A Wanderer in the Unwired City

Illustration by Martina Paukova

Today we’re excited to bring you the third and final winning entry in our As Seen On [ ] writing competition: Nick Tobier’sA Wanderer in the Unwired City.” While the fully realized narrator may lead you to believe otherwise, Tobier’s piece approaches the changing relationship between performance, audience, and the physical city through fiction — a departure from our other two non-fiction winners, Maya Sorabjee’s “The Wandering Women” and Andrew Renninger’s “Beleaguered Backstage.” In this short story, an unnamed Uzbek flâneur narrates the theater of urban space, from a subway newsstand in Midtown to the towers of LeFrak City, to consider the effects of ubiquitous digital connection on people, buildings, and, of course, rodents. –J.T.

“Why don’t you go with a major carrier, my friend, get a free smartphone?” the morning guy at the bodega prods.

Truly — and I say this to myself — I enjoy the freedom of being unreachable due to what my wife refers to as the infliction of ghetto coverage on our family. But since the use of “my friend” by this familiar stranger charms me, I say “maybe next month” and load $25 on to my prepaid plan. “Flip phones are coming back, my friend,” I add.

I am holding out. Not on my wife. Let me set this straight — she does call often to tell me about something small that I have forgotten (domestic or material). I am not a Luddite or a technophobe, I have to explain. Two events transpired to change my understanding of my city, both related to this phone question.

One, the middle platform at the 59th street subway station was renovated.

A no-go zone for years, the platform just sat there in the middle, unpeopled. When trains arrived on the express track — D or A, uptown or downtown — doors did not open on either side. This middle ground appeared to be a vestigial platform, a place like the ghost stations, with their marks of a city gone by, that you can glimpse when today’s trains slow down but don’t stop at a station last used in the late 1970s — when Shaft was playing on the big screen and Merit cigarettes were smoked on the platforms.

But this middle platform was unpeopled, not unpopulated. Rats, once confined to the moist zones between the tracks (no, that is not the third rail, and yes, they can be electrocuted) had free run. And run they did.

Lovely gymnastics, really — a rat would clamber up the sides of the embankment, haul itself up onto the platform, and look around. When all was clear, it would take off gamboling with a flip, a leap: parkour for rodents. I’d go so far as to say that these ecstatic rat moves were even ballet-like.

At times, there was no one there to watch them, except me. As I sat alone in the newsstand at the 59th Street station, I listened to my small radio and the rats would dance. I never thought of it as something to broadcast; I was worried any attention would put a damper on their glee. The Giuliani anti-cabaret laws made this overpriced metropolis no fun, and who was I to shut down their show?

You see, at work I stand, or sit, and stare at the middle platform. Occasionally there are bursts of activity as trains come in and out. I get gum and newspapers, Chuckles and chips and porno magazines for all echelons of society. I don’t judge. The stockbroker in the nice suit who buys an Economist, a New York Post, and Call of Booty — that’s his choice. No one knows my name, but they know my location: medium-sized man, small metal booth with Plexiglas panels a third of the way up from the southern entry of the northbound IND platform. From that perch, I can watch the slow pace of life punctuated by a rat ballet.

I figure I am seen as part of the stand if I am seen at all. But I’m used to being overlooked. The city gives me the room to roam, walking and looking. When I used to walk in Queens — past the Roosevelt Boulevard tenements, along the boardwalk approach to Flushing Meadows, through the courtyards of Rego Park — guys hanging out front would say, “What are you lookin’ at PR motherfucker?”

I used to respond matter-of-factly: “I am from Tashkent, not Puerto Rico.” But that helpful correction rarely went over well — often, the inquiring gentlemen had not heard of Uzbekistan. So I just kept walking, and, at times, have been happy to be mistaken for Puerto Rican. Better that than a separatist, terrorist, or other invective I could receive.

Now when I pass those same blocks, no one is looking. Tough guys, heads down. Maybe Googling Tashkent. Or texting. What would Baudelaire think? Am I still a wanderer lost in a crowd of anonymity, or is this the same as an empty boulevard? Is this what it is to be a wanderer in a wired city?

Hurrying past a Metro PCS outlet — is that a major carrier? — I cross Northern Boulevard heading south into Corona. Zigzagging through residential side streets lined with two- and three-family houses built in the 1920s and nestled close to one another, I can see the corner plaza of The Lemon Ice King. You can tell that a certain sitcom is in rotation on one of the syndicator/recycler channels (those do not come packaged with my non-major cell phone carrier, thank you very much) when girls take pictures of their fat boyfriends pretending to spill the ice. An Instagram moment. There aren’t that many in Queens, so take what you’ve got and reenact the opening credit sequence from Kevin James’ pre-Mall Cop days as the UPS guy in King of Queens.

I meander south toward the Long Island Expressway, where large apartment buildings are more prevalent, followed by massive LeFrak City on the southern border of Corona, where my verbose cousin Ivan lives. Built in the 1960s, with 20 high-rise buildings, shops, playgrounds, and a swimming pool, LeFrak’s views make many of my family feel they have arrived — but instead of the ebb of a sea, they take in the flows and snarls of the LIE. My cousin, a voracious consumer of electronic devices, shows me photos of the pool, one after another — from his window, from another window, each cropped so the large, hairy men on floats and screaming children are out of view.

“Go past the pool photos, man. Look at these — these are the real jewels.” He proceeds to show me really big houses. Ok, some refer to these by less kind words. Ivan’s slideshow features a collection of edifices expanded to the bursting edges of their building lots by some of our comrades: exuberant remodeling efforts undertaken by (a recent wave, I would like to note) Bukharan immigrants who began flooding select Queens neighborhoods following the collapse of the USSR. My fellow Uzbeks and Tajiks pulled up stakes and jetted to Queens, along with elements of our culture’s predilection for building architectural showstoppers. “They’re all right here.” My cousin starts tapping his laptop-sized phone. “This baby has the biggest optical sensor on the market.”

The biggest sensor on the market. A friend’s backyard that he insists is the size of Citi Field. Everything with Ivan aspires to this scale of statement. The photos of the houses he has on his phone flout all conventions — of scale, of appropriate proportion. Any typological uniformity is eclipsed by the use of either mirrored surfaces or pink marble slabs (“This one is made from imported Jerusalem stone,” he notes) and surrounded by shimmering fences and/or massive, gold metal gates. “The best part of these,” Ivan continued, showing me the vertiginous stack of a single-family home, seemingly six stories tall, “is no maintenance, no lawn mowing, no bugs.”

“No gardens,” I ask myself, as much as I taunt my cousin, “in Forest Hills Gardens?”

Taken out of their native context on Ivan’s phone, the Uzbek architectural vernacular is best appreciated in contrast with the faux Tudor of this part of the city. “‘To preserve an air of respectability’ — that’s what they call it when they don’t like your people,” Ivan weighs in. Longer standing residents of Forest Hills Gardens, it seems, found some overlooked building codes that enabled them to effectively isolate the really big houses with the shiny gates. Ivan’s photos are also taken out of context, zoomed in, showing each house as one would a jewel in a box. Tagged to Google Maps on his relentless Tumblr, I click on a location to see where these megas are — all grouped (“keeping us down,” Ivan adds) on a series of out-of-sight blocks, neatly tucked away behind two rows of pre-war high-rises and backed by the incessant roar of twelve lanes of continual vehicular traffic on Queens Boulevard.

When I have talked with Ivan for too long or wandered too far, and I can see being late in my near future — my coworker’s head craning out of the newsstand as if peering further down the tunnel might will the shift change that will set him free — I find the nearest subway station. On the platform there are the usual loud talkers, hands cupped to ears shouting hurried instructions before we board the 7 train bound for Manhattan.

Changing at 42nd Street, I see Call of Booty. Nice suit. I know you, but you don’t know me. He has his Bluetooth headset on and is yelling at someone named Scott to benchmark Lenovo and leverage his existing assets. The calls usually recede as we descend into the 100-year-old infrastructure of the subterranean metropolis.

Call of Booty is no longer talking but now fanatically thumping his mobile device. And around him so are our fellow citizens. Locked in the rapture of small screens with major carriers, each head is tilted downward before our train heads into the tunnel.

Later that day I read, via one of my job’s fringe benefits, that “the MTA has been on a clearly defined mission to bring our mass transit system into the 21st century with upgrades to the station environment through several ambitious new-technology communications projects like this one, aimed at improving the travel experiences of our customers while offering another level of security.”

First the platform renovation, with its new lights and flows of commuters, late night stragglers and early risers, where there had once been a space free of human intrusion. Now, wireless access is free to consumers thanks to HTC One (for those of you with smartphones, choose the SSID: FreeWifibyHTCONE).

Free wireless? With a sublicense arrangement to manage and operate Wi-Fi services — including sponsorship and advertising support — for the subway station network, the new Wi-Fi access is the gateway to occupying one of the last zones where you’re free to be disconnected.

···

My cousin who lives in Munich recently sent me a link to a YouTube video that had been posted and reposted. This one showed a video of a rat dragging a slice of pizza down the steps of an East Village station (I used to know the newsstand there, before it became a coffee kiosk).

7 million views.

“Go rat, go man!” someone off-screen yells. The time stamp reads 2am. “They should make a rat in the subway video channel,” my cousin tells me. “It will be the next big thing.”

Next thing you know, the same MTA spokesperson who announced the free wireless says that there will be a crackdown on the rats — all because some drunken quasi-adults had to feed their insatiable Facebook feed with urban moments.

Still, I say, flip phones are coming back. And while the platform is quiet and clean, and everyone punches buttons on tiny devices, I daydream of the rats making a run for it. Maybe a flash mob that no one but those whose eyes are up for the city first-hand will capture.

Can’t get enough? Listen to a rendition of the piece by two actors, Casey Worthington and Lauren LaRocca, from our January 13th reading of the winning essays at Greenlight Bookstore:

Nick Tobier is an artist, designer, and native New Yorker who has observed the city from, among other places, the newsstand at the 59th Street IND station.

 

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