SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 6, 2013

Why I Don't Leave My Apartment

 

Despite all the happy claptrap about New York being “the safest big city in America” (a distinction bestowed upon us thanks to two decades worth of cooked crime stats, but we won’t get into that), there are still places in this town you’d simply do better to avoid.

            Some are obvious, and the warning holds true at any time of the day or night. Unless you’re from Indiana or Oregon, you want to stay out of Times Square. It’s not dangerous exactly, except in a spiritual sense. In fact it’s nothing at all—a simulacrum akin to the New York, New York casino in Vegas, but less weird. There aren’t any chain operations there you can’t find everywhere else with much less hassle. For some of us anything north of Twenty-third Street’s getting a little iffy. You want to stay away from East Harlem. Well, make that any place north of 117th Street. The Bronx, as ever, is pretty much a lost cause. It’s still burning. Merely step across the border and there’s a solid seventy percent chance you’ll be shot. Bullets flying everywhere up there, all the time. There’s not much of value to be found on Staten Island, either, unless you appreciate once-glamorous crack house firetraps and sloppy street fights. If you’ve been to St. Paul, there’s no need to bother with Queens. During regular business hours the financial district is asshole central (though it clears out pretty well on the weekends). The West Village is a confounding web of misguided street planning, apparently laid out by an opium-addled city engineer. And although things are fast changing as the waves of cash roll on through, anything too far east or too far west in Brooklyn can still get pretty treacherous if you don’t watch your step. And it’s best to stay at least two or three blocks away from the Gowanus Canal at all times. You breathe too deep around there you’re all but guaranteed to get cancer. Plus, you get too close you never can tell what’s going to crawl out of the green water and drag you back in with it.

            There are other places in New York you might also want to avoid, but more specific places at specific times. Coney Island on a summer weekend is just asking for trouble. Seventh Avenue in Park Slope between Third and Eighth Streets is a deathtrap at three o’clock every afternoon. Also in Park Slope, the stretch of Fifth Avenue between First and Ninth Streets is definitely risky during all daylight hours. Believe me, everyone will be out to hurt you in some way. You only want to make a beeline to the East Village on a Saturday night if you’re young, blotto, and incredibly—I mean painfully—stupid.

            Honestly, I could pretty much take a map of the city and cross out everything except my apartment. Step outside my front door and I’m already in trouble. Sometimes it feels like the whole fucking city’s in cahoots. Or maybe I’m in cahoots against the city, one of the two. There’s one corner in particular, however, that remains more deadly than any other in New York, even if you’re not blind. The very idea of Broadway and Houston at rush hour (meaning between three-thirty and seven) sends a spasm through my guts, even if I’m not headed anywhere near it.

            Unfortunately that’s exactly where I was headed—Broadway and Houston at six on a Wednesday. Both Broadway and Houston are major arteries bisecting the Village. The intersection boasts two unconnected subway stations. Both streets are lined with businesses and office complexes employing and serving tens of thousands of young, fashionable, self-absorbed sheep, each and every one of their noses crammed deep into the cracks of their smartphones. And all of those businesses and offices let out at exactly the same time every single goddamn day, meaning in an instant the sidewalks careening headlong toward that unholy intersection become impenetrably clogged with everything I hate, all these ferrets moving fast and going nowhere, unaware of anything except what’s on the screen in front of them (forty thousand simultaneous games of Candy Crush), blithely trampling without notice or mercy anyone and anything that gets in the way. It’s worse than Times Square, because at least in Times Square you can beat the shit out of a tourist and they’ll simply consider it part of the New York experience. At Broadway and Houston there’s not even enough room to raise your arms to swing. Even if the bullets did fly at Broadway and Houston, they wouldn’t take down nearly enough people to make a difference.

            Anyway, that’s where I was headed. Worse, I’d refrained from drinking all day, which meant that by six I was getting pretty shaky. It was going to be an ugly scene. An old and dear friend was in town from San Francisco. Every time he comes to town we get together, which, oddly enough, means I end up seeing him more often than I do my friends in New York. This time around his schedule was tight, but he had a free evening on Wednesday. He was going to be running around all day, then had a business meeting of some sort in the late afternoon over on the Bowery. He’d offered to get on a train and come down to Bay Ridge after that, but being the incredibly thoughtful and accommodating fellow I am, I told him no, no, no, I wouldn’t hear of making him go through all that. I’d think of a rendezvous point someplace near his meeting. That’d also make it easier for him to get back to where he was staying in Greenpoint afterwards.

            My kindheartedness, however, meant getting on a train in Brooklyn sober and shaky then making an hour-long trip (including a transfer) into the very shrieking guts of Hell. It also meant another hour long trip home afterwards, then the little matter of finding my building in the darkness. Although I was looking forward to seeing my friend as ever—he always had interesting news of some sort—everything that surrounded this trip made me queasy.

            Sitting on the train I began mapping out a strategy for getting from the Prince Street station platform to the restaurant three blocks away with a minimum of personal injury. The plan I came up with essentially boiled down to “swing the cane high.” I took a deep, uncertain breath as the train groaned and squealed into the station. Once on the platform I got my bearings and began tapping toward the chinging turnstiles. My skull and knees alike were both less than stable, but the first beer would take care of that. Problem was I had to get to the restaurant bar first. As expected, a tributary of the throng on the street above was flowing down the stairs and charging mad and thoughtless through the turnstiles, determined to get on a train whose doors had already closed, to hell with anyone (especially cripples) who got in their way. The cane wasn’t up to head level yet, but I did start swinging it harder, hoping I might cut my way through the crowd to the steps leading out. This is foolishness of course; you might just as well try to chop up water with an ax. Instead I put my head down and trudged on into the battle, taking the blows as men and women, shoppers and students and third-tier executives knocked me this way and that without noticing.

            Somehow I made it through the turnstiles, but things didn’t get much easier. The crowds were still thumping down the stairs like ungainly cattle, now rushing for trains that weren’t even there. Nobody was saying a word. At the bottom of the stairs (and not lightening the load for anyone) stood a cluster of trogs, all checking their smartphones one more time before heading any deeper into the station.

            I didn’t know this of course, until I collided with one after another in my vain effort to find the wall so I could then find the stairs and the handrail to begin pulling myself against the tide up to the street.

            “Excuse me,” I said after whacking the first ankle. There was no response. I said it again when I whacked the second. There was a slight shift of bodies, but not in any way that helped anybody.

            Eventually circumnavigating the clog, I found the bottom step and the handrail and, squeezing myself to the side but holding the cane at an angle I was hoping might trip at least one of the people smashing past me (no luck—they all just kicked it and moved on), I hoisted my way upward step by step toward something I knew would be far worse.

            I was right about that. The endless roiling mob on the sidewalk had no intention of making the slightest concession, crammed together as they were ten or twelve wide from the buildings to the street, with no room left for me to even step away from the subway entrance. That was no good, and called for some new and subtle thinking on my part.

            Again I put my head down and the cane out and mashed my way forward and to the left, trying to squeeze my way to the side of the subway entrance, offering elbow for elbow directed at all these people I’d never see.

            Then suddenly I was out of it. Just a few feet around the corner onto Prince Street and I was completely out of it. I could breathe again. There were no people around. I could move my arms freely. A few short feet behind me, the dense swarm of ants charged onward. My god, why do they all do that every goddamn day when there’s breathable air right here? I could hear them shuffling and clicking past like they were held together by some powerful magnetic force, unable to move except the way they were moving. It was insanity.

            I shrugged and tapped one short block east on Prince to Crosby Street, which was really little more than a wide alley pretending to be a street. It was empty and silent. It was completely devoid of people. Better still, it cut through up to Houston, exactly where I needed to be. As I tapped comfortably and unmolested up the street, I thought back to the insane herd hidden a few yards to my left, unable or unwilling to take a few steps to the side in order to ease the madness. Guess I always knew as much, that Nietzsche was right and that mob-think was a powerful demon, but rarely have I seen it on such glaring and brutal display.

 

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