Selected Observations on Urban Faunaby Peter Wortsman
The crumpled letter lying on the subway platform preserves the anger of an absent hand.
Slipping, sliding, rhythmically writhing on a scrap of linoleum unfurled beneath Times Square, just beyond the platform where the un-manned “S” Shuttle secretes its load of humanity, a bone-thin man with jet black, slicked-back hair whisks his willowy partner through a Latin dance routine. Tipping and turning her tightly sheathed torso, he thrusts a knee lasciviously between her pliant limbs for a torrid tango, the two of them practically going at it right then and there, when it suddenly dawns on the spectator in an unsettling flash, that the dancer’s partner is a doll, a skillfully stuffed appendage born of old socks and stifled libido.
Unabashed, the artificial duo strut their stuff for the catcalling crowd.
Several questions beg asking.
How long have they been an item and an act?
Were there earlier incarnations?
(Fred Astaire famously tripped the light fantastic on screen with a compliant mop, Gene Kelley waltzed a wet umbrella.)
How, where, when was such an astonishing spectacle first conceived and received?
Were he/they applauded, taunted, jeered, assaulted in some smoky back room in Buenos Aires?
Did a scandalized undercover man of the cloth stride forward and tear the tenuous twosome apart?
Did the dancer secretly welcome the attack, not as a violation, but, rather, as a violent affirmation of his art?
Here is my theory.
Seeing his sister-self in shreds, he cried and cursed him/them-self/selves at having gone public. But later, years later, in a single-room-occupancy hotel in Spanish Harlem, his partner was reborn, more radiant than ever, red-cheeked, drenched in cheap perfume, a plastic rose planted in her tightly braided hair, henceforth to tour the underground platforms of this world with him—in flagrant duality—and one day, perhaps, if the mood is right, to conceive a dancing heir!
BEYOND THE BORDERS OF MARLBORO COUNTRY
Billed as a living wonder—alongside Michael the Illustrated Man, every square inch of whose epidermis is a tattooed tapestry; Santina the Rubber Girl, a sultry contortionist girded in a fur bikini, who can wave goodbye and wink bent over between her legs; a two-headed calf, and a seven-legged pig, among other anomalies of nature—Otis The Human Cigarette Machine, a laconic black man born without arms or legs, performs every half hour on the hour in a dank dark boardwalk arcade at the corner of 12th and Surf in Coney Island, Brooklyn.
Extending an agile tongue, he plucks a sheath from an open pack of rolling papers, scoops up and deposits a tight line of tobacco, wraps the paper round the weed, shaping and fitting it with the precision of a master tailor, and licks it shut. Then, resting the white tube on the back of a box of wooden kitchen matches, he tongue-butts the matchbox open, plucks out a match stick from the other side, tips up the cigarette, and without missing a beat, strikes the match-head against the strip of flint, lights up and inhales like his life depended on it, as indeed it does.
For his grand finale, Otis flips the cigarette over on his tongue, burning tip inwards, takes a toke, exhaling fire, dragon-like, from his fluttering nostrils, sucks in the butt and gulps, smacking his lips, only now breaking the silence. “I think I put it out,” he coyly grins, “but if I didn’t, somebody please bring me a glass of water!”
The glass is fetched by Santina on cue, whom Otis salutes, cobra-like, with an obscene vibrato of the tongue, before tipping it up and downing its contents. Biting hard on the rim with tobacco-stained teeth and a winsome smile, he proffers the plastic chalice for tips.
“No pictures, please,” he quips, “I’m wanted in four states by 12 angry wives!”—peddling black and white collectible postcards of himself, a dollar a piece.
GIRL ON TRAIN
Her hands got to me first, as if they were knitting, not a common scarf, but a cloth to cover the secrets of the heart. The long graceful fingers might just as well have been playing the keys of an arcane instrument, a harpsichord or hurdy-gurdy, now softly, now with a sudden fury, or else engaged in intimate touch—as they looped and dipped with wild abandon on the seat next to mine. Magic wands, not ordinary knitting needles, the sharp points pricked and pierced the twilight and made it bleed in astounding spurts of purple, red and black.
“That’s so beautiful!” I whispered, seeking an excuse to look up.
“You like it?” She swept back a veil of long black hair, revealing a fine olive complexion and full lips parted with surprise, the startled look of an Italian Madonna just told of the miracle. In a curious kind of harmony with her hands, her black eyes and ruffled brows knitted an ornate tapestry of their own, dazzling and puzzling, purple, red and black.
“Who are you making it for?” I asked with a flirtatious hint, not really wanting to know, picturing the scarf wrapped round my own neck and the fingers entwined with mine.
“For me,” she said, “for when it gets cold.”
The fingers never stopped knitting and the scarf grew as she spoke, the fringes of its finished end grazing my knee.
“Are you in college?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she said, “I’m not smart like that.”
“Your color scheme is brilliant!” I insisted. Whereupon she blushed. “I go to a special school.”
—“For slow people.”
I choked back a barely audible: “Oh!”
The fingers kept dancing and the train rattled on as daylight faded fast and the scarf spilled deep purple all over my lap.
“But I’m learning,” she said, “making progress, my teacher tells me. Last week I took a test and you know what? I used to think I was slow, but now,”—like a last splash of sunlight before dusk, a proud smile of radiant beauty lit up her dark eyes and licked the crescent moon of her lips—“now I know I’m average!”
I covered my face with my hands to hide the tears, pretending to muffle a sneeze.
We rolled on in silence, her fingers fondling the dark, the soft woolen shawl of night falling over me.
“This is where I get out,” she whispered, drawing back the scarf as the train pulled into Jersey City, “pleased to have met you, Mister.”
Static electricity made my leg hairs stand on end and I trembled, feeling naked. The pleasure was all mine! I wanted to say, or something to that effect. Too slow to react, I couldn’t find the words in time and pressed my eyes shut tight to retrieve the fleeting purple, red and black impression as the train pitched forward into the darkness.
AN ARRESTING SCENE
The subway spit up an arresting scene the other night.
From a distance I spied a wobbly young woman with purple hair, like a comic book character consumed in some blue funk, her makeup a mess, more than likely under the influence of some controlled substance, seated on the platform with her legs dangling over the edge. And as I watched with a mingling of concern and cold disinterest, reluctant to get involved; torn between the duty I felt to intercede and an undeniable voyeuristic rise at seeing her short skirt creep ever higher above her knees to the pink place where torn stocking and elastic meet, she hesitated a moment, looked about, and leaped down onto the tracks.
“What are you doing?!” I ran forward, peering nervously into the pit of the tunnel.
“I dropped my license,” she matter-of-factly replied, bent over, and fished among the refuse and debris.
A license for what? I wanted to ask, but didn’t. Driving was definitely out of the question, marriage unlikely. Better it stay lost, I thought, when, with a distant rumble, a wind in the tunnel played with her purple curls.
—“Need a hand?”
Grasping my proffered fingers without a word, she was heavier than I thought, and we had to work at it together, fast, she with her black painted fingernails digging into the nape of my neck, me with one hand on her bottom and another hooked in under her plump thigh, holding a moment too long.
Once hoisted to safety, she dusted herself off, winked and waltzed away without a word, earphones in place, bopping to an internal beat, as the Downtown Number Six came and went.
Did she find the license? I wondered, though it didn’t seem to matter any more.
Back up at street level, stirred more than I can tell, I heard what I thought was the thumping heartbeat of humanity, but which turned out to be the radio turned up high in a passing car.
CHICKEN, A PARABLE
A man in a somewhat worn dark gray suit, soiled red silk tie, and scuffed, once presentable, brown Wall Street brogues, seated opposite me on the Number 7 Flushing Line to Queens is devouring hunks of roast chicken torn from the carcass in the black plastic bag clutched in his lap. (I am on my way to see my widowed mother, who has, more than likely, made chicken for dinner.) Torn between hunger and propriety, casting surreptitious glances half-heartedly intended to assuage his guilt and magically confer upon him a bib of invisibility, he alternately gnaws at the bones, licks his fingers and dabs the grease with an already sopping paper napkin. Appetite battles it out with embarrassment, painfully aware as the man is that he is making a pig of himself, but he can’t help himself.
Aroused nostrils of propriety quiver like a falling line of dominoes as the smell of roast chicken spreads throughout the subway car, an out-of-place perfume on this commuter line that alternately disgusts and sets mouths watering, till finally he knots up the black plastic bag with what’s left of the carcass and folds his fingers, dripping with grease, around the knot, shuts his eyes and burps. There’s something forthright about that burp, like that of an unabashed cannibal with the tiny body bag of his victim’s remains prone on his lap, expressing thanks, bathed in the lingering cologne of his lust.
Which suddenly brings to mind my late father who prized chicken above all other foodstuffs, though he had a more elegant manner of dispatching the bird.
Affectionately, he referred to his belly as his “wishboneyard,” and with good reason: could one but have counted the total poultry population hacked to bits by his false canines, shredded by his imposter incisors, passed, thereafter, down the conveyor belt of the gullet to be processed below, a lifetime of bones gnawed bare, cracked and broken, marrow sucked, left lying neatly heaped on countless dinner plates, the spectacle would have evoked a kind of culinary Verdun—all those dumb birds slaughtered in New Jersey, each with a tiny cross affixed to its little mound, a star for the kosher conscripts.
His carving strategy was always the same. Legs and wings severed first and served to his offspring. Breast meat sliced and dished out as a romantic tribute to my dear mother, whose family had run a chicken stall in the market place of their native Vienna before the War, definitely a subliminal plus in their courtship. (I myself once fell for the blond daughter of a refugee family raised on a chicken farm in South Jersey, and though she would not have me I broke out in goose bumps whenever I came close to her chickeny skin, but that’s another story.)
But the carcass belonged exclusively to my father. Bone by bone, he patiently dissected it, picked it apart like an intricate scale model of a mastodon, in reverse, until everything edible was consumed. All this he did like the proper European gentleman he was, with stainless steel—silver on the Sabbath and holidays—intervening between lust and consummation. The day he absently lifted a drumstick to his lips I knew he’d circumvented his foreign upbringing and become an American.
“Listen, children,” he once sighed, deriving a parable from the bones. “On the first day, you feast and there’s such a profusion. You eat and eat and it’s all so delicious. The next day you have only the leftovers and they still taste good. But the day after that you have only a few remaining scraps, and the following day nothing but bones, and thereafter just the smell of bones, and then not even the smell, but the craving for that smell, and that’s when things get bad.”
And when the Number 7 stopped and the man with what was left of the chicken carcass in the black plastic bag got up and walked out and the doors closed decisively behind him at Bliss Street, I clung with fluttering nostrils to the fast fading aroma till the odor of forgetting closed around me.
FETISHES OF TRANSPORT
Suddenly the A Train fills up with Central Americans wheeling shopping carts full of flowers. They are everywhere, the Central Americans and the flowers, turning the train into a tropical rain forest on wheels. The only other passengers are a heavy-set, big-boned, redheaded man munching on potato chips—an Irishman, I imagine, stilling inherited memories of the potato famine, and myself. He keeps popping potato chips into his mouth. I seek recourse in the written word. A pair of rap singers step in at Times Square and rap how they used to be stick-up kids but now do rap instead. The Irishman downs the chips fast and furiously as if the bag had no bottom. I keep putting words on paper. The rap singers keep rapping. The Central Americans keep peddling flowers.—“No, thank you.”—Flowers, words, potato chips—everyone has his own fetish of transport.
Peter Wortsman's recent works include a travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin (Travelers' Tales, 2013)--for which he won a 2014 Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY); a novel, Cold Earth Wanderers (Pelekinesis, 2014--a finalist for 2014 Foreword Reviews' Best Science Fiction Book of the Year--and an anthology which he selected, translated and edited, Tales of the German Imagination (Penguin Classics, UK, 2013). Forthcoming are a book of short fiction, Footprints in Wet Cement (Pelekinesis, 2017) and a translation, Konundrum, Selected Prose of Franz Kafka (Archipelago Books, 2016). He was a Holtzbrinck Fellow in 2010 at the American Academy in Berlin.