THE SHADOW OF NOON
from the short story collection
and Other Tales of Working New York'
By John Pietaro
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.
-April 3, 2010 5:50 PM, Brooklyn NY