On Thanksgiving, the southbound 1 train stopped at 96th Street and, to the surprise of the few people in the last car, an older woman with a sunbaked face in a big-brimmed gardening hat blocked the doors with a fold-up shopping cart and started to load four large bags of possessions into the space. She balanced the rectangular cart front wheels in and back out, over the gap between the car and platform, to jam the doors while hefting the bags around it and safely inside. Where did this rail-thin woman, probably 5’4”, get the strength? a young man on his way to his Aunt’s loft in Tribeca for Thanksgiving dinner asked himself. She struggled but squeezed the first one over, though it ripped on the cart and newspapers splayed across the floor like the emptying of a fishing net’s haul. The operator yelled for the doors in the rear to be unblocked. The woman waved with a storied nonchalance and, proceeding to bag two, hummed some tune popular when everyone smoked and legions loved to dance. A couple shook their heads understandingly, but then moored them in something like impatience; they didn’t want to be late for their short-fused family on this pregnant day. A lonesome man who had been just like her ten years ago, but now had an SRO that he was on his way to after an early free Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless organization, faintly recognized the striking presence and called the name he thought her parents had christened her—she did not answer. Bag two was wider than one and she had to angle the cart more. Whistling a crescendo, she parked the ripped one at the very back of the car, then slowly gathered bag two and pasted it on top, a sculptor’s addition. She waited for the clenched doors to open to go out and get the rest. Someone near the front of the car yelled for her to hurry up and someone else Fuck you’d him. The conductor chided again, adding, Two seconds and I call the police…one-two. Okay. I know who you are. The woman kept her head down and continued with bag three and the young man and the ex-homeless man sprinted to help her and they got everything in and the doors closed and the train powered on to 86th street. A reminder, ladies and gentlemen, please do not block…
The woman sat in the corner, her hand roosting in the bag atop the ripped one, while the two others lived on the seats facing her with the cart wedged against them, a bungee cord tied to the right side wheels. Her articles carried a reek, but a temperate one—mold, not body odor. She once owned an array of expensive soaps and cleansers during her early years, continuing into her first marriage to the heir of a manufacturing magnate in Western Massachusetts, a fat man who kept her cooped until his early demise after five years of hell. The two other bags were full of clothes, books, papers, miscellany, and about a dozen cell phones she’d found in the last year. She wore a large threadbare coat over a sweater, a cardigan, a long-sleeved puce pajama top, and a three-year-old tee-shirt from the city’s marathon. Over her black long johns was a colorful but marred dress she’d found in a Hell’s Kitchen dumpster—a piece made in Mexico that the previous owner wore once for Cinco de Mayo at her job as a hostess. That its new owner spoke Spanish was lost on the dress. She spoke French, too. She’d actually been a governess, spending a year in Paris with a family who lived off money from past sales of Impressionist paintings. A non-practicing Jew, she closed her eyes and wrote something on her hand with a cheap pen. It was a question about the fitness of her heart, more an approbation, and though she’d had health scares, her heart was unencumbered. The ex-homeless man called her name again and this time she tendered annoyance and announced, without looking, You might have my name, but you don’t have my numbers. I’m just trying to be nice, he said. Don’t you remember me? At Stuy Cove, years ago. Night of that wind storm. I got an apartment. I’m working in an electronics store. You got to get off the street. Let them help you. She heard his words, but desiring them to have no meaning, they didn’t. I’m looking through you, she said. Yeah, he said. Happy Thanksgiving to you.
The young man, who’d gone back to sexting with some fashion designer in San Francisco, peered at the woman, wanting to understand her story, her fall, but in a choose-your-own-adventure type of equation where he could play it out as a video game, taking on the role of a vampire that swoops in and sucks the life out of her without having to talk it out, downloading her story through her blood, now his. He certainly didn’t want to smell her, though she looked okay for a homeless woman, like she’d had a cute face in her twenties, even forties, and carried an aristocratic air, like she was from Paris or—no, Paris. But shouldn’t he treat her with a little respect? Like she lived on the street. The street. All she had was in these bags, so double fuck for her. He turned his music back on. The girl from San Francisco sexted back in quaggy San Franciscan fashion, My cunt is singing, I will survive…
She had grown out of her name—she’d told herself this so many times it was true. Names only confused the issue. As a child, what did she care about her name? She just wanted to be and she’d gotten that at last, aside from the interfering governmental and police forces. She lived without time, gladly and free. When tired, she slept. When she had to, she peed. When relaxed, she ate. Nothing mattered except the minute she was in. And because of her age and gender, she was constantly given things, even from other homeless people. Still, she used a hip pocket psychology to explain what she’d become, forever erasing what brought her there.
The 1 train would terminate in a destination appealing to her kind. People were allowed to sit all night in the Staten Island Ferry terminal, though they needed to clear every two hours for a security check. Battery Park? A designated tourist and rat zone only, even locals weren’t encouraged to be there—could someone who didn’t know better have a picnic next to those species, the fresh-faced throngs headed to Lady Liberty and Ellis Island, and the not-too-good abstract art projects? But it was at Franklin she would exit. Stash her stuff, as she knew the rotating station agents, and go to Moore Street, where this abandoned building marked for demolition miraculously still stood. She’d gotten the gate combination from another castaway who’d picked it and set two old mattresses on the second story a hundred yards away from each other, adding bright neon tape to outline enormous holes in the floor. This embittered man, who didn’t like the human race, except her, had gone to New Jersey for the holiday and wouldn’t be back till Saturday. She didn’t listen to all he said, too used to his jibes and weak come-ons, but when he let something important slip, she recorded it at once.
In the black of the day’s new darkness, she kicked at a fat rat’s shadow and went to her mattress, at the head of which stood a rickety chair whose back spindles were broken. She reclined on the droopy bed, using a wool sweater as a mattress liner, and unpeeled the paper-top off a tin full of linguini that someone placed on her cart last night sometime after ten. She finger-picked a noodle. The sauce’s rich butter and cream pulled her up, reminding her she hadn’t eaten all day, and she crossed her legs, removed a stolen restaurant fork from her jacket, wiped it with a napkin, and began to eat.
The wind picked up and whooshed through the gaps and holes on her floor and down from those above her. At least she didn’t have to fend off gawkers, outreach, police, and the ever-present deviants who would fuck a woman if she had no head. A fire engine from Ladder 8 on Varick blared and she tested the air but only came away with herself, the coagulated food, vermin, and muck. The man said they might have a month’s more reprieve because some insider who supported the squat told him the funding for construction had some hiccup. Maybe till the 15th, maybe the New Year. You’ll know when you get here, he said.
The wind roiled some newspapers to lift off the ground like flashing kites in the dusky light. She chewed the gelatinous noodles by rote, like her stomach just had to be plugged into food. She had few opinions about gastronomy—she’d once taught her charges that word—and ate things she never used to, like eggplant and tofu. A shaking spotted hand raised an unwieldy Evian bottle refilled hundreds of times since she’d found it in August. If she cared about anything it was drinking water. It held off disease and sickness and assured her body function. Once she’d carried a Campari bottle for months, proud of it not breaking, until she dropped it on her socked foot one night, leaving a dark Rorschach blot of pain she limped on for three months.
A magnificent crash around the corner. Another piece of the ceiling must have collapsed. She closed the food, put it back in its bag, and tied it up. With a toothpick, she combed her teeth, glazed eyes darting across the room with half their usual alertness. She slept best right after the initial dark—the later lonelier hours, the hour of the wolf and of hounds, had too many demons to gain peace. With the energy of the holiday depopulating the city, tonight was different—she had little cause in the reprieve. Everything had darkened and she brought out a small taper, affixing it atop a cheap chrome candle holder. Then she lit it with a moan after dusting the area of rat and mice pellets, something she had first put off out of greed for the new pure solitude, her last great gift. She lay back, musing at the flicking shadows. She powered on a small music thingamajig she’d found, using one earphone to hear a jazz album.
Many decades ago she’d lived in Amsterdam with her second husband, a high diplomat and attaché, during a year of Kennedy. She had so much rare and expensive jewelry to warrant special insurance—what a fuss. They lived in the redoubtable Willemspark neighborhood near the large rectangular evergreening Vondelpark, filled with softly still waterways and many Dutch Red Chestnuts and birches. A small mansion of intricate brickwork. Three stories, with a housekeeper and a cook, a piano room, a painting by Mondrian. The year she ruled there, she became a quasi French Lieutenant’s Woman, having two miscarriages on top of the two before (to cement her childless life), a surprising affair, and a widening expansion of her consciousness (she’d again chosen a man who needed to control her—never again!) as her sheltered years in New England fell away like brittle discolored leaves she once could not shed. As weapons turned the world inside out, other rumblings fractured the cultural and psychic bedrock. She’d matured away from her country and she came to accommodate something she had no control over—her fate. Fate had given her the type of beauty and intelligence easily coveted and she interchanged it for what she fancied—not so much experience as a kind of electricity that should never be thought vain, but parsimonious in not obviously having to whet every appetite she developed. As much as she thought life could instruct, it did not obviate her from experiencing any splendor. Again and again, she kept getting what she probably wanted, freely accepting attention, adulation, and a minor fame—and then she kept getting more of it, as her stuffy husband would view her askance over Eggs Benedict, watching as the beautiful bird transformed and rose higher into something clearly not meant for him. With no child and no connection beyond the name, his title suffered some as he became known as the husband of her, the American who speaks like Katherine Hepburn, but looks like Garbo. Who could be in Vogue and would be except for his position in the government. She—whom everyone wanted, pitying him his certain loss of her.
One December evening they went as guests of the embassy to a strange midnight concert to hear the rhythms of their countrymen. She’d not heard much jazz, not been exposed, though music had passed many of her hours. She’d played piano from an early age without distinction and then had some jaundiced years on the flute. Excitable, but out of love with him, she accompanied. Performance by the most grand musicians could throw off the tourniquet she always imagined pinioned on her soul. So much could go wrong up there, but it never did. Performers seemed to be filmed and not present, outside the realm of fallibility—she could not fathom how they crisply, expertly burst out, blood pulsing, while others watched or listened or both, waiting for triumph and disaster. The great conductors: Bernstein in New York, von Karajan in Berlin, Sir Colin Davis in London, were gods. Motion pictures were intriguing and she had her favorites. But Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster weren’t people magically in her space—they were distant and magnified on the silver screen, distorted. They spoke catchy words, but their manner was a little cold, a little unreal. Music had no antecedent, no story, it impressed by degrees, in the awing conceptions enfranchised notes spurred on sound; time in music didn’t govern, it shook the body into primordial understanding. She’d easily fallen in love with her husband because music did something for him as well, though he didn’t view it in such a spiritual manner as she, rather in some patriotic vein, where it uplifted and made one’s capacity for moral living larger. He’d mentioned jazz off-handedly, after seeing acts in DC semi-regularly by himself.
Why such a late concert? It was the second of two and to be up late on a Saturday instilled some chicness onto those who weren’t, except for their money and status, both false markers. Not everyone respected such a time but the band began playing early before everyone had been seated and after one peppy piece with simply too many notes, the saxophone leader went into his rendition of a tune she knew well. Hearing his hornbreath blow the words, she checked herself because even if it was on some level gimmicky, it seemed miraculous. This burly black: full face, full suit, pressing and pressing, fulminating in a way that Oscar Hammerstein and certainly goody goody Julie Andrews had no purchase on—exhorting? She didn’t know the word, but felt it. Do you like it? her husband asked. Sssh, yes. The long version of the short song went on and a stoic part of her started to despise it: the dissonance, the down and dirty, the unbridled quality, the racial swing. She felt disturbed. Long periods of sound in the other pieces held no meaning for her and felt hardly structured—yet, they did engage because she was mentally fleeing, upset. If she didn’t care she’d be asleep, eyes open. She couldn’t leave. On and on, the unseemly flow attacked, blasting through the detritus she fruitlessly threw back, leaving the notes to clash, their subsequent syncopation always freshly re-conjured. Where could this go? How could it even continue to thrive? Why would they be rewarded for it with money? She separately focused on each of the quartet’s members and then went back to the main man. Some pillar Michelangelo might have sculpted, an enormous rock vividly alive in more than its allotted space—dead at forty of cancer and drugs. She wanted to kiss the giant lips making that terrible beauty.
Halfway into the third song, she told herself the music was foolish. He might be a genius, but his music would only drive one to vice and after a few more measures of that song, which she’d later find out was “Mr. P.C.,” she felt sickened by her life of lies.
She could still hear the man’s music some fifty years later. Deep, dark, but incredibly clear. Its matrix carried more and more and she ultimately defined it as tender and fully compassionate, yet cooly uncalculated—round and whole, even if pain did exist. It still extracted an unmistakable flavor, like the boiling of bones.
Everything comprising her life then had ended, but she had this—a moment that made time miraculous. Something millions wished they could have experienced. The tame jazz in her earphone eventually crept back. She had to resume her life, which as lives went was difficult, but not intolerable. Everybody would want the story of how she lost it all and how she ended up here, in an abandoned building with whatever other indelicacies ready to be heaped on her. She didn’t like stories. They weren’t as valuable as people thought—only experience. Stories were simply antecedents of the real—travel, work, meeting people. So many lived by aperçus, as if they were all wannabe French philosophers, people she never read anyway. She had nothing to say, no advice and no hope for her future. She couldn’t live with people, but some remaining seed hopelessly yearned for companionship. At least someone she could look at without wanting to tear his heart from his chest, who didn’t tamp her urge to complain—he’d already be well attuned to the stalactites deposited about her perceptions.
After months and months of lengthened days, the nights had precedence, stretching more and more, as the earth rounded the sun, bodies ruling human time. There. Something still weighed. Didn’t that prove she did have a part in society? If she had someone to recount what befell her and what she thought about it—but she couldn’t help it. This was how she’d changed in her life, from a mouse to a lion, and finally a raccoon. A few gun-shy people were concerned but mostly to massage their own egos. They gave her things and listened to the litanies with cloistered, embarrassed ears. They didn’t know the moment they became uninterested, something keenly perceived at once, would singe her. But what else could she speak of? Her life, a constant battle—how could she not complain? Bitterness forever tinting her bright green eyes a shade darker. Just give me a funeral, she said to one of these people, a woman who worked at a CVS on the Upper West Side near her frequent staging ground. A thirty-two-year-old who commuted from the Bronx, she wanted to go back to school for nursing, but could never get the applications together on time. A slightly overweight woman who smiled often and told her that she herself had been homeless for a summer after a boyfriend beat her up and kicked her out of their Orlando apartment. This woman baked her things, cakes and homemade bread—she made double portions of her lunches during the week, some delicacy placed in a rescued Chinese takeout container and a brown bag, with a folded napkin and a plastic fork or spoon. On each occasion she said, Thank you, my dear, thinking about the giver’s own mother and wondering if they still had a relationship, though she never asked. And just last week, after the first freezing night of the winter (her feet still felt cold at nine in the morning, to remain chilled till late afternoon), she received what turned out to be shepherd’s pie with a little less enthusiasm. Awake through hours of bitter cold, it suddenly didn’t surprise her that she could just die. Not that she should, but she could finally latch onto the honorable finale instead of another long subway trip, another night frozen. Fuck this world, fuck life. Thoughts she would never let into her public lexicon. And that cloudy morning, still fogged with cold, the young woman peered, waiting for the gracious phrase and wink she usually bestowed following the hand-off, but the old woman trembled inside because she was aware of her complicity, her involvement in another’s emotional well being. Just give me a funeral…she said quietly. Then uttered the very passive-aggressive New York type of plea again, with more seriousness. Just give me a funeral. A gloss on her own mother’s, You’ll miss me when I’m gone. Even with no sun in her eyes, she shaded them to see the youth in front of her—Jasmine, she came to learn was her name. I’ll be alright, dear. Don’t mind my little jokes. You get to work now, but Theresa wouldn’t move because she sensed a lie.
Really, dear, really. It’s frustration.
Jasmine then delivered what she’d turned over many times before, during her days at the register and at home on the couch, seeing a homeless person appear comet-like on her television shows. You can stay with me, Emma, adding her name in a loving, pitying way. You can have a couch. Stay for a few weeks, you can.
No, dear, please.
Jasmine hesitated. Wet-eyed, she said, I have to make sure. I can’t let something—Don’t hurt yourself, don’t.
No, no, and she patted Jasmine on her back. I won’t, I won’t.
Do you promise?
Yes, I promise you. Go on now, it’s after nine.
In Tribeca, she sat up cross-legged, again working a pick through every crevice of her teeth. Things which would remain. Maybe she’d spend the next weeks accepting death. Her bluster would eventually fail her. The end would be on its way, not because she had no one but because she had nothing left to accomplish.
The building creaked in the wind and she remembered her parents, briefly. Small, silent people who never wanted to be a bother. Whatever did they want for her? She wasn’t interested in the answer. In the end, it had all been enough. From the high to the low, or was it the other way? Had she arrived at one or the other?