear a monster rat roar by an inch or two from your head on the other side of the drywall.
Using the subway was a gruesome experience – the walk to the station, fighting for a seat, the crush of people. I decided to get a car, not realizing that there is no parking anywhere in New York, unless I wanted to pay a fee equal to our $325 rent. I found a 56 Oldsmobile for $150 in Jersey. It had a few idioscincracies, such as no emergency brake and no indicator of what gear it was in. It would start in gear as soon as the key turned. A foot on the brake was a wise caution since when the car turned over you were immediately off. But where to park? Sometimes it was a half-mile from the apartment. And then I didn’t want to move the car because I’d lose my spot. The Olds had a formidable bumper and once in a while I could find a half parking space and shove a line of cars forward until there was enough room, but not often.
I was relating my dilemma to a fellow worker. He laughed and said he never had any problem parking. “Right”, I said. Down we went to his car, parked a couple of block from the office. I was astounded. Then he showed me the trick. There was a garbage can next to his car. He picked up the can, and Wala, there was a fire hydrant on the curb. He had cut the bottom out of a garbage can, then looked for a fire hydrant, pulled up to park, and then put the garbage can and lid over the hydrant – instant parking. I immediately got a beat up can, followed his steps and never had trouble parking again. What about the red paint on the curb? Wasn’t any. All the paint had long rubbed off under a different political regime. I did have some minor guilt about a building catching fire next to whatever hydrant I was using, but justified my actions as just another NYC Even Up.
One night we awakened by yelling 11 floors below. There was a small elevated but unbelievable expensive parking lot in front of our apartment building. Someone had parked in a dweller’s parking spot. He was demanding that the guy come down and move his car. Fifteen Minutes of profane threatening – nothing. Finally the yeller got in his car and began hitting the parked car from the rear until he finally pushed it over the two-foot drop to the sidewalk below. With a final curse, he parked his car and entered the building. I found that these interesting events were normal occurrences in the big city.
I had heard New Yorkers were tough and insensitive, but got a real lesson when I watched a jaywalker get hit with a taxi on Third Avenue. The cab was probably doing 50 and caught the guy broadside, rolling him up onto the sidewalk – DOA. Instead of people rushing over to see what had happened, they just stepped around the guy – with an attitude that said, “Hey, whata you doin’, blockin’ da sidewalk.” I occasionally took my lunch on that same walkway, watching the multitude swirl by. My choice of street delicacies was usually from the Cancer Wagon, which sold skinny long hot dogs with tough skins – I tried to avoid the grey ones. You covered the dog with boiled onions marinated in a red mystery sauce and then washed it down with an orange sugar water of indeterminate brand – followed by a Blintz. I did suffer a bit of greenhouse gas expansion during the afternoons, but could loosen my belt if it became too severe.
There was another Mormon couple in our building. They had been there about six months – Guy and Nikki. He was a former BYU football player – six foot five with an “I’d like to kill someone since moving to New York” attitude. We had dinner with them one evening and I expressed my frustration at not being able to get a subway seat into the city – we were at the end of the line and there were always hundreds waiting for the empty cars first thing in the morning. Guy said, “are you kidding’? I informed him I certainly was not. “Come with me in the morning and I’ll show you the ropes”. Armed with a long umbrella Guy and I approached the subway entrance next day. I was surprised at the umbrella since it was already 90 degrees with 110 percent humidity. As the train came into view, he whipped the umbrella out like a broadsword and began to slash a path to the front of the crowd. His bulk helped if there was any resistance – as we entered the car, he continued to sweep the umbrella back and forth guaranteeing us a seat. There we muffled curses, but he silenced them with a mafia enforcer look and a brandishment of the bumbershoot. I wasn’t big enough or brazen enough to implement his method, but I went like a subaltern with him every morning thereafter.
While there were daily incidents that increased my hatred of the city, the crowning blow came one evening as I was headed home – already surly at the thoughts of the subway ride. There were ten stops between Grand Central and my walk home up Flushing Avenue. The cars were always packed – people trying to shove in during the first four or five stops. Sometimes a few could push in. We were above ground as we moved into Queens when a young girl managed to slip in at Hunter’s Point. Behind her was a middle-aged fireplug of a guy just getting rid of his cigar. A suitcase thumped along behind him. There was no room, period.
Just before the doors closed, he began shoving the girl with his case and then actually hit her with it as he finally bashed his way on board. I was commuting home with Guy and we ask if she was okay. She was crying, still turned away from him, but nodded that she was all right. Twenty minutes later we were at the end of the line, but the car was still crowded. As the doors opened on the car’s other side she turned and began kicking the suitcase wielder in the shins as hard as she could. He yelped and raised his case to hit her again. At this point Guy and I stepped in and pinioned his arms as the young lady continued to abrase his lower legs. Finally she walked off, but we were so enraged that we involuntarily began savaging him. After several blows to the head and upper body we introduced him to one of the concrete pillars outside the car – face first at about ten miles an hour. He crumpled, cursing and threatening. We picked up his suitcase, smashed it open and tossed the contents. Then slammed it down on his head. We finally left after begging him to get up so we could have another go. Nobody stopped, nobody ask what was going on, they just averted their eyes as they walked by.
I was shaking with violence and disgust at myself – and thought, “I’ve got to get out of here before I become just like the rest of them.” Three months later I took an Assistant to the General Manager position for TWA in Denver – a lateral move at best, and forever shortened my career at the airline, but I was free at last. However before I took the transfer I first checked to make sure there were no subways and no rails under any rivers. I’ve been back to NYC many times since those days long ago – and I can assure you – it hasn’t improved.