Wednesday, May 11, 2011
I turned the corner of 125th street. On Broadway the lunch time crowd was bustling and eating hurriedly at crowded lunch counters. The sheer press of people made me grow an inch taller. I towered above the crowd. As I milled about, bodies pressing against me, a ball and socket fit of Langley to humanity that would happen and could happen in moments of complete clarity, of ultimate calm or dreamy unknown certainty that the world will move on without us, with us, indifferently, really with a forward momentum.
I entered a coffee shop. All black faces. I sat at the counter. The circular stoolet creaked. I could quite easily see the faces of the other patrons in the wide mirror opposite the counter: strong faces hunched over bowls of steaming tomato soup, weak pimply faces forcing a meat sandwich into wide open mouths, reserved narrow faces sipping coffee from white chipped porcelain cups. I could not see my face in the mirror, only my massive torso and the bottom fourth of my muscular neck.
The counter man walked up to me.
“What’ll it be?”
“A ham sandwich and a cup of coffee.” He wrote it down in his little pad with a stub of a pencil, and ripping it off, stuck it on the tab of the rotating stainless steel dolly. The short order cook, head wrapped in multi-colored rag, spun it around and squinted at my fleck of yellow paper.
Stares. Eyes. I did not emerge from the house often. Shifting my head lower to sip my cup of coffee, I could see what I presumed to be my face: massive cheek bones, prominent jaw fringed with a stubbly blue-black week old beard, strong aquiline nose, thick sensual lips, drooping melancholic eyes.
I knew I should not be around people when, in those rare and exquisite moments, I am either excessively joyful or atrociously dark. When such a singular wave rolls over my broad carcass it is best to hole up, better to fall back into old stereotyped behaviors that work, that shield, that pacify.
I ate and drank, and ate and drank; visited the men’s room, straightened my tie, brushed rusty water over my face and returning, I ordered a piece of apple cobbler with a dollop of fast melting vanilla ice cream like the border zone of a crumbling glacier.
The late lunch crowd had dwindled to me and the other person, an emaciated form I could barely perceive in my peripheral vision, as the last strip of pleasantly burned crust softened with dissolved ice cream and dissipated on my tongue.
She was sitting on the stool to my right as I wiped my lips with the soiled yellow napkin. She was a colored girl, light skinned; her curly cue brown hair was piled high atop her head in a sloppy bun. She was wearing a cheap flimsy summer dress that unpleasantly offset the high-tan color of her skin.
“Hello Mister,” she said in what appeared to be a slight southern accent.
“Hello,” I answered from somewhere deep in my throat.
“Not many white folks come in here,” she seemed mildly drunk. She listed forward as she spoke, holding the counter for support although she was firmly rooted on the stool. I mumbled something in reply.
“What,” she asked.
“How do you know I’m white?”
“Hah,” she snorted, her out of focus eyes scanning my face, “Mister, there’s a lot of things in this world I can’t tell, but I know the difference between black and white folk. You tall. How tall are you mister?”
“I don’t know. Six five. Six six.”
“Was you in the war?”
“Yes, how can you tell?”
“You got army pants on.” I looked down. Indeed I did. I was wearing my dress uniform bottoms with a civilian coat and tie. “You look too old to fight. Where did you fight?”
“Europe. England. I didn’t actually fight, although I was wounded twice. I worked in a military supply office in London.”
She had nothing to say to that. She stared at herself in the lunch counter mirror, then started to distractedly fix her hair.
“I had a brother in the Army. He drove tanks,” she paused, “he never come back.” A truck rolled by on Broadway, rattling the window of the diner, shaking the empty cups and saucers on the counter as if giants, once more, walked the earth.
“You want a date Mister?” she asked when it was silent again. She did not wait for an answer, however, but said, “You can buy me a hamburger and fries, I’m half starved.”
The counter man set down a gray hamburger and some thinly sliced fries. She started eating and never stopped to talk or so much as acknowledge my presence. When she was finished she wiped her mouth with one of the counter napkins. She pushed the plate and cups ahead of her and looked up at me with brown diffused eyes.
“Where do you live, Mister?”
“Not far from here.”
“I don’t live too far neither. You wanna go to your place or mine?”
“Perhaps your place would be better.”
I followed her down the quickly darkening street. Tight knots of local people were clumped together at the corners, milling about in tense groups. They seemed to be whispering conspiratorially to one another, perhaps pointing in our direction.
But they were careful to keep their limbs in tight against their bodies, for they did not want to reveal that I was the object of their inquiry, the unsettling presence in their midst. There were expressions of blank horror on the faces of passerbys as the girl and I progressed down the avenue, as if my presence, a reminder of miscegenation, the tobacco shack stormed at midnight, one more atrocity these people were forced to silently bear. I was too large, too inhuman, too-out-of-scale with the world as it is known to be allowed to move un-accosted.
She led me to a crumbling apartment block. The side of the building facing front had once been some sort of shop factory, twenty or thirty years ago. It had the typical carved gothic exterior of the up town factory; intricate fleur-de-lis patterns arching up and down the fitted, molded columns; sleek, art-deco gargoyles and griffins, not inhuman monstrosities or semi-human fantasism, but lovely, slim women with wings and slender tails.
But age and neglect had transformed the entire façade into what seemed like a sheet whose forward progress had been suddenly arrested. I could see the tell-tale signs of pollution on the upper portions of decorative bulbs, balls, spears and cornices, dripping down the to the lower portions like slicks of grease and then frozen.
“What’s your name?” I asked the girl.
“Margaret. Folks call me Maggie.”
“I’m Langley.” She smiled weakly at me.
Her apartment was small but neat. A single bed against the wall, a dresser, a marble colored nightstand.
“Where are your parents?” I asked.
“Down South.” She was removing her dress. She stood in front of me in a slip and bra.
“Alabama. Mobile. That’s where I was born.”
“Why did you come to New York?”
“For work. Why else does anyone come to New York? Didn’t work out quite like I planned. Nothin’ ever does.”
I was seated in a small wicker chair fully clothed and unmoving.
“You gonna take your clothes off?” she finally asked after a minute or two of silence.
“Sure,” I answered. She removed her slip, her bra, and turning over the blankets and sheets, climbed into bed.