Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Busiest Subway Line in Manhattan

Dream diary, 8/18/08. I get a call from my drummer friend Michael who says that a member of his troupe dropped out of a gig today in Manhattan, and can I fill in? I haven't played guitar since I left Boston, but I say yes, and dig out the old weathered black case that holds my nylon string Brazilian rosewood baby. I also grab the leather zipper case that has the song charts and lyric sheets Shep Miller made out for me before he gave me the guitar when we were rooming together on the Cape.

In the back room of the rehearsal hall in Queens is one of those climbing walls that people exercise on, only this wall is made up of rocks representing old Tom Waits albums. They're differently-colored and textured, and Waits himself is sitting in front of them explaining that this is a promotional stunt for the re-releases of the newly-remastered complete Waits collection which Rhino is going to be issuing "just in time to suck up all your Christmas money," as Waits says. The rocks are placed at a sharp angle to the floor; you can actually walk to the ceiling by putting one foot on the climbing part and one foot on the flat wall opposite, which I do, because I want to see what Frank's Wild Years looks like. As I climb, I listen to Waits giving advice to a young kid who wants to be a poet. "A poet is the hardest thing there is," Waits says. "You have to be prepared to send your work out into the world and never get a reply. You'll be stranded on a desert island and each poem will be a message in a bottle that will never get you rescued."

Out of the rehearsal hall and onto the street, where there's a fair and a mob of people. I look around for street signs; I'm at the corner of 22nd and 2nd; there's a stop at 23rd and 3rd, which is the busiest subway station in Manhattan. It's also the last place that takes tokens, which means it's the only station in the city where the token clerks actually do something besides sit in their booths and tell you to use the machines. "That'll be five ten sixty," the clerk says when I get to the window. He drops a bunch of small bronze tokens the size of dimes in my hand, and I fork over a five dollar bill, two quarters and a dime. I'm still looking for the extra ten when he waves me aside, and I find myself on the other side of the turnstyle, but without my guitar or zipper case of music and lyrics. I lean backwards and with my right hand I grab the strap of my guitar case, and then snag the zipper case from where it's sitting in front of the booth window. Then I head up to the outdoor waiting area.

There are three lines at 23rd and 3rd -- uptown, downtown, and the shuttle. The shuttle is a kiddie-sized Magic Kingdom train that looks like a cake ornament made out of gingerbread and vanilla icing. As it pulls into the station, a woman behind me says "What train is that?" "It's the shuttle," I say, and she pushes by me to get onto it as the doors slide open with the scraping sound of wood on wood.

I take the uptown train to the performance hall, and when I get there, I see three well-dressed drunks staggering outside the main door. They all wear suits and ties and none of them can stand vertically without weaving around and around like a pendulum. I go inside and see a huge whitewashed hall with chairs and tables, and a small raised platform with three microphones and a drum set at one end. There's another drunk guy inside who explains that normally this is a beer hall. I nod and notice a ten-dollar gold piece on the floor in front of the stage. As I pick it up, the drunk guy laughs and says "And if we all weren't so drunk, we would have noticed that hours ago!" I look around; there are coins all over the floor, but they're all foreign--small Dominican dimes, big British pennies, and a couple of huge Mexican pesos that are as flat as paper and as big as my open hand. I put those on stage next to the mike I'll be using and try to think of a way to work them into my pre-song patter.

There's still a couple of hours before the show, plenty of time for me to hit a bookstore. If I remember right, there's a Shakespeare and Company on 23rd, but I can't remember the cross street. This means a train ride back, but I decide to walk, strumming my guitar as I go. It's been so long since I've played. The zippered case of music is gone, the guitar case is gone, it's just me and the guitar, but I'm having problems tuning it. I stop walking and stand by a hill and try to do a C Major, but it doesn't sound right. I can get the root and the major third, but the perfect fifth is escaping me.

Then I hear it coming from the hill, and I turn and see Ester, of all people, lying against the hillside like she's just about to sing "And I will marry the miller's son," with her long blonde hair braided into a tight little violin string that she holds between her elbow and her shoulder, and on which she is slowly bowing a G that fits in perfectly with the other two-thirds of the chord that I'm playing on my guitar. For a moment every atom of air in the world comes alive with the note we're playing together.

Then Ester smiles and says "I'm thinking of moving to Staten Island," and the disconnect is so jarring (Ester on Stinky Island?) that the observer part of my mind starts ringing the Dream Alarm ("Ding ding ding ding! You're dreaming!") and I wake up so hard I can hear my neck snap.

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