Midwife in the Tire Swing

Intermezzo 3—Left-handed Lightbulbs

My old tin Liberty in the bay,
Diesel fumes in the window at morning to say
I love you my dirty old town,
Turn some lights on for me.

Landing at LaGuardia

Pauley deGroot was an only child. Pauley’s proper name was Paolo, Paolo Augustin deGroot, as bestowed by Syd and Chaz deGroot—Mom and Pop—at birth, just before Syd’s 26th birthday. Pauley was named for a not quite dead uncle, likewise Paolo Augustin deGroot who, now blessed with a posthumous heir, devolved his blue chip portfolio and penthouse condo on the kid. Exhausted, deGroot mère and père flew to the Swiss Alps where they stayed mostly indoors and practiced Olympic sex while Syd got back into a size four. Pauley was left at home on Central Park West, his wee nappies tended to by an office temp who showed up afternoons. In a triangular chalet the deGroots posed before their fieldstone fireplace and snapped photographs of each other in cable knit sweaters. Alas, even with a mountain view, sex and drugs had lost their punch; they returned to New York where the inheritance waxed fat with increase. The two brightened on landing.

When Pauley was ten years old his parents left to never return—no calls, no postcards, no headlines of a mid-air explosion, just gone. It was as though the two, fuzzy with cocaine and alcohol, had mistaken the door of a cable gondola for a sauna and fallen to their deaths to lie beneath 30 meters of snow until the following spring.

After some months, Pauley figured it would be OK to open his parents’ mail which was piling up. Quarterly statements spoke to the well-being of the family fortune. There was a private trust with fixed disbursements should Pauley survive into adulthood.

The orphan, now a child of neglect, made do with dry cereal until the next Thursday. Thursdays and Sundays were the days of regular deliveries from Balducci’s, a specialty grocery in Greenwich Village—caviar, smoked salmon and a canapé platter. He rummaged through the drawers of the escritoire at which his mother managed household accounts and came up with the number of the liquor store. The liquor store delivered. Pauley kept up with his schoolwork, basketball and track, even as he put on weight with sweet and dry vermouth cocktails and triple-cream cheeses. Having forgotten their child, for Pauley was easy to miss and by nature quiet and well-behaved, Syd and Chaz left behind on the hall table a layoff notice along with two weeks’ pay and references for Fabiana, the maid.

Pauley pocketed the maid’s pay as it was in cash. He double-locked the door, engaged the chain and slid her sendoff papers under and out onto the hall carpet. Pauley nibbled Froot Loops from the box and counted holes in the ceiling tiles as he waited, listening quietly for Fabiana’s footsteps and the jingle of keys. The swoosh of quickly drawn breath from the other side of the door woke him from a fitful doze. A crinkle of paper and a curse in a foreign tongue, and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut. “¡Bésame el culo!” exclaimed the maid. The splat of phlegm against the door was followed by the ding of the elevator. Done.

Pauley opened his eyes.

*  *  *

“Let’s go for a ride. The subway.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere. The front of the car.” Jerry Levy is being introduced to stoned riding up front and/or between the subway cars by Pauley deGroot from the seventh grade.

Between the cars was a place to catch a smoke. These are the years when the conductors have to climb out to open the doors and Pauley can nearly always guess where they are going to be at any given station. Not this time. The conductor catches them, “You kids holding?”

Pauley flashes a big schoolboy grin, “We learned share in school last week,” and the three toke up.

In high school, fueled by Nedick’s hot dogs and a warranted paranoia, Pauley will swallow his stash of crystal meth at a routine stop-and-frisk and leave his brains in the toilet at the 14th Street station. Pauley becomes a walking husk, and the best anyone can come up with is that he has undergone a Vulcan mind-wipe.

That was then.

Chick-a-boom, chick-a-boom, time passes. This is now, like 21st Century time. The subway ads proliferate and speak Spanish as Latino ridership increases, but still beer bottle and bikini-clad chick ads, payday loans, toothpaste and cough drops. Archeological layers curl and peel as Miss Rheingold becomes Chiquita Rheingold. Then assimilation and Chiquita gets squished by trampling Clydesdales to be resurrected in the New York market, Cincinnati and Georgia, in August 2010 by an international consortium whose stable of personality mouthwashes includes Trump Vodka, Willie Nelson’s Old Whiskey River Bourbon and Dr. Dre Cognac.

The emergency brake with its red wood handle, nobody pulls these, not even the kids. The transfer ticket collectors—boxes with zig-zag mirrors so the guard can see at a glance if this is yesterday’s or last hour’s expired scrip. He checks the upside down punch-outs as the tickets fall. “There was this rash of fire bombings,” the transit cop will tell Sarah Drye. “Token booths with the token sellers locked inside. Gasoline in bottles, Molotov cocktails, a tampon for a fuse. Inventive.” Jerry will walk past him and slide a twenty under the token seller’s grill.

“Shouldn’t you get a haircut?” says the woman as she pushes change and tokens through. “Get a haircut; get a life; get a job.”

“Shut up and sell tokens,” says Jerry Levy. Jerry had once worked as an apartment cleaner, a dirty job but surprisingly easy. Nobody wanted to handle old mattresses.

*  *  *

The iron womb, the fear of being buried alive. There is a shower of sparks at the South Ferry IRT turnaround. The mechanical voice says “Keep clear of the moving platform.” A homeless man pushes his grocery cart to the tracks and stands, teetering. He leans forward, his head hanging into the path of the oncoming train.

“Holy shit. Let’s get off here.” Jerry says this. From the front of the front car he has seen a face from the past.

Sarah thinks he means sex, “Here? Now? Right here?”

Jerry Levy winces and closes his eyes to keep from getting splattered by the contents of Pauley’s head. Paolo deGroot, snaggle-toothed with a clotted beard flecked with gray clumps, vomits and pulls back at the last possible moment to slouch off underground, a poster child for the forgotten, mad and neglected. It is pizza and beer—breakfast, the most important meal of the day—and not suicidal dementia. He throws up again.

Sarah breathes a moist patch on the double glass, then turns around. “Huh?”

“On the platform. There’s a guy.”

“Which one? Where?” He is a cling-on, Pauley, secondary education’s forever curse right after zits and gonorrhea. Forever. Why did I say we get off here? Now he will recognize me.

Seeing the couple approach, Pauley unlimbers a splintered guitar and strikes a chord. The guitar is hideously out of tune. He fiddles with his tuning pegs, shrugs and throws down a hat. Sarah fumbles in her bag.

They are thirty years out of seventh grade, and Jerry Levy has made the journey, compared to Pauley, relatively unscathed. Pauley is scathed any way you look at him. Sarah leans in for a closer look, a vis-à-vis. Jerry’s hand reaches out to restrain her but he pulls it back—she would see this as a challenge, a control move. Pauley’s neck cracks as his head flops backwards, eyes rolled back and up to look vacantly at the ceiling. His lips are moving, and as Sarah leans closer he seems to be counting the lightbulbs. Except for the bulbs, the ceiling is empty. These are incandescents and perfect for home use. The subways have thought about this too, and their bulbs are manufactured with an incompatible left-handed thread. The subway bulbs are made under contract with Westinghouse in a secret factory somewhere in Pennsylvania; this is common knowledge. Benjie Stallings, an eighth-grader, showed up for home room roll call with a back pack full of left-handed lightbulbs and was a big shot for the rest of the day. Pauley and Jerry have tried this once, stoned—harvesting subway bulbs—and considered themselves pioneers in two-man pyramid research.

Sarah’s expedition through her bag has come up with no small change. There is a ring of many keys, heavy like building supers wear clipped to their belts, duplicates from her house-sitting days. “Just in case,” she smiles. “Just in case I need a bathroom when I’m in the neighborhood. No change. Sorry,” she says in the direction of Paolo deGroot.

“Something,” says Jerry Levy beseechingly. Sarah tosses a five dollar bill at the hat, shivers and jumps back. She looks at Jerry. “Too close. Cluster-fuck-a-phobia, like in another life I might be him.”

Jerry reaches down to scratch Pauley’s ears as one might an aged mongrel dog. Pauley beams; his eyes stare up, gray and loving. “Hi, Jerry. I voted for you. For mayor.” He strums a barrage of quick chords on his battered guitar, vaguely the Notre Dame fight song.

“I play music,” Sarah said, “...music, you know? Songs. I write songs.” At her feet Pauley brightened. He stared up adoringly at Sarah like a love-struck puppy. “You are beautiful,” he said.

“And you sing the songs,” said Jerry to Sarah, “You are a singer-songwriter I know that; you told me.”

Sarah flushed, “Like him. But no, wait, I’m all mixed up. I play in coffeehouses, and off-off-Broadway, my songs—yes that’s it, coffeehouses. I pass the hat. I don’t make much money but I make some, and for a while there I was living on it. This man can really play; you can tell, but he just sits here with a broken guitar and a hat; he stares ahead. I’m confused. Music is so contextual; it is of what and where it is, and this man I don’t know and I’ve never seen before—I could never play music anywhere he was. He is here; I am here; you are here; where we are is in the subway. He said he voted for you. You know him?”

“No. No. Nonono. He knows me. He thinks he knows me. I do not know him. Or I might have a long time ago.”

Sarah had regained her composure. “That’s contextuality. You know him only not here. You were mayor?”

“Uh. Yeah. No. No.” Jerry has not run for office as far as he can remember. He hustles Sarah onto the first passing train. She has said she is/was a singer-songwriter somewhere, sometime. He does not want her to have any connection with his past, with Pauley. No curiosity, just now, the moment.

“Tempt Fate—let’s live a little,” says Jerry. He tugs at her elbow as they thread forward through the train. “Hang on to the chains when you’re out between the cars, but be sure you get a look out the front. It will change your life.” In the first car the motorman is locked in his booth from the inside; his key hangs in the lock. He smiles out at them through his impact-plated porthole. Have a nice day. Big key—big faceplate, burnished look of stainless steel. It means business: Keep Out. Through the safety glass tracks glisten in the headlights, sending refracted echoes from passing work lights. Red, then amber, then green.

Collars are mock sheepskin this year, a trademarked faux mouton. With the smell of diner home fries and sweat there are exhalations of talcum powder and perfume, Prince Matchabelli, My Sin, Aqua Velva and Old Spice. Styptic blobs decorate the quickly shaved.

At Times Square the arriving shuttle creeps into its automatic berth. On the other track a synthesized chime dings twice. Bye, now. Jerry glides into the car as its doors close; he grabs Sarah’s arm and yanks her through, past the groping rubber lips of the sliding doors. The New York subway system has a wide sense of context, inspiring trust of a sort. Like the trust people place in their kitchen faucets. The water that comes out of here will be good. It is good. There is a rumor of LSD slipped in the Central Park reservoir. These are my pipes, my faucet. The subway car is my car. These are safe places—nothing happens here. Yet there is the fear.

Pauley has followed them. He is left standing on the platform.

*  *  *

There is a stabbing once, on the D train. “He’s got a knife,” someone shrieks. They cut the power to the car and the terrified passengers stand in the dark. There is a crisp earthy tang in the cars. Vomit in the cars, urine in the underground walkways.

This is thirty years ago and two-hundred forty-six riders are already packed in—the car, on the Sixth Ave. express, is stuffed too full to move. They press away from the infected place until a slight crescent appears. An anxious man stands on a seated passenger’s lap for a better view. Passengers crowd to the farthest end of the car. Pauley shinnies up the slippery white enamel of a stanchion. “There’s blood.” He is making this up; he can’t see anything. He checks for effect; the nearest try to move away from him, a carrier of the infection. Doubt, then panic with nowhere to run to.

“He dead, kid?” It is always a he. Women stab women, men stab men; this is the natural order of things. But not in the subway. Not in here with me anyway, thinks Pauley—he is in high school now and late for class. Miss Subways looks down. Big teeth, bouffant hairdo—bouffant with a flip like Leslie Gore, Jackie Kennedy. Miss Subways, Chiquita Rheingold smiles down on the man clutching at his side. Passengers walk on through to the next car. There is always an empty car on the jam-packed expresses as they throttle through on the center tracks. Someone has thrown up here, you say. Or shit in a bag and missed the bag. Or been killed. The City will take out the body at the end of the line at the end of the day.

“He down?”

“Nah. He’s holding his guts in,” Pauley embellishes. That there is no knife he will discover later.

“PUSH!” They have blocked the door to the next car.

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