No city can make you feel like the nobody you are like the Big Apple. Every day I’m reminded of my insignificance as I walk down to catch the ferry that takes me from Staten Island to Manhattan. Every morning I’m engulfed by a human swarm of tourists with European languages and expensive cameras around their necks, and locals going to the city for work; men with newspapers folded under their arms, women trailing rolling suitcases behind them. I’m jostled by elbows, by handbags, breathing stale morning coffee breath, sick to my stomach and claustrophobic.
I leave the tourists to the top levels, the sea air, and the spectacular view, and I go downstairs to the ship’s belly and sit on an out-dated wooden bench, reading some science fiction paperback from the library for the 25 minutes it takes to make it to the city. When the announcement comes that the ferry is docking, I mark my place with a wooden bookmark and join the swarm again.
The swarm takes me up steps, then down steps into the subway where I catch the R to Long Island City in Queens for work. Men in orange vests aggressively try to hand me a free, daily paper, which I always decline. I slide my metro card through the slot on the turnstile and join the thousands of other people on the subway platforms. The air in the subway is hot and stale with the slightest hint of hobo urine. In the morning I count the cockroaches and in the evening I count the rats. You can always tell the time in the subway tunnels by what type of vermin is scurrying underfoot.
I’m nearly always able to get a seat on the R, even if I sometimes voluntarily give it up to a pregnant or elderly woman. Mostly I sit in a corner seat so that only one other person can possibly sit beside me. I listen to music on my phone and pull out my book again for the 35 minutes it takes to get from Lower Manhattan to my office in Queens.
I like when they change the posters in the subway just to see what creative ways punk kids will think of to defile them. The floppy penis drawn with a black sharpie, dangerously close to Meryl Streep’s lips on some innocuous poster for an even more innocuous romantic comedy is pretty uninspired.
The building I work in was hastily converted from an old warehouse, a big, gray, windowless box with gray carpeting and gray cubicles. The work itself is largely data entry, which is to say it doesn’t require much in the way of thought, a dangerous thing, because it means my mind is free to wander. The fantasy worlds that I retreat to during my 9 to 5 become more and more elaborate. In Lance-world I float through walls, through time, through earth and steel and concrete in an amorphous bubble that blocks out noise and pollution, and that can travel to any point in space and time. Sometimes I rob banks and sometimes I float down to the bottom of the ocean to take a nap with giant squid.
On my break I go to the 7-11 and get a diet coke even though I know it isn’t good for me. I walk past the smokers huddled outside, talking and puffing. Every time I see them I think of my last job where I was a smoking cessation counselor, where I sat at home in my pajamas and talked to smokers over the phone to help them make a plan to quit. I never suspected that I’d look back on that job with so much fondness and regret.
At six o’clock I walk back to the subway to repeat my morning commute in reverse. My paperback, a stranger sitting next to me, our shoulders touching. Sometimes kids will break dance, or a mariachi band will play a quick song between stops, but mostly the trip is unbroken by distraction.
On the ferry home I don’t sit in the bowels of the ship. I stand on the deck. The cold, sea air makes my eyes water, even behind my glasses, threatens to blow the hat from my head. I watch the sun setting over the Statue of Liberty. When the uniformed ferry worker in the starched, white shirt and blue shorts pulls back the rope, I’m the first one sprinting off the boat, and up the hill. Home.
Sometimes when I come home Carlos has made dinner, and he shoos me from the kitchen because it’s “his” domain. We sit in our big, empty apartment (a table and chairs is the only thing we have in the way of furniture so far), and have dinner, looking out of our sea view at the water below, and Manhattan in the distance, a shiny, glittering dream.
Sometimes when I come home Carlos is still at work, and I get Chinese take out and watch a zombie movie and pretend to work on my supposed novel. Mostly I’m too tired to do even that, and just lay on our air mattress and retreat to my fantasy land again. My bubble comes and takes me up, through the ceiling of our apartment, into the atmosphere, into space, past Mars, past the moons of Jupiter, out further, beyond the edges of the galaxy and into interstellar space. I’ll disappear in the vast comforting blackness and doze off.
Every now and then I hear the bells from the church down the street that chime on the hour. Here on the island you can even hear crickets chirping, and are far enough away from the city to see one or two stars. Thinking of the vastness of space somehow makes me feel more significant than being in a crowded city street. In the vastness of space, even the Earth itself, as big and troubled as it seems, is just a speck of astral dust. I feel lucky that the conditions were favorable for life to begin, and that simple organisms managed to evolve, and somehow I managed to find myself alive and in this amazing city.
Carlos comes home and slips in bed beside me, doing his best to be quiet and not wake me, because it’s late and I have to get up early to go to work. I roll over toward him and butt his shoulder with my head like an insistent cat. He scratches the back of my neck and leans down for a kiss. This is significant. This is something. The weight of this feeling gives my life meaning, and gives me the spark I need to put on my tie and dress shoes at 7 am and do it all again.