SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 29, 2012

Bushwick, 3 A.M.

 

The dark train rattled along the trestle overhead just as we reached the stairs leading to the platform. There was no way we could catch it—not the way that station was set up.

        “Well, shit.”

        We were in Bushwick, and it was a little after two-thirty in the morning. It was going to be a wait for the next train. I had been awake for nearly twenty-four hours, but was feeling strangely okay. Probably the booze.

        We’d found ourselves in Bushwick that night because the brilliant singer-songwriter David E. Williams was making a rare New York appearance at a small cafe over there. David has been one of my closest friends for over twenty years now after we first met in Philly in the late eighties. In those early days I compared him to Mahler, Schubert, and David Lynch, but in a pop music context. I still stand by that. We hadn’t seen him perform live in a few years, but it was always something to look forward to.

        The cafe was along a strip of bars which, fortunately for us, siphoned off most of the asshole crowds before they could become too much of a bother. The crowd that did find its way to the cafe that night was fairly low-key, and we had no trouble getting a few cheap beers.

        As usually happens, the opening acts took the stage a bit later than expected and the evening ran up hard against the joint’s clearly stated two a.m. closing time.

        It was cool outside and a light drizzle was falling. The streets were surprisingly empty for a Friday in that part of town, and there was no one on the platform when we finally sat down on a bench to wait for the next train.

        It was about twenty minutes later when one finally arrived, clattering into the station and wheezing to a stop. We headed for the nearest set of doors, but when Morgan glanced through the window and saw some man doubled over inside, clutching his head and rocking, we decided to board the next car back. But by the time we reached that car, the doors still hadn’t opened. Five minutes later, they still hadn’t opened.

        That’s when you begin to suspect there’s something afoot. Problem is, there’s never any telling what that might be.

        Two guys who’d apparently been on the train but didn’t much feel like waiting any longer to be let off quietly emerged from between the cars and dashed down the stairs and away. We continued to wait by the closed doors, having little other choice. More time passed with neither the train nor the doors budging. At least the fact that the train was still sitting in the station meant we could cling to some hope.

        That’s when the first cops came charging up the stairs, four or five of them with radios crackling. They ran past us toward the front of the train, but as they passed I was able to glean they were after three women who were bottled up in one of the front cars.

        Then another wave of cops arrived, and another after those. Morgan and I edged our way back against the wall, positioning a trash can between the cops and ourselves to use as a barricade when the inevitable gunfight broke out. I suppose the smart thing to do would’ve been to vacate the platform altogether and head back downstairs, but dammit, if those fucking doors opened I was getting on the train.

        More cops arrived—there were well over a dozen all over the platform at this point—and as they milled about, the story of what they were after was starting to change. After making a few calls they determined this was indeed the train they were after. But who they were after was in question. It might have been three women—one well over six feet tall—or might have been two men, one of whom was tall and had dreads.

        Upon hearing this, Morgan decided to tell the nearest cluster of New York’s finest that two men matching that description had let themselves off the train some ten minutes before the cops arrived. After they confirmed her description, you could sense the deflation among the ranks. What the hell were they going to do now? A few of them made the most of the situation by frisking a kid on the train, but for the most part they began drifting away. Once they were all gone, the train doors finally opened, and we got on, never having learned what the three women or two men had supposedly done to earn such a heavy police response.

        A few minutes later while we were transferring from a J to an R at Canal Street, a fracas of some kind arose in the corridor behind us. A drunken husband and wife, it sounded like, complicated by the fact that the woman had a laundry cart. No telling what it was about, but what was clear was that the woman was bound and determined to reach the stairs before anyone else.

        I was perfectly happy to let her do this, so I paused.

        “No need to be afraid, sir,” the man said. “We won’t bother you.”

        “I didn’t suspect you would,” I told him. “Just thought I’d let her pass.”

        It was a moot point, as while I was saying this the woman charged past with her cart, ran toward the steps, and tripped, going down with a great clatter and bang. Her husband, who didn’t seem to find this unusual, strolled on past and helped her up. “Don’t worry,” he reiterated again, “we won’t bother you.”

        “Uh-huh.”

        Morgan maneuvered me around the arguing couple and we made our way down to the platform. The couple followed a few minutes later and headed in the opposite direction. As they did, they passed an Asian woman they obviously hadn’t promised not to bother. A brief exchange followed, and the woman with the cart exploded.

        “Don’t you cover your mouth that way,” she shrieked. “I can see what you’re sayin’! I understand Chinese! All I did was say I liked your coat, and now you’re sayin’ shit into your hand!”

        This continued until the train arrived, which if nothing else kept us entertained and awake.

        It had been a long time since I’d been on the streets at three in the morning, and I was feeling those pangs of nostalgia. It was like the old days again, and I missed them. Yes you can see scenes like this in the daylight as well, surrounded by crowds of people pretending not to notice or worse, getting in the way. But at three a.m., all those stupid masses have gone away, leaving only the insane, the derelicts, the half-mad drunks, the lost junkies and the utterly alienated. And to be honest, seeing it played out again like a madhouse puppet show, I’m once more reminded that these are the people I’d much rather be around.

 

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