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Post Road Magazine #34

Public Space

Peter Joseph Koch

At William and Wall, Alan sees a couple sleeping on the sidewalk, bare white shoulders peeking out from under a plaid wool stadium blanket. Just a mile away, a man had been doing obeisance to God on a piece of cardboard by his hotdog stand; now there is this. One of these kids, no older probably than twenty, is a skinny male, and the other is a close-cut brunette with a birthmark on her cheek. As Alan understands it, her apparent toplessness is legal in this city, which he disapproves of. For the spooning duo on the ground—it’s a loose embrace, their “roles” are reversed: her arm around her male companion is plump and speckled, the male companion holds her hand to his upper chest—he feels not affinity, nor sympathy, odds being they’re from moneyed backgrounds and won’t be on sidewalk cement under scaffolding for long (though he also realizes he could be wrong about this), but not immediate dislike either, which is a manifestation of the slow change in him since his misfortunes began. A northbound ambulating cop passes without paying attention to them. The girl scratches her plugged earlobe whose cylinder, thinks Alan, the officer could probably fit his baton through.

It’s not warm this cloudy morning. He’s moving to the indoor public space which occupies the ground-level portion of a glass-and-stone skyscraper and can be accessed through revolving doors from either side of the block. Inside, itinerant questionably hygienic gents munch from foil or doze on a bench running the long length of the wall. Exterminators, electricians, fiber-pullers—men who earn good wages—ring aluminum tables with coffees, wheeled packs on the floor, discussing the affairs of Long and Staten Island, southern Brooklyn and Jersey in low tones. One pack, Alan sees immediately, has no apparent keeper, a mauve suitcase of smaller dimensions standing against a concrete pot in the shadow of a great synthetic palm several yards from the nearest person. This is America; an item of potential value can remain unattended in public and not be immediately taken by the first person to notice it, and the space at this hour is high-traffic, with lots of pedestrians coming up the escalator in the northeast corner from the train station below.

Alan is not a special sight here, in a dun camo jacket and dun carpenter pants, close-cut head wrapped in cotton. Could be a laborer, or lineman, yet he’s nothing on a book. Nothing doing now, his only scheduled business of the day completed at the two-level McDonald’s on Broadway, where he also purchased a coffee and was gifted a misformed hash brown some greasy bits of which still grace his beard. And with no particular goal, beyond possibly finding a way back to Holyoke and his closest relative, a brother who dislikes him, he notices things like this pack, feminine, unattended, not necessarily suspicious to him though it might become so if it stays here much longer. Not that it really matters one way or another to Alan, who, having come to the city to meet those who might do something for him and found them unhelpful, isn’t really worried about anything other than himself.

The surfaces appear to be limestone, beveled where the walls meet the ceiling, supported by twin rows of five thick columns the tiles of which are plated with small mirrors. The northern and southern facades are glass. Across from the western side with its rabble and workmen is a row of cafés and newsstands fronted by stanchions and ropes, and the area’s general aroma is more roasting coffee than resting canaille.

Two porters in sagging blue slacks and striped button-ups stand by the southern entrance, armed with lobby brooms and pans, radios clipped to their belts, watching and apparently discussing the object of Alan’s attention, unaware they’re being observed by him. The first is barrel-chested and bald, the second as heavy but softer. They appear to come to some kind of agreement, bump fists and head to opposite exits. The healthier one sweeps refuse into his pan on the Wall Street side and walks out of Alan’s view toward where the sleepers lie. When Alan looks to the northern side, the other porter is out of sight. The mauve pack, handle jutting at ninety, remains unattended. He assumes there’s a protocol that’s being followed; the duo hasn’t forgotten the pack but will check back shortly, and if it’s still not claimed, tell their superiors. He’s fond of the handsome black and yellow labs, stoic defenders of the world’s symbolic financial locus, that he’d passed a block away, and hopes vaguely one of them will be brought over to inspect. Maybe someone’s already been alerted. Considering the time of year and the obviously increased martial presence in the area, the barricades lining the shitstreaked cobbles of the street (the dogs of rich residents culpable here, not the labs), the men, the kids congregating, the thing can’t remain as it is for long.

He’ll leave it up to others, to the porters, to mention the pack. He’s got an ID and some currency and not much else, besides a record in another coastal state. And though this isn’t the best place for him to be just now, Andre, who may be able to buy him a bus ticket, will be in the general vicinity, and Alan just needs to wait a couple more hours to catch him. The fatter porter ambles up the sidewalk and peers through the glass. The pack is out of view from his side of the block. In Massachusetts, men like this had reported to Alan and done what he told them to.

The other porter is back outside. He shrugs to his cohort across the way and lights a cigarette. Fresh off the train, a stream of rush-hour pedestrians passes through. Skinny girl eschewing stockings this chilly morn. Fat male with slight limp, moving along as he must. Sec in brown blazer and turtleneck, rubicund cluster pinned to her chest twinkling, the eyes above not. These people with considerably less distance to travel than Alan come and go, and it’s tranquil enough again. Beans are ground audibly to his left. The barrel-chested porter, down to the butt, meets his gaze for a spell. Alan shivers and remains seated.

The fine for loitering in Massachusetts was a hundred dollars last he checked, though he’d never in his time as manager brought it down on those souls who pointlessly populated the grounds of Swingle House at all hours. Alan doesn’t know what the fine is in New York. On his person he has thirteen dollars in ones. He possesses as well a scratch ticket, given by one of his contacts, which remains as yet inviolate. To prove to the porter he has business, he takes this from his jacket and puts it on the tabletop. He fishes for coins and can’t find a penny, so he uses the nail of his index finger, uncut for a month.

Now Alan has thirteen dollars and fewer potentialities. His task concluded, he glances to the north entrance and sees the fatter porter coming through the revolving doors. The other one meets him in the center of the space and together they (and Alan) look to the unattended pack. Alan could learn from it and mind his own business, he thinks. There’s nothing stopping him from heading to the square to wait for Andre, except that it’s outside. The barrel-chested porter talks into his radio and casts another glance at Alan, who rises, throws his cup into a can and walks to the southern entrance. Something like this happened dozens of times a day in the city, probably, but it’s that time of year and one can’t be too careful. He glances at stenciling on one of the panes, sees an “LLC” in thin sans-serif print.

“Just another asset for the guys upstairs,” says a slight man in old clothes, boyish in the face, vocally somewhere in his thirties, who’s standing near Alan with a canvas backpack on his shoulder.

Alan doesn’t answer.

The man says, “An atrium, open to the public, lets you build higher. I wonder what the rent revenue from these food places is.”

His name is Brent. Alan hopes he’s magnanimous, and is willing to tell ten minutes of his story to Brent over another coffee with extra cream, and maybe a hard roll with butter, if Brent wants to hear it: somewhere in Holyoke, a block away from a topless bar, a first floor storefront was shuttered. On Sundays meal-seekers now lined up approximately eight miles from his old handout spot by the management office—his former management office—where the staples they’d receive would be strictly all-natural, prepped with love by Toni and Soni of unit 3B. WSU girls who’d laughed at his quietness. That had been then.

He’s not going to mention the pack to Brent, who’s possibly aware of it. For all Alan knows, it belongs to Brent, whose soft reddish cheeks and unprovoked convo make Alan distrust him. But there’s no reason Brent should have anything to do with what’s almost surely a false alarm. The porters are in line at one of the bakeshops, laughing. A fun-size cop enters from the northern side, stops near the center and raises his chin to the mirror-plated tiles. The contents of another car stream up the stairs and around the officer.

Brent sees a female passing the building on the southern sidewalk, and struts briskly to catch her, promising Alan he’ll return shortly.

The commuters are moving faster; it’s just past nine. Alan decides he’d better join them while he can, and turns on his heel. The officer’s gaze is on the pack. Grinding ceases. Something shatters near one of the coffee kiosks.

Alan turns despite himself and sees the cause of the noise: a woman in a sheeny green windbreaker stands over the shards of a plate, loudly apologizing to no one in particular. The fatter porter approaches with his pan. As he sweeps, she keeps looking around the space, though no one’s paying attention now, the rush having ended. She throws up her arms, bangles sliding over fabric, an expression of panic on her loose tan face.

After a brief colloquy with her sudden attendant, who points grinning in the direction of the mauve pack, she goes to claim what she’s left, shaking her curls. Ocular revulsion from the fatter porter. The barrel-chested one is already headed back outside, disappointed that his potential thrill is the work of a sloppy out-of-towner.

Alan spends two dollars of his own on a Guatemalan roast and exits through the south entrance, feeling nervous despite the de-escalation of things. For reasons unknown to himself, he walks back over to the sidewalk on William Street where the couple was bivouacked. The male is folding the stadium blanket, his companion successfully perched in crow pose on the pavement beside him, bare black soles toward Alan, who stands across the street. His eyes meet those of the young man, who waves and motions for Alan to come over. Todd and now-planted Leslie introduce themselves. Alan says, again he doesn’t know why, that he knows Brent.

They know Brent and are meeting him nearby at the square where Alan expects Andre to be, and he decides to accompany them—he’ll take it, their unjustified acceptance—the cool, which this duo has braved for a night and maybe more, suddenly feeling salutary, almost invigorating. As they walk he explains, with their easily-obtained permission, his incident with Holyoke’s finest, their production of an illegal blade that he, opposed to violence barring extreme circumstances, had never seen, much less carried; the resulting short stint in low-security HCCC and considerable fines; his exit from the world of Swingle House; his woman’s exit from his life; his release and subsequent tribulations; and the difficult search for work which has brought him here to the city, to this social node on the dermis of the district: a mild recrudescence, an event-marker, the components still congregating, making noise, doing what they’ve done before, albeit in numbers visibly lower, yet a happening nonetheless, ringed by clusters of yawning officers.

He’d thought the stock exchange was bad. The chief goal of man, he decides, is to get himself into situations he’d rather avoid, a case in point being this one. Of course he hadn’t made any choices two years ago when he’d locked up his office for another day, ready to attend a brief meeting about proposed after-school tutoring for lower-income Holyoke students, and found himself accosted by men like these now standing guard in the shadow of a very new structure.

Brent and the woman he’d chased are standing in front of a big man, his arms akimbo in thermals, a chain around his neck, near the southeastern corner of the square. It appears they’re arguing, specifically this woman Nikki, clad blackly cap-a-pie, who’d pulled Brent away from Alan, and the big man who’s telling her there’s nothing so useful for the formation of opinions as practical experience, which he says she’s demonstrated she lacks, and that if she wanted to be a tool for some higher purpose she might function best in the carrel he knows she came from. He looks like he’s been up all night, though maybe, thinks perennially hangdog Alan, it’s his natural physiognomical lot. Nikki herself has an intelligent face with a prominent brow and a sharp chin and exceptionally pale blue eyes she keeps fixed condescendingly on those of the man who’s putting her down. The quality of the big man’s clothes is better than his disheveled appearance initially suggests.

“It’s not the first time we’ve had to deal with this guy, whose name is I think Squitieri or some shit,” says Todd, who’s from Missoula. “I don’t think he realizes Nikki’s legally blind.”

Alan walks to a trash can with his empty cup, aware of himself as object of a state-funded gaze that might be better focused on, say, violent criminals than bearded men with vaguely militant miens. He’s wondering where Andre is.

He returns to his new companions and their antagonist, who’s directing his anger to Nikki, jumping from grievance to grievance—a person’s word in the city is no good; a West Virginian’s, a warm, hospitable West Virginian’s, is—from abstraction to abstraction—honor, clan lealty—and contradiction to contradiction—too much talk, too little doing in this world, in this square: the only thing getting achieved in the country, by the action or so to speak inaction of the assembled mass, is the gradual expeditation of the working American male. As supervisor for a general contractor, he’d thought he knew men, thought he knew brotherhood. When Squitieri says he’s been laid off, Alan can’t not feel it, though there’s no way this guy’s gone through what he, Alan, has.

“Adapt, improvise, overcome,” hazards Nikki correctly, “right?” Alan gets the reference, not the ridicule.

Squitieri apostrophizes, “She knows!” missing her bigger meaning too, though he’s visibly impressed she’s identified his past allegiance. He’s getting agitated.

What none of these little people know is there are disadvantages to being a large male, one of them being that others of bulk think they have a right to make a go on you, since in bigness there’s an assumed superiority, a tacit provocation, or so Alan is thinking.

But it’s Nikki’s arm Squitieri reaches for, not Alan’s, in order to demonstrate how one can easily bring about a “compromise of structural integrity,” should one need to: he grabs the back of her arm above the elbow with one hand, takes her up-facing forearm with the other, and applies just enough pressure to suggest what with more force he could easily do to a human appendage on a human body in this place populated with bodies—which is not a good idea, even if it’s just for show, as poor Nikki, on feeling even just the hint of anatomical dislocation, experiences a concomitant ontological snap, the emergence of being as being-in-pain, which she’s just not ready for.

She screams at him to release her, white cheeks reddening. Alan starts without thinking and takes hold of Squitieri’s bicep—and for a moment the three of them would feel the same current were there some available source Nikki might grab with her free hand. Squitieri lets go of the girl and shoves Alan back a few steps.

It’s hard not to be noticed. A nearby man in shorts lets out a noise of either indignation or amusement. The shock of his own actions has taken Squitieri down a rung sense-wise; he’s talking to nobody in particular, or all of them, everyone, saying something like, “A demonstration, what? Just demo”—here changed the meaning of a word he knew well—“Demo. Like how they brought it down, fastest on the island! I’m here to tell you!”

At least half a dozen officers start their approach. Nikki’s unhurt arm is being checked by Leslie, who’s also squeezing the back of her neck with thumb and pointer for comfort. Her eyes are closed, and she’s smiling as one who faces all downs with unflappable positivity. Alan does nothing. The common valediction he’d used in emergency procedure memos to tenants, Thank you for your interest in life safety, crosses his mind; then a short prayer, as two of the officers close in on him.

I see this happening, a large man in low-key camo, his hands palm-up in the air while he explains something to police, his drunken contractor-adversary raving nearby, as I exit a mid-priced menswear vendor at which I’ve just spent $385 on a black suit for my sister’s impending wedding, a purchase about which I have mixed feelings (as I do about the present tense), since I’d rather have gotten a dark gray or blue one—something in a color I could wear to job interviews for the mediocre, menial administrative positions I was born to occupy during my unfortunate twenties, and will likely occupy for the rest of what will doubtlessly be a long life, the only consolation being that as a male in such a position I break the stereotype, though I’m not even sure this is a stereotype anymore, especially in New York—rather than one whose only use is basically for funerals, though in a way this “tailored fit” two-piece would fulfill a banal symbolic role were I to ignore the advice dispensed by the fifty-ish salesman and indeed wear it to my next interview during which my humanity will be diminished as my appetite is from the suppressants I take beforehand in order to appear more lively as I give plumped prefab answers about my dependability and experience in the particular capacity for which I’m being considered, extemporizing just occasionally in the event of hypothetical questions which are generally reserved for those people, vying for more specialized, difficult positions (and in their cases the problems they must solve are a lot more complex and require a much better-oiled cognitive machine than mine), I will eventually serve, coordinating their meeting and travel schedules, typing their memos, logging their data, and so on, for eighteen dollars an hour, eight or nine hours a day—but anyway, the event, the big wedding, is happening this weekend, and per my sister, who’s imperious and has been laying since childhood the teleological rails that lead to her Catholic union with a steadily-employed male this Saturday, expected to be sunny and mild in Minneapolis, I must wear a black suit, so that’s what I’ve purchased with half a month’s rent money, though my parents were good enough to cover my plane fare.

But Alan, destitute wronged Alan, whom I have to leave to catch my flight: let the ruckus attract Andre, who convinces the police it’s a misunderstanding, and, seeing the depths to which his friend has sunk, offers bus fare and best wishes—let Alan get out of town, bound for an aunt in Augusta, around the same time I’m taking off. That, plus the regressive extrapolation above, is about all I can do for him now. What lies ahead for the man? How will he get back on his feet? I won’t claim to know; I have some guesses, maybe, but leave it up to someone with more knowledge, fewer engagements and clearer intent—be it educative, constructive, purgative or otherwise edifying—to do the real illuminating.

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