Our hospital official and twice daily subway commuter left work with a sense of having cheated. It was early but she felt entitled through the commingling forces of her seniority, the slowness of the day and the fact she wanted to be outside, covered in the sense of anonymity that gripped her with the cold hands of indifference.
Striding through the pediatrics wing of the hospital she looked south down Broadway and strolled to 165th Street. A group of painters passed her making jokes in Spanish and tapping each other on the shoulder for what she could only guess were a series of insults. She spied the sign for Dallas BBQ glowing in purple across the street and noted a group of pear-shaped endomorphs readying to fill themselves with fatty meats and fried potatoes like circling zeppelins.
Walking under construction scaffolding she cut quickly westward and turned right on 165th. She noted the change in terrain like a slow moving ocean wave and passed happy teenagers gleefully setting a pace of excitement at the prospect of happy times to be had before the middle of January. They were dressed in baggy denim pants, chunky shoes, hanging wallet chains on the boys, bubble gum in the mouths of the girls, all of them wearing over-sized black North Pole jackets.
She passed a small group of strollers-pushing women talking in a language she didnt recognize and she took note of their costume of flowing robes and differently colored skin covering fabrics. Bracing against an easterly wind she passed the Eye Institute with its semi-sphere driveway. The fašade of the building was old brick and it reminded her of a few chateaux shed seen in picture books about the countryside of France.
Moving towards the hospitals newer buildings, she walked under more scaffolding and spotted women walking home in their trench coats and white walking shoes with leather bags hung over their shoulders. The near-dusk cold cut her like a warmed butter knife so she huddled closer to the buildings with her feet feeling along a loop around the hospital grounds towards nowhere in particular at the end of her day.
Seniority on the job had given her ample opportunity to slough off less desirable work on her junior co-workers. Still, she ran the occasional journalist through the hospital's grounds as if it were actually the facilities of her very own home and she enjoyed her proprietary knowledge of her employer. It was hard-won professional achievement that filled her with a sense of her own importance but it was an illusion like water flowing upwards. She knew it all the more as she walked away from her office trying to forget her problems on a boomerang loop back to where shed first started walking.
A little boy walking along the sidewalk bouncing a ball caught her eye. He was bundled in a gray ski jacket with earmuffs and a scarf but no gloves so his tiny brown hands might guide the nipple-textured surface of his basketball more expertly. His smallness as he passed felt like an anvil thrust at her midsection and she stumbled, making up a bit of business to cover for nearly falling.
The scaffolding above her head revealed a turn in the vertical supports so looked up the length of Fort Washington just as she passed the visitors entrance to the hospital. Before her was a mix of hopeful people standing in front of the tall, clear glass windows running from one end of the building to the other.
Her general impression as she walked along the promenade visitors entrance was of a mall with storefronts furnished by Sadness, Hope and Anticipation. Spying the crowds she saw tears in the eyes of several older women holding the hands of younger relatives and she caught the cloudy gaze of a young man, thin before his time, covered in clothing that gave him the appearance of straw.
She passed an excitable group gathered to share some news and walked by a woman sleeping in the cold while seated in her rusty looking all-purpose wheelchair. A car alarm ignited in the driveway turnout and a few pedestrians walked northward with a snaking pattern of leashes barely containing various dogs panting and pulling, exhaling and barking happily.
Suddenly our hospital administrator felt the sting of her own smallness and anonymity punctuated by the glow of early evening settling on the arches of her feet with the force of a ton. It was a temporary pressure like the gauntlet of passage to another state of being as her footfalls continued behind several dog walkers and a few after-work shufflers who were also headed home.
From somewhere nearby she heard a piercing cacophony she recognized as the flashing siren of a speeding ambulance. It sped south down Broadway with cars and trucks pulling aside to give it safe passage and then, all at once, it was quiet.
Her thoughts turned inward and she reached for her Metrocard in a compulsory motion descending two floors stairs into the earth beneath a gentle rumble of the street above her. Passing through the turnstile she descended two floors more to where the train tunnels were muddy and dirt-bottomed with the residue of a thousand people leaving one train for another nearby advertisements she rarely noticed.
The crowd urged her forward and as she felt a small drip down the leg of her pants that caught her attention. It was wetness and thick but contained beneath the layers of her overcoat and pants suit. With the dampness of another drop her menstrual cycle announced itself synchronized with the Christmas holidays.
Fertility in a tunnel flashed in her mind making her smile despite her annoyance. She was readying for impregnation in the coming weeks, and yet she wasn't, given the pile of condoms in her nightstand.
A southbound A-train stopped along her platform and she felt an urgent need to make love. She wanted her husband inside her, to hear him moan without masculine controls. She wanted to taste his kiss but mostly she wanted to conceive their child in the passing fantasy of a moment.
Taking her seat she squeezed her legs together and felt angry for the necessity of tampons as the train powered south from 168th Street Station on its way to Brooklyn past a thousand homes and businesses, restaurants and theaters, magazine racks and shops. It was the last Friday before Christmas and the crowd around her was still.
There was also an anticipation of happiness in the subway car that seemed centered on a gray-haired black woman sitting alone against the metal armrest of a bench next to one of the car doors. She was humming to herself a song without words and smiling as she knitted red yarn in some incomplete craft that fulfilled her as nothing else ever would.
At 125th Street the crowd swelled a bit for three young men with folding chairs and drums who entered the car among businessmen and women and a small group of multi-colored youth talking loudly. The trains warning bell signaled and few stragglers made jagged leaps into the car, just barely escaping the vice-like doors in a vacuum lock.
Our hospital administrator adjusted her bag, noticed a father and daughter reading aloud in hushed tones and then saw a beggar asking for money with his smell wafting behind him. She tried to listen to the father as he read to his daughter leaning against him although she couldn't hear every third word over the three men with drums who addressed the crowd.
"Good evening, ladies and gentleman," the tallest of the three spoke with his head nearly touching the roof. "We're 'Downbeat'." With nothing further he sat down and counted time for a signal that began their percussive music that was pleasant enough but unwanted in such close quarters.
The drum rhythms spread between three different syncopated drums and the beggar made his way through the car with his hat in hand, requesting spare change. Our hospital administrator looked him in the eye and noted the deep brown sadness of resignation. Speeding beneath Central Park West, bleeding and impatient, under thirty feet of steel, concrete and air pockets waiting to be transported home, she felt remorse about this stinking beggar and his efforts to wrest a few dollars from strangers who looked upon him with disdain.
"Hello," she said and smiled, trying not to separate her legs or be reminded of the stained pants she would have to launder, while digging change from her pocket. Dropping eighty-five cents into the beggar's hat, he curtsied and continued through the cart meeting with distant nods until he stood in front of the old black woman carefully knitting two strands of yarn.
She looked up from her task and smiled with deepest welcome. Reaching into her canvas shoulder bag she pulled out a ten dollar bill and handed it to him as he shook with gratitude. Then she smiled and looked away, continued her knitting and humming but the satisfaction was missed through the sound of drums and confirming kindness of strangers.
Downbeat's members solicited tips a few seconds from Columbus Circle and half the subway emptied onto the platform only to be replaced by new travelers with similar shapes, colors and sizes. So much so that our hospital administrator fairly blinked her way to 42nd Street where she transferred to an eastbound E-Train and was lucky enough to find a seat.
Next to her were a small boy and girl with bags from Toys 'R Us prattling on and on while their mother looked through a stack of receipts. Across from them was a blind man standing alongside the vertical hand support for stabilitys sake and next to him was a finely dressed drag queen in six-inch stilettos, a mini mini-skirt, transparent trench coat and much too much make-up. The collection of odd parts was like a human swap meet welcoming all comers into the breast of a nap as the train pulled in to 50th Street where there was a warning buzz and our hospital administrator heard no more.
Around her people adjusted to fill up the car with the shrapnel of Manhattan's work force running to escape the City center for a few days Yuletide cheer. It looked like a few days without deadline pressures, coffee breaks, fluorescent lighting or taxis busting through crosswalks with blaring horns. It was going to be a few days of giving and tranquility among family and friends who filled the metropolis with its wealth and commerce year after year after year.
Waking up from her nap with a start, our hospital administrator realized the trains doors were open at Union Turnpike so she gathered her things, felt the growing puddle in her underpants and scurried through the doors as they closed. She was home and felt relief because the holidays would warm her with rum-flavored eggnog and wine.