by JIM KNIPFEL
October 14, 2018
Just Leave Me Alone, I’ll Figure It Out
When I first taught at the School of Visual Arts ten years ago, I was living in Park Slope. Whenever I needed to go anywhere outside the neighborhood, I generally took the F train, as the station was a block closer to my apartment than any of the other stations in the area. To get to class, I’d take the F into Manhattan, transfer to the 6 at the Broadway-Lafayette station, and take that three stops north, where it dropped me off about two blocks from where I needed to be. It was relatively quick and easy. Things are different now.
In theory, anyway, this January I’m supposed to start teaching at SVA again. These days I live in Bay Ridge, and the only subway line that snakes all the way down here is the R. Problem is, once it gets to Manhattan, the R runs up Broadway, effectively bisecting the island. Getting to where I need to go would involve walking from the center of Manhattan to its eastern fringes, which is no mean feat when you’re a cripple. To get from my apartment to class now, I could—also in theory—take the R eight stops, make the long and confounding transfer to the F, take the F into Manhattan and once again transfer to the 6 for those last few stops. If I did that, when I stepped out of the 6 station I would once again be an easy five-minute stroll from where I needed to be. But I’m lazy, and over the past decade the trains have fallen into such hilarious disrepair that counting on one line to be running smoothly is questionable enough, but counting on three to be working in both directions on any given day is simply foolhardy.
So okay, I’d do away with all the transfers, lay my hopes on that single line, and make the long walk across half of Manhattan. But before school started in earnest I figured it best to familiarize myself with the route. It’s an old trick I use whenever I need to go to a new place. I make a few practice runs, get a map in place in my head. So when the time comes to make the trip for real it will be ingrained.
When I headed up to SVA for my initial interview in August, I conscripted my friend Richard to tag along. He’d taught there a number of years, knew where everything was, and could help me navigate the neighborhood and find the office I was looking for. We’d meet on the R, go to SVA, then head back to Brooklyn. After that, I figured, I’d have enough of an initial map in my head to start making the trip myself to get a better sense of just what the hell I was getting into.
On the way up there on the afternoon in question, a subway musician stepped into our car with a guitar and, much to our horror, began singing “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me.” He wasn’t bad at all, but Christ, who wants to hear that on the subway? When he was finished, he announced, “That was the theme song from Midnight Cowboy, a movie from the early Seventies.”
“1969!” Richard and I erupted in unison from our seats.
The kid, who’d likely been born two decades after the movie came out, paid us no attention. In the midst of all the noise and distraction, we missed our stop. Deciding to simply get off at the next stop and walk a few extra blocks, the whole idea of my learning the route from the train to the school was completely lost, though at least I’d still make the interview on time.
After the two-hour interview, I was too dazed and was too busy telling Richard all that had happened to pay any attention to the trip back to the (proper) subway station. So that little initial experiment had been a complete bust.
A few weeks later when I was supposed to go back to SVA to pick up my official school ID, I thought, “Okay, so this time I’ll go alone and figure it out.” There were no time constraints, no schedules to keep, so I had all the time I needed to bumble about and make mistakes as I learned my way. Mistakes are sometimes the best damned way to learn.
I headed out about nine on a Wednesday morning and found a seat on the R for the hour-long trip into Manhattan. Along the way I kept my head down so I could concentrate on the stop announcements as we pulled into each station. The sound over the p.a. was garbled as usual, but having some sense of where I was headed and what stops to expect, I could decipher them enough to keep tabs on where I was. This also allowed me to count the number of stops from here to there, which is extremely useful for those trips (most of them) when there are no announcements at all.
At Canal Street, some four or five stops before the station I was looking for, that same fucker with a guitar stepped aboard the train, and of course decided to stand right next to me as he strummed his guitar a few times before launching into “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” again. The idea of hearing anything else, let alone the station announcements, went right out the goddamn window. I almost offered him a couple of bucks to simply stop playing until I reached my stop. There are few things more aggravating than trying to listen for something else while some jackass is singing right in your goddamned ear.
I counted the stops, made a wild guess, and stood by the doors as the train pulled into what I believed was the station I was looking for.
The song ended, and the kid announced, “That was the theme song from Midnight Cowboy, a movie from the early Seventies.”
“1969!” I shouted as I stepped off the train. Just in time, too, as I heard him launch into “By the Rivers of Babylon.”
I stood on the platform for a second, still not sure if I was in the right place. Then I heard someone mention Twenty-second Street, so figured I’d made the right guess. I listened some more until I heard people passing through a turnstile and headed for the sound, then bumbled around some more until I found the stairs leading outside.
Okay, I had at least that much under my belt. I knew where to get on the train at the Bay Ridge station, where the turnstiles would be when I got off, and how to get above ground once that was taken care of. So far so good.
Broadway and Twenty-third is one of those baffling regions of Manhattan, street-wise. Madison Avenue begins at Twenty-third street, or ends there abruptly, depending on which way you’re headed. Lexington begins just a few blocks south, and it’s at Twenty-third that Broadway cuts diagonally across Fifth Avenue, slicing the area into a bunch of triangular concrete islands surrounded by seas of rumbling traffic. So the south side of Twenty-third is a completely different animal than the north side, and amid all the confusion the subway stations seem to have been placed randomly at the vortex where the city’s usually comforting and reliable grid system melts down completely.
Being unfamiliar, even after all these years, with that particular subway station, when I got above ground I had no idea where I was, which way I was facing or which street was which, so I paused just outside the subway entrance.
“Can I help you?” A middle-aged woman asked almost immediately. That was completely unheard of in Manhattan, where everyone seems to have forgotten what the white cane means.
“Sure,” I said. “Thanks. I’m just looking for Twenty-third street.”
“And then where are you headed?”
“East,” I said.
“Well, that’s just fine. Come with me.” She took my arm and started walking fast, talking all the while. Before I could explain the more helpful thing to do at that particular moment would be to point me in the right direction and let me find my own way, we had already taken three turns.
She kept walking and talking for several minutes, the way the overly helpful types do, until she at last slowed to a stop. “Will you be okay from here?”
“I think so,” I said. “I’m guessing we’re on the south side of Twenty-third, then?” I’d noticed we hadn’t crossed any streets, so figured that must be the case. Now if I only knew how I’d gotten there.
“That’s right. Between Madison and Park. You keep heading straight, the next corner you hit will be Park.”
Okay then, that much was helpful. Knowing the streets, I knew I was heading east. I thanked her and headed on my way. What she hadn’t warned me about was all the scaffolding I was about to run into, or the three separate construction sites between me and the corner. But even that was okay. Learning to navigate anywhere in Manhattan was, above all else, a matter of learning how to navigate construction sites. I was able to tap my way around the barricades and barrels and plastic netting and caution tape without any extensive injuries, and eventually found myself standing at the corner of Park Avenue. That was the first major hurdle. After that things would be much easier, in theory. Simply a matter of counting the streets. There were more construction sites after that, but following the shouted instructions from a few hardhats I navigated around those as well.
After at last finding myself on the block I was looking for, the next tricky business, and damn all that “self sufficient” blather before this, involved finding someone to point me toward a specific address. In time I would learn the number of doors in from the corner, or the feel of the door itself, or come up with some other landmark, but I wasn’t there yet and needed a bit of help. This took a bit more time. If you’re a blindo standing on the sidewalk just saying “Excuse me?” every time you hear footsteps passing, people assume you’re asking for change, and will ignore you. If, on the other hand, you try to cram as much information as you can into a very short space (”excusemeI’mnotaskingforchangeI’djustlikesomequickdirectionsplease”), then you just sound like a crazy person, and everyone will ignore you. Finally, after I had spent some fifteen minutes trying assorted approaches, a woman stopped. I asked if she could point me toward the address I was looking for, and she informed me I was on the wrong side of the street.
Well, shit. I returned to the corner, crossed Twenty-third, and did the same thing for another ten minutes before someone stopped and led me to the door I was after.
Ten minutes later, after picking up my new ID card and taking care of some other bits of new faculty business, I was out on the sidewalk again. Okay, the trip in was kind of a bust, but this second leg here, getting back to the subway, would be the real test. It was the far trickier and far more important part of the trip. I turned back west and headed toward the corner. This time I’d follow the north side of Twenty-third, where things got weird.
At the first corner, an old man asked if I needed any help. “Oh, no,” I told him. “I’ll be just fine, but thanks.”
“C’mon, we got the light,” he said, taking my elbow and marching me across the street.
From that point on, it was as if the residents of Manhattan, in order to make up for three decades of fuckwad behavior, conspired to make sure I didn’t take a step without assistance. One just passed me along to the next like a baton, despite my self-sufficient protests.
“Will you people just leave me the fuck alone and let me get lost, for god sakes!?” I wanted to scream. “Jesus!” But I didn’t. I’d seen far to many bitter blindos react like that on the street, and though I might be better able to understand that reaction now, I knew they were just fucking themselves down the line.
At long last, somewhere around Broadway where the streets start zooming off in every damn direction you can imagine, I was left to myself for a blessed instant, and promptly walked into some kind of large metal structure.
“You lookin’ to get on the subway?” A gruff fellow in his forties asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Downtown R.”
“Ah, that’s across the street.”
Having no idea what street he meant, or even what street I was near, I pointed further west with the cane. “This way?”
I thanked him sincerely, relieved that he wasn’t insisting on taking me there himself, and found my way to the corner in question.
“Here, I will help you!” A tall Jamaican woman exclaimed. “Follow my voice!”
She then led me across, I believe, three streets and around a corner. Whatever it was I was lost again. Damn these people and their helpfulness!
“Here you are!” the Jamaican woman shouted. The downtown R and W station, if that is what you want!“ God bless you!”
“Yeah, fine, whatever” I said, before finding the handrail and descending into the station, defeated again. Fucker of it is, I knew that if the time came—and it would—when I actually needed help, I’d likely never find it in that borough again. I’d inadvertently used up all my “Helpful Manhattanite” ju-ju that afternoon.
Down in the station, another woman insisted on leading me to the turnstiles, and I slowly tapped my way down the platform to find a place to stand.
When the train came I took a seat next to the door. The minute the doors closed, I heard the strum of a guitar. Now heading south, that same son of a bitch started playing “By the Rivers of Babylon,” and I knew immediately they were all in it together.
Whenever I’d had a particularly trying and exhausting day while working as the New York Press receptionist, it was inevitable the same four-piece Mariachi band would materialize in the train during the trip home and park themselves in front of me. That I came to understand, even expect. Now I’m trying to figure out what kind of cheap symbol this damned kid with the guitar represents, and what lies ahead once I have to start making this trip regularly.
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.