Contemporary Proletarian Literature by John Pietaro:
Excerpts from ‘Night People’ and Other Tales of Working New York
The following portraits in prose--segments of my fiction collection about workers in this most urban of cities--all happen to occur within the confines of the New York City transit system. The throbbing expanse below this metropolis has been romanticized as much as it’s been reviled and to this writer it represents near-perfect inspiration for today’s proletarian fiction. While ‘NIGHT PEOPLE’ AND OTHER TALES OF WORKING NEW YORK encompasses workers’ struggles well beyond the reach of the subway, I couldn’t resist but to create this triptych from disparate parts of the full book. This labyrinthine world within a world deserved a bit of homage in this foray into the great American tradition of workers’ literature. So, stand clear of the closing doors.
-John Pietaro, Brooklyn NY, October, 2010
STRENSKI ON THE SUBWAY
He stood quietly, very quietly, looking upward the whole time, straining to elevate his head until the neck began to tighten and hurt. Avoiding the eyes of those immediately in his space, Strenski looked long and hard into the ceiling light fixture, the one that intermittently blinked on and off the entire route from Brooklyn into Times Square. It wasn’t such a long ride, but the vacuum-tight crowd of bodies squeezed into the subway car created a sensation of timelessness, and he froze in this thicket of human experience, just short of numb. It went on like this each day, to and from the office, with that damned light arhythmically flickering overhead dominating his view.
Attempting to release some of the tension from his neck now, Strenski slowly turned and tried to roll his shoulders back, to no avail. As he did, the backpack on the guy behind him struck him square in the spine, causing him to move quickly up against the long silver pole he held with white knuckles, and it was then that he realized his face had gotten much too close to the heavy-set woman standing to his right. Sucking her teeth annoyedly, she leered at him from the corner of her eye, attempting to ward him off from her personal space, whatever personal space one could find in this rush-hour ride through the fifth circle. Strenski’s eyes shot back up at the light, which blinked twice just as he caught glimpse of it, momentarily throwing the rumbling car from bright light to blackness and back. Now Strenski just focused on the metallic pole, chilled from air-conditioning, which stood inches away from the bridge of his nose. Should the car come to a sudden halt, he considered, he’d probably crack his nose and forehead right into the thing. Gazing deep into the convex image in front of him, Strenski saw his side-show distortion laughing back at the sardine can which encircled it, but mostly right back into his own eyes. It was a discomforting view to go perfectly with just such an occasion.
Little by little, Strenski snuck little glances at the people in his purview. The heavy-set woman lurched forward each time the car rocked, so she was most obvious. The pudgy alabaster face under thick eyeglasses rippled with each jolt of the train. She was a woman perhaps in her late 50s but with freshly dyed and teased reddish hair attempting to blur the years. She watched Strenski carefully through smudged lenses encased in a gold-turning-green metal frame, vigilant of the possible sexual predator the automated announcements warn travelers about (lately this announcement competes with “If You See Something-- Say Something”, replacing the old standby “Keep Your Hands Off the Doors”). She wore a strangely green dress with a frilly yellow collar and, as she suspiciously looked over at another man, Strenski spied on her fingernails, painted in the same odd green shade, albeit in a sparkling finish, and the handbag wrapped tightly around her forearm. It was of a shiny fire engine red. The woman, whose ruby-painted lips had remained sealed in an angry grimace the whole ride, did all of her shouting, it would seem, through her wardrobe. But her guttural garment-hollers were enough to make Strenski wince. He felt, right then and there, that as they were sharing a moment, she at least deserved a name within this imaginary cocktail party from hell, and declared that she’d be known as “Martha My Dear”, after the regal Beatles song. Warily, Martha leered back at him and Strenski tried to suppress a laugh, imagining the conversation they’d have in response to this. He looked away, swallowing a violent chuckle.
Just beyond Martha stood a round-faced Asian man with thick, sweeping black hair. Disregarding all that went on around him, the man’s arm craned around the bodies in his path, protruding uncomfortably from his short-sleeved white dress shirt. He grappled with the pole, holding on for dear life, but his face only reflected solemnity, his gaze frozen. The man’s shoulder bag, with the initials “K. J.” embossed in gold along the front pocket, hung loosely around his chest and Strenski tried to imagine what his name could be. With little thought, it was decided that the man’s initials and appearance indicated Kim Jong Il just enough to make it impossible to pass up this moniker. Strenski noted that from deep within Kim Jong’s bag came a white cord, snaking out into a bifurcated end, and culminating in a pair of ear phones placed within the confines of his smallish ears. Kim Jong appeared transfixed on his music, only occasionally reaching into the bag to fetch the listening device and seek out another favorite song. Then he’d go right back into the realm. Strenski wondered what it was he could be listening to that pulled him so deeply into his own sphere; something soft, maybe a mellow Chet Baker vocal? Hmmmm, “Let’s Get Lost”. No. Strenski decided upon something very avant garde, like a Xenakis piece, or maybe something by Frank Zappa. The blank, detached look on Kim Jong’s face made this idea that much more bizarre--so then of course the music could only be the squealing attack of Anthony Braxton’s saxophonic death blows. Yeah, that’s it: an atonal plain of frenetic primal screams for our Kim Jong.
Strenski noted, though, that each time Jong let go of the pole to segue over to another musical selection, Martha—resenting his steadfast reach—would move a little further over, into his path, causing Jong to have to struggle anew in his quest for the pole’s stability. When the train would take some dangerous curves, Kim Jong’s fingers worked furiously to maintain hold of the aluminum pole which seemed to slip further away from him with each rock of the car. But he never blinked.
Now over to Strenski’s left side was a couple, a youngish couple, who couldn’t seem to keep their hands off one another. “Bob and Carol” , apparently trying to hunt down a Ted and Alice of their own, looked deeply into one another’s eyes, laughing lovers’ laughs and telling private stories no one else could hear, alone in the world. That Martha, at a three-quarter angle, resentfully huffed each time Bob nuzzled Carol’s ear meant nothing to them and while Strenski desperately tried to keep his eyes off the pair in heat, he was repeatedly pulled into their love scene, a self-conscious voyeur.
Carol placed a soft kiss on Bob’s lips as the train’s metallic wheels suddenly screeched to a high-pitched stop in the tunnel between 36th and Pacific Streets. As the light fixture flickered on in Morse code the moments of darkness were enough for the couple’s soft giggling to get a little bit louder, their embrace bolder and bolder. They were becoming the main attraction for all of the crushed, exhausted commuters with nothing better to look at. Those around them included “Langston”, a tall, slim African-American man with a bored expression and an intellectual air. His black tee shirt displayed a red circle containing a Black liberation image in the center, shouting down the Man. Tiny, black shades covered Langston’s eyes just enough for near anonymity, and his earphones sought to close out all about him.
But as the train sat in morbid stillness for what felt like an eternity, the only sounds in evidence (besides radiator-like hissing grumbles from some of the dispirited travelers) was the throbbing overspill of Langston’s music: bombastic bass and a cutting, electronic backbeat supported some kind of Hip Hop vocal, but no one could really hear the words, just their skimmering, rhythmic attack and the occasional curse.
Martha’s eyes rolled upward and to the side as her lips curled distastefully. Bob and Carol now stood wordless, finally aware of the crowd in their immediate grasp, and Kim Jong fiddled emotionless with his ipod. Over beyond him, Strenski observed a very tall middle-aged man in a rumpled suit speaking buoyantly to the short woman in turban and sari, perhaps a co-worker or maybe a building neighbor he’d found on the train that day. Would they retain this friendship or was it just one of those things momentarily constructed in these settings? And opposite this pair were three young Mexican men carrying guitars, speaking in soft Spanish as they anxiously peered through the windows to the underground darkness beyond. Subway performers, maybe on the way to Grand Central to challenge that Peruvian band that seems to be at every major stop. And whatever happened to that crazy guy who used to sing and play the washtub bass?, Strenski wondered , taking note of Martha who again leered at him with untrusting eyes. She pulled at her blouse’s ruffles, making certain that there was nothing exposed as Strenski again focused on the now static light fixture. And then, from the depths of discomforting silence, the train began to move as mysteriously as it had stopped, barreling out of the tunnel and landing at the next stop. God, are we still in Brooklyn?
Strenski let out a gentle sigh as the train pulled into the Pacific Street/Atlantic Avenue Station. The multiple doors of the subway car were simultaneously thrown open and out poured a bevy of passengers, each racing the other to be the first out, as if there was a prize given to the first fifty to emerge. Strenski watched the push and pull from the safety of his pole. People raced about the car, heading for the doors, a swollen horde seeking escape, only to be replaced by another thicket of humanity, charging in, seeking out any open seat or even a much sought-after door to lean on (these are especially good when reading a rather unwieldy book). Coming in from the rear of this new crowd,
Strenski noticed a dignified older woman, almost certainly a European immigrant in her fashionably old world widow’s black. “Mama Celeste” carried one of those silver canes with the four little rubber feet at the bottom and moved slowly, in a dictated fashion into the center of the car and then veered off to one side towards the bench-like seat which lined the length of the vehicle’s wall. The passengers who’d claimed these seats had been alert all ride along, reading the newspaper or a book, chatting or gazing blankly at no one in particular, but now, without warning, each was immediately thrust into a deep, unshakeable sleep. Each of them, meekly peeking out of mostly-shut eyes, hoped that the next person would offer the elderly woman a seat. Strenski watched as they squirmed while trying to maintain the sedated act, inwardly cursing their own sense of guilt. Finally, a large man wearing a tool belt jumped up and surrendered his seat to her, just moments before she was to plunge the prongs of her cane into his booted foot. Strenski thought that it had all worked out well enough. Martha, still to his right, didn’t seem to agree as she watched the scene and huffed in annoyance, shaking her head from side to side. Strenski knew not to look directly at her, watching instead from the corner of his eye. By this time Bob and Carol had gone off to a romantic getaway and Kim Jong was last seen running off for the number 5 Train, to points east. Langston held ground, as did the tremors of the Rap that leaked out of his headphones.
Packed anew, the train groaned and forced its way through a series of intricate tunnels. Emerging finally into the bright daylight illuminating the East River, it touched the face of Manhattan before plummeting again into the clockwork web far beneath the City.
THE SHADOW OF NOON
As he sat the car gently rocked him back and forth, cranking out a repetitive ballad set in sedative rhythm. But it was not restful.
Angel stared down at the hard orange plastic of the subway seat peaking out from between his legs and then beyond that to the sparkle of interlocking patterns of the floor. Gripping his folder tightly, he leaned his head back against the cool metallic wall and contemplated the advertisements that framed the adjacent windows, the ones which allowed the harsh rays of sunlight to pour in on him. Jewelry ads stared back, gloating. They featured beaming women and dashing men and diamond rings and glittery bracelets and shit it’s almost Valentine’s Day. And Angel felt small. He sighed deeply. The ride was so long from Flushing all the way into Times Square. So long. The #7 train traveled outdoors on its winding elevated track cutting a path through Queens, gliding high above the busy restaurants and shops. Passengers are offered a view of the open sky but today the soft blue was not inviting. Once enjoyable, the sunlight which warmed the cold air now felt oppressive, exposing. And his idle, jobless hours seemed all the more on public view. It had not been a good Christmas and the New Year rang in hollow. Angel averted his gaze.
Focusing now on the folder placed carefully on his lap, the one which contained his resume, his business degree and several powerful letters of reference, Angel looked deep into the manila grain. These documents saw a lot of mileage in the endless months he’d been out of work—so many jaunts to interviews, agencies, cold calls and inquiries. Anxiously he’d slip into a freshly pressed shirt and carefully knotted tie and set out to Manhattan to find work. Each trip, he thought, was another opportunity and each lead another chance. Scouring the want ads—print and online—on a constant basis, Angel was a man on a mission. Something had to give; well at least that’s what the well-wishers reminded him. In between the trips into Times Square and points south, he sometimes traveled to the local Unemployment office—the Department of Labor ‘One-Stop’. A necessary evil, Angel hated going there; he could never quite shake the stigma. Meeting with the tired civil servant at the desk, he found himself staring intently into the ID tag on a blue cord which hung loosely around her neck. As her words faded into the background noise all he could think about was her name tag: Patti McDermott, Labor Services Representative. He looked at it until it became a blur, mixing well into the desk light which shined off of it. But it wasn’t the tag’s content or even the photo which so caught his eye, it was simply the tag itself. It had been far too long since Angel had worn a similar tag, one which was taken for granted in the past but now seemed like a wonderfully welcoming thing. You never really think about such a work accessory as a name tag, in fact they are a nuisance--until you need to return one as you leave the office for the last time. And then it feels that your name is surrendered along with the tag.
He’d never been out of work before and equated the Unemployment office with the grey, sad looking people that could be found sitting for hours on the crowded waiting room’s hard orange plastic chairs, hoping to be paired with a meaningful job in light of just so much joblessness. Flushing NY with its harried, over-populated streets pulsating on all sides, wealth of peoples and language and food from around the world, and even the presence of the New York Mets (the real working class ball club) within reach seemed a world away to anyone feeling outside looking in. These days, Angel felt more and more apart from all that which went on around him, like he was slowly dissolving into the background scenery. Looking downward again at his subway seat, he thought of the irony that he couldn’t seem to get away from those goddamned orange plastic seats. They seemed to demarcate his unemployment. His mind drifted away again as he gave in to the softly rocking rhythm of the 7 train…
Bob Morris was a good boss, one that Angel had worked with since graduating from Baruch more than fifteen years ago. He was welcomed into the firm easily enough and while he had to initially endure grumbling from a few of the old-timers (yeah, the middle-aged white guys who saw in Angel only that he was a “diversity” hire, regardless of his MBA), Angel quickly proved himself as an important mid-level exec. His family had worked hard since coming to New York from Puerto Rico a generation before and when his father moved the family from a tenement apartment in Loisaida to their own 2-story house in Queens it was an important step. Angel’s promise for the future, however, became the real focus. “Hey, my kid got a thing for numbers”, the old man used to proudly tell his friends at the loading dock and by
the time he’d hit his teens Angel was doing the taxes for all the family. And it went on from there. Working in retail and H&R Bloch to pay his way through school, Angel entered into the world of professionals around the time his father grew tired, looking considerably older than his fifty-five years. But after a lifetime of back-breaking work with little to show for it, Angel’s father blew a disc and suffered excruciating pain the rest of his life. Struggling to keep the house and family afloat on Disability benefits, the smiles came less often but there was still the pride in Angel’s rise. Each day that the young man put on a suit and tie did the old man good, even as he faded away. Angel worked diligently and his was a well-earned career, so last year when Mr. Morris called him into the office for the package and pink slip, the news hung long and stale in the air. The years of success meant nothing now. “Angel, my God, I am so sorry to have to call you in like this; I guess you already know what this is all about. The firm has been hit very hard in this downturn---we were hoping that the staff could remain in tact but…” That day eight others were given the same awful news and then Angel heard that in the months following his departure, the firm was shaved down to nearly nothing before being bought out by another organization as a loss.
“46th Street—this stop is 46th Street”, the conductor’s disembodied voice interrupted loudly; “Please stand clear of the closing doors”. Angel glanced outward as the train’s doors closed in front of him, mercifully sealing out the direct brightness. He sat back in his seat and tried to relax, but each time he thought over the details of his termination, the tension filled his body, rippling through nerves and muscles like a dreadful wave. The visions returned quickly--and then he’s looking back into Mr. Morris’ sleep-deprived face, caught in the headlights. And then he is packing up his personal belongings, trying hard to absorb the every detail of his office’s nuances. And then he is out of the firm’s doors, into the hallway alone, gripping the overfilled box to his chest tightly, knuckles whitened. Lifetime plans are now labeled with an expiration date. As the train crawled to an unexpected stop due to track work, Angel shut his eyes against the sting of a building cluster headache…
Rachel, his wife of 12 years, listened in morbid silence as he spoke. Sickened, Angel’s voice became choked and his vision cloudy; he never dreamed he’d have to tell his wife that he’d fallen victim to cut-backs, or rather, a ‘staff restructuring’ as Mr. Morris explained. Rachel had been working for years as a municipal employee and was now waiting—along with the others in her office—for the news of the city’s planned barrage of lay-offs. Everyone was on edge downtown but Rachel never thought the recession would affect her husband before her. They already had one child at home and had been discussing having a second. She’d even stopped taking the pill, for Christ’s sake. Now she’d have to dread being late, imagining another mouth to feed. Their marriage made it through the good and the bad and now the challenge would be greater still. Their home in Flushing, not far from the one Angel’s aging mother lived in, held a thirty year mortgage and was scheduled for some necessary repairs. Their daughter was preparing to begin Catholic school next September and they were now shopping for a needed second car.
The train sputtered to a slow start and then picked up speed, whizzing past several tall buildings which poked out against the noon-time winter sky. As the air rushed against the # 7’s flanks, Angel’s mind so raced and thoughts of the recent months became choked with the images of interviews, want ads, head-hunters, dubious creditors, debt collectors and desperately overdrawn bank accounts. The train made a sudden shift and the sun’s harsh glare thrust into Angel’s face. Defensively, he shut his eyes, closing out everything around him.
Now through eye slits he watched the water-towers and rooftops disappear as the #7 began its descent into the tunnel which would take it beneath the East River toward Manhattan. As his car moved steadily away from the open air, preparing for the darkness, Angel held his breath and leaned upward toward the remaining patch of blue.
Reaching up now, reaching up for the sky one last time.
UNION SQUARE EAST
-urban vision in verse-
No, no, he wasn’t going anywhere, but the riled man felt the need to hasten through the thicket of subterranean New York.
The crush that had once been relegated simply to “rush hour” could now be found across a several hour span each morning and then again toward days end. Here, below the buckling streets, the cluster never really seems to thin,
Never slows to breath.
He looked out into the emerging wall of people and, aiming his chin low, maneuvered through with certain urgency. Call it force of habit or just plain urban disconnect but he simply wouldn’t be caught up in the crowd. The subway’s walkway tunnels twist Escher-like, so while moving underground from one end of 14th Street to the other one needs to know how to stay ahead of the fray. It was too damned hot to rush, but it was the only way through it if he didn’t want to wait for the shuttle.
And he didn’t.
Looking over the throngs going in all directions at once—they’re dancing through the passages like drones, just like drones--the man noticed the condensation pooling up on the aged tunnel ceiling, defying gravity over the heads of unsuspecting passersby. And next to a young, bespectacled busker singing and playing banjo hung a dull metal sign:
TO UNION SQUARE >
The driven man followed on as the plunk of a Pete Seeger ballad,
Faded into the surrounding din,
Foot-steps blending into frailing…
…Swerving, swerving now around a group of overtly blonde tourists—carrying ‘Mein Kampf’, he imagined—strolling stately while the senior-most clutched a subway map in a death grip, the harried man found himself square in the path of an obese drag queen walking in mellow rhythm to imaginary music in her headphones. The man tried to move around the slow-moving vehicle teetering on heels and swathed in billowy silk but was immobilized by a new thicket of oncoming bodies. Christ! Any slower and you’d be walking backwards!, he thought while suppressing the urge to shove Her Largeness out of the way. Finally as the throng in the opposite direction momentarily subsided, he whirled over to the left and moved onward and beyond, trying to regain lost time.
Recovering from this, he nearly ran into the tall, bearded musician,
Leaning against a tiled wall
Blowing intensity through
A heated tenor saxophone
In the steaming haze.
The roily man didn’t listen long enough to recognize an urgent “Moment’s Notice” by Coltrane but the grooving drag queen, coming up from the rear, pulled her headphones out in one felt swoop to catch the wave of music eclipsing the area. Painted lips smiling broadly, store-bought trestles swaying, she seductively danced for the troubadour, who looked out on the spectacle through dark shades and cool reserve. ..
And then the dictated man, finally overtaking the tunnel, fell upon Union Square station in a wave of commuters rushing toward the oncoming uptown # 4. Carried aloft, he bodysurfed as long as possible. Craning through the crowd he
Angled toward the staircase and
The scent of open air streaming in,
Via the shaft of golden sunlight,
Which charismatically led him
Toward a tall, tired looking preacher, mournfully
Carrying a placard with ‘Jesus Saves’ splashed across its front,
As an apostolic follower offers brochures
On the pains of hell,
And the man whizzes by
Sore afraid to slow down…
Now, now rushing through the turnstile intently, our man bolts up and out toward beckoning day. On the oasis of Union Square Park, he moves out of the carousel, taking in a gulp of humid city air ---fresh compared to the fester inside. He looks into the park’s open arms but instead is drawn to the concrete along its edge, the odd circular span of sidewalk amidst black-top and street traffic.
The cavalcade of vendors,
Painters hawking pieces of themselves
To anxious tourists,
And annoyed businessmen,
While waving posters depicting the corporate mayor,
Who makes the streets safe
For button-downs in luxury buildings,
That once housed average New Yorkers.
The vexed man’s eyes scanned over make-shift galleries on boards and boxes and then to the site of radical actions and May Day rallies and angry labor demonstrations.
Angry labor demonstrations.
From his position the vibrating man spies the statue of Gandhi on the west side and Lincoln who stands at center, watchful over the masses sitting under trees, hiding from the burgeoning August heat index. Just wait’ll noon.
He, briskly now, steps over NYU students,
In parallel play
On concrete steps,
Juggling overpriced coffees and futuristic phone devices,
Laughing aloud, charmed, as he,
As he crab-walks down to the sidewalk
Toward the relative comfort of chaos,
Union Square East.
Out, out onto the street, he takes the space as his own, walking through runes of days passed as the song of rushing traffic swells into delicious cacophony over broiling blacktop.