September 8, 2013

Lost in Istanbul


It was a rare thing, but on Sunday afternoon, Morgan and I decided to make an evening of it. We went to a little Middle Eastern restaurant and bar in the West Village, then saw a show, then headed to a bar in the East Village. The crowds on the street were the usual array of potential murder spree victims, but once we ducked into our destinations, the places themselves were pleasant. By the time we got back to her apartment we were, in a word, spiffed. It had been a good evening.

            The heat and the thick, damp air were creeping back into the late summer picture the next morning as I headed back to Brooklyn, and that wasn’t helping loosen the claws of the hangover. Heading down into the subway station, I was fairly muddle-headed, and it took me a moment to realize I was no longer moving forward when I reached the bottom of the stairs. Trying to feel around a moment with the cane, I realized my progress had been abruptly interrupted because some woman had parked her double stroller tight against the bottom step.

            “Excuse me?” I asked, hoping someone was nearby.

            “Oh!” the woman blurted, startled, apparently too consumed by her electronic handjob to notice.

            She pulled the stroller back a good two or three inches and I squeezed past. Then a few short moments later as I was reaching for my MetroCard one of the East Village’s innumerable cane-kickers darted in front of me in order to reach the turnstiles first, sending the tip of the cane around and behind me. “Excuse me,” I said again, but received no response this time.

            Surprisingly, none of this got to me. Hangovers tend to work in one of two ways. Either the slightest infraction dredges up the old, dangerous homicidal tremors, or everything washes past like a flood of warm and filthy salt water. Guess this was the latter.

            Once through the turnstiles, instead of tracking down the cane kicker I kept things simple by merely tapping toward the front of the platform and the spot that would drop me by the stairs once I reached Bay Ridge. Then I leaned against the wall and waited.

            It was only five minutes before an R train showed up. That was a relief. The N ran express and was much faster, but it meant I’d need to transfer down the line. I hate transferring down the line. I’d much rather sit on a single train that takes three times as long, staring at nothing and counting the stops, if it means I can avoid a transfer.

            Now, this takes some explaining, especially for those who don’t live in New York. The complication in recent weeks—and for the next two years to come—is that the damage Hurricane Sandy inflicted on the tunnel the R train normally took beneath the East River had finally necessitated some major repair work. This meant the only train that went to my neighborhood was completely fucked up. On weekends this actually worked to my advantage, as the train went over a bridge and skipped a lot of stops, but none that concerned me. On weekdays, however, the R was split into two sections, one in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn. and the only way to get from one borough to the other was to take an N train.

            Forgetting Monday was a weekday, I stepped foggily aboard the R and took a seat. It wasn’t until we reached the Canal Street station in Chinatown that it finally struck me that I needed to be on an N train.

            “Aww, Christ,” I muttered as, in that same greenish fog, I stepped off the train again and leaned against the platform wall to wait. It was hot and thick down there. I fucking hate the Canal Street station. Everyone hates the Canal Street station. It’s the most labyrinthine and ill-conceived subway station in the city. It has connections to damn near every line, but the transfers are endlessly confounding bastards, requiring you to guess your way through unmarked tunnels that seemed to go on for miles. The Canal Street station reduces the strongest of men to gibbering, sobbing idiocy on a daily basis.

            That was okay at the moment, though. All I needed to do was lean against this one wall and wait and try to will that hangover into submission.

            I think it was sometime after the third R had passed by with no N in between, together with the sense I was the only person waiting on that particular platform, that finally got me to wondering if maybe I should be waiting someplace else instead.

            I slowly tapped toward the turnstiles, and as I drew closer I could hear more rustling of bags and muttering and the shuffling of feet. These were people who clearly knew where they were going, so they’d help me out. When I found myself directly in front of the turnstiles in the midst of all this shuffling and muttering, I planted myself firmly in place and spoke.

            “Excuse me?” (It struck me that was the only phrase I’d spoken since leaving Morgan’s place.) No one responded, so I said it again, aiming it in a different direction this time. Still no response, so I tried a third time. It was starting to creep into my consciousness that for all the muttering around me, I wasn’t hearing anyone speaking English. It was a mishmash of languages, none immediately decipherable on the echoing platform. A muffled blur of Asian and Sub-Asian and Latinate and some Indo-European and a lot of lord knows what all. Whatever language they were speaking, none of them was paying any attention.

            “Hey!” I finally barked. “Excuse me!”

            That worked. Things grew very quiet for a moment.

            “Eeehhh,” a tall young man said. “Ah, may ah be eff assistahnz, maybe?” The heavy French accent didn’t leave me with much hope, but it was a start.

            “Yeah,” I said. “Maybe.” Then trying to keep things simple I offered a lot of broad hand gestures as I carefully enunciated, “Can I get. An N train. To Brooklyn. On this platform?”

            “Oh,” he said apologetically. “I am tourist from France. I do not know. I am sorry.”

            Why is it that foreign tourists always try to be helpful when it is perfectly clear from the start there is no way in hell they can be helpful? Don’t they realize this is the easiest way to get yourself killed in NYC, offering help you are not equipped to provide? I also wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing on that platform if he didn’t know anything about the subways.

            “Yeah, it’s okay,” I said. “Thanks anyway.”

            Then another helpful foreigner spoke up behind me. “Eeehh, you speak Italian?”

            “No. English. You speak English?”

            “No. Italian. Sorry.”

            “Yeah, thanks anyway.

            A German couple tried to help next, but then explained they had just arrived in New York an hour earlier and knew nothing about the city. If I’d been a decent human being I might have offered them a few suggestions, a few interesting places they might like to see that weren’t Ground Zero or the Statue of Liberty. But at the time I was in no mood to be a smiling underpaid tour guide.

            Christ, I wanted to shout, where the fuck am I, ISTANBUL? I was on a fucking platform in one of the biggest and busiest subway stations in the city, and I couldn’t find one person—not a goddamn one—who spoke English? I was about to give these people a taste of every ugly and brutal stereotype they’d ever heard about New Yorkers. Nothing against foreigners, mind you, or even people who speak no English, but Christ! At that particular moment I’d been trapped on that platform for about forty-five minutes, it was starting to look like I’d be spending the rest of my natural life there, and my patience was running thin.

            Finally a woman with a heavy Irish accent approached and said, “I speak English.”

            “Well, thank god for that,” I sighed. “Now, can you tell me if I can get an N train into Brooklyn on this platform?” I no longer had any time for social pleasantries.

            She thought about it a moment. “Oh, no, I don’t think you can.”

            “Well, shit, huh?” I offered in response. “Do you happen to know where I can?”

            “Oh . . . I’m afraid I don’t. Maybe if you go through these turnstiles and up those stairs?”

            “Which stairs are those?”

            “The ones to your right, maybe?”

            It was more than I’d been able to accomplish in the last forty-five minutes, so I decided to give it a shot. I thanked her and offered a parting, “I hate this fucking station,” then began feeling for the turnstiles.

            Only after I was through the turnstile did I realize there was no reason for me to go through a turnstile to make a transfer to a train headed in the same direction. Now it would cost me another fare to get back in. And besides, that staircase suggested by my new Irish friend, the one to my right, led to the street.

            “Well, shit. Hate this fucking station. And the Irish, too.”

            I re-entered that same hopeless platform full of foreigners and began looking for a staircase of some kind. Or maybe I’d just throw myself in front of the next R that came along.

            “Wha’cha lookin’ for, man?”

            It was an honest-to-god English speaker. An honest-to-god homeless English speaker, camped out on one of the benches. I wanted to smack him for not speaking up earlier, but maybe he’d been asleep.

            “Brooklyn-bound N,” I told him.

            “Down these stairs,” he said.

            “What stairs?”

            “These. After that ya’on y’own.”

            “It’s a start, anyway, right?” I probably had a three-mile hike ahead of me. I thanked him, offered him no money, and began tapping down the stairs. The hangover was growing worse. Jesus, once I got to the bottom I had no idea where to go. Guess I’d just start walking and hope for the best. Should’ve offered that bum three bucks to come along.

            Someone brusquely grabbed my left arm.

            “Watch it,” I warned, half raising the cane.

            “You look for what train?” a man with a heavy German accent asked.

            “N,” I said. Then, in an effort to clarify, added, “N as in . . . Nibelungen.”

            “Come. We find it.”

            I lowered the cane and we kept walking.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.