21st Century Woman

Vignettes

I am convinced there is a psychopath in my neighborhood. About once a week, I stumble on the body of a bird or mouse, in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the same building.

This is not a bird that has flown into a window, or rat that has eaten poison, these are bodies left there, usually smashed.

And when it’s not a full bird, it’s the wings of a bird, its bony protrusions exposed.


I’ve started wearing earplugs on the train.

One of first things I noticed when I moved to New York was the almost unbearable cacophony of the subways. Prolonged exposure seemed impossible, and forget headphones—to hear anything over the sound of squeals and the stops and the breaks meant listening at full volume.

So, the earplugs.

Overtime, I’ve come to appreciate and even depend on the earplugs. If I happen to have a book or magazine to read, I find myself more deeply invested in the story when my earplugs are in. And overall, it decreases my interest in being on my phone—the rare chance to turn down both the physical and emotional noise. Kids are fascinated by them and often point them out to their parents.

Sometimes I miss the anonymous chatter of my fellow passengers, but mostly I don’t.


The other day I had my earplugs in and had zoned out in such a way as to have achieved a sort of commuter zen—not oblivious enough to miss your stop, but impervious to the usual indignities of the ride.

With a sort of semi-consciousness, I realized a woman, a panhandler begging for change, had gotten on my car. This is not unusual, especially during the morning commute, and I admit, a little callously, to often reviewing their appeals for rhetorical effect.

But today the earplugs were in and I could not hear her tale, so I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing.

A moment later, I began to feel the people on either side of me twitch. I opened my eyes to see them covering their noses, their faces green.

And that’s when it hit me—the potent smell of urine.

I looked toward the woman making her way down the train car. The seat of her pants were stained and wet—today’s situation was not a recent or first phenomenon.

The smell was overwhelming. I started to gag and tried to push against the reflex, which felt somehow disrespectful. I watched others trying to do the same—to discreetly cover their nose and their mouth. Others had fewer concerns about propriety and opened the door to the next train car to seek out fresher air.

But most of us just sat still, collectively begging for the next train station to appear so we could have options.

And then the train came to a stop. Held between stations. They would let us know when we had been given the signal to proceed.

And then the desire for propriety ended. Gag reflexes do not have manners.

People pushed to get away from the woman, who was still on the car, asking for spare change. And they breathed into shirts or hands or scarves—anything to filter the smell.

It seemed we were on the verge of panic when the train lurched forward again and people paused to decide whether they could hold out for the station.

Never has a train pulled in more slowly to its destination.

And how funny we must have looked spewing from the car, gasping for air.

I looked down the platform to see the woman moving to the next car, counting her change.


Walking down the streets on July 4th. Every 10-15 steps there is another family with another grill. Chairs. Bottles. Kids with sidewalk chalk. A worn set of dominoes. Uno cards.

And a boombox.

Every 10-15 steps, a new song. Always in Spanish. A strange, urban orchestra both at odds and completely in sync.


We go up to the roof hoping to catch the fireworks—the big ones, down by the Brooklyn Bridge. But even from our vantage point, on top of a building, on top of a hill, the fireworks sit too low, too close to the waterfront over 8 miles away.

Before we can turn away, other fireworks begin to spring up all around us. Over there in Inwood. And across the Hudson in Jersey too. And at 125th. And now two streets over at 134th. And is that Central Park?

There are so close they feel like stars are falling on us.

Pink and gold and green and blue.

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