Rebecca PublicBy Rebecca Schiffman
July 07, 2010
Tonight I took the public bus to the public library to return, browse, and borrow some books. I was car sick (or bus sick) on the ride down Fifth Avenue. I still harbored resentment for the driver of the previous bus I had just missed, who closed up and advanced the bus twenty feet to wait out the red light at the crosswalk instead of the bus stop where more riders could have boarded. I decided my present driver was okay but not good enough to prevent my bus nausea.
My favorite bus driver is one who seems as eager as I am to reach a destination rather than just making his/her rounds, and he takes pride in his confident, skillful maneuvers that let us just make the light and continue on for a few more blocks saving, literally, minutes.
Sometimes I think of getting the driver’s name and calling the MTA with praise but then I wonder if the qualities I like most in this driver are the same qualities that would be considered by the MTA to be related to the breaking of certain guidelines.
My nausea persisted so I got off the bus two stops early and schlepped a tote bag of hardcover books to the Mid-Manhattan branch library at 40th Street and Fifth Avenue which is open until 11pm on weekdays.
More than usual, perhaps because of the heat, the scent of urine and shit wafted through the bookshelves, but was not as nauseating as the bus ride. And, perhaps because of the time and day, 9pm, Tuesday, there was an unusually large ratio of weird old men shuffling around to not weird old men not shuffling around.
I dumped some books in the book drop (two days early!) and headed toward the elevators where there stands the only obvious recent improvement in the cleanliness of the library, an automatic Purell dispenser. I took some Purell and took the elevator to the third floor. Yeah, I already knew which floor the Art books are on because I am someone who takes buses and goes to libraries. I even take buses to libraries.
More old men shuffling around, not seeming to know each other but similarly styled in academic wear and would be presentable but for their unshaven faces and yellowy-white unwashed hair, and a third “je ne sais quoi” quality.
I visited my favorite shelves and amassed a pile of books too heavy to carry home. I picked a chair at one of the communal tables and began skimming, editing out the least useful. At a parallel table, a few seats to my right and facing my direction, one of the old men who seemed particularly skittish in the way he was turning the pages of a book that he was reading at a diagonal, said to the girl across from him in a muffled, gravelly voice, “Are you a model?”
I saw from behind as she lifted her head in surprise, paused, and then sternly answered “No.”
The man went on about her having an interesting face and something else about models. She said, “No, and I’m not interested in that, sorry.” and went back to reading.
The situation felt familiar. I am sure that is the kind of thing I used to sometimes get asked by weird old men, or naive (or scheming?) country bumpkins and I felt a little surprised, a little jealous, and a little relieved that I was not the one being asked. I wondered if I would have had an answer as effective as hers at shorting the conversation. Her answer implied to me her experience of having been asked those sorts of questions before.
Now it was time to see if that old library copy card still had any juice on it. Around six years ago, upon returning from Nepal, I took out six books on learning to speak Urdu, (because I had bought a CD in Kathmandu by a Pakistani band called Strings who sing in Urdu) from this very branch, got as far as kind of learning the Arabic alphabet but without any meanings, and returned the books late enough to rack up a $46 fine. This copy card was at least that old and I had miraculously remembered where I saw it last and to bring it.
I picked one of the heavier books to copy parts of so I could save my back the weight. I shifted the rest of the books into a neat stack in front of my chair and placed my large, three quarters full Poland Spring water bottle on top to indicate that these books were not abandoned and should not be reshelved.
I found a nearby copy machine. My card had 35 cents left on it, enough to make two copies at 15 cents each, and it worked. I then refilled my card with a dollar bill at the nearby card vending machine and copied more pages. I was impressed with the system and myself for having seamlessly blended back into it. The color copies were still $1 each which seems old-fashioned considering how these days everyone prints photos from home like it’s nothing.
I put my copies in my tote bag, walked back to the tables and scanned for a tall clear bottle to locate my seat. I saw that same man who was interested in models rummaging through and spreading around my pile of books. I came up next to him and said somewhat hostilely, “Excuse me, those are my books.”
He said, “I’m sorry, I thought they were abandoned.”
Right then I noticed my manhandled water bottle. It was rumply with many dents and still standing but with a slight lean. I replied, “I put my water bottle on top of the pile to show I would be back.”
I quickly gathered the books I wanted to take, and my water bottle from which I made a note not to drink and to throw out as soon as possible.
I signed out some books with my tiny library keychain card which I keep on a ring with similar cardlets from Duane Reade, The Food Emporium, Staples and CVS. To be honest, I can’t find the Staples one and I bought a roll of double-sided tape today (the one labeled “permanent” though I worry I may in fact find that I need the “removable” kind and have to pay for a whole new roll of tape) and was too lazy to look up my card using a phone number (which phone number?) so when the cashier asked me if I had a Staples Rewards Card I said no, which in a way is true since I did not have it on me.
This time I caught the first bus I saw, an M4 going up Madison Avenue. This bus’s breaks were way too loud but at least the vehicle itself moved a little more smoothly. The metrocard reader was not working so the bus driver waved riders in, motioning for them to keep moving and not worry about the fare. That seems to happen quite often and it always feels like a happily fortuitous occasion. The bus driver does not have to wait for riders to find their metrocard and then figure out which way to insert it and the riders do not have to pay. I have an unlimited Metrocard but I still appreciate losing the hassle.
Service on several bus lines was reduced last week due to MTA budget shortages. On the bus, with my fellow passengers, I thought, “That’s a shame.” I imagined getting into an argument with some Libertarians or Republicans I know, who in this particular scenario I had just made up, were against having public buses.
A small Indian woman was pestering the bus driver for directions. She mentioned Columbia Presbyterian Hospital which I sometimes took the bus to and from during the three months I participated in a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) study there. But I heard that is one of the routes that has been changed so I didn’t chime in.
Whenever I saw a man in a suit on the subway, I used to look at his shoes to try to judge what type of man in a suit he was. Whether he was a really rich guy on Wall Street riding home after work to avoid traffic or some poor schmo with beat up semi-formal work shoes who has to take the subway because that is his only option.
I stopped being as interested in the shoes of suited subway riders when I learned that really, really rich people don’t ride the subway at all. Sure, Mayor Bloomberg rides the subway to work but he has to be driven to a stop other than his own and have a large security escort. But non-mayoral really, really rich people don’t ride the subway. They have drivers. And so, they do not really know the subway lines. They do not have an appreciation for the colors and letters and the joy of a perfect connection between two trains that do not come very often and the special knowledge one gains of which trains run infrequently at night and how to get up from those folding seats without creating a loud bang.
But some fairly rich people do ride the bus. Most people who have been in New York for a long time or who have grown up here ride the bus. But the crazies usually ride the subway. Although, once, a crazy guy on the bus, who, by the way, did not smell, called me an “anorexic salad-ass ho.” At first I thought he was just an asshole, but when he ended his rant with something about God, I was relieved to feel that he was actually just insane.
I can be made to feel bad very easily and I do not like feeling bad. I like to read on the subway. In fact, it is the only place I can really read and make progress in a book. So when a performer comes into my subway car and does some break dancing, there are really only a few routines that have been used for years, I often become annoyed. I want them to know, “I’ve seen your act before, I’ve had a long day and am just trying to get home and I was hoping to sneak a little reading in, and if I wanted to be entertained I would go to a performance and maybe pay some professional performers of my choosing. I just want to read, I don’t want to see your act so why would I pay you?”
But once when I was making a particularly serious face and staring at my book, trying to transition from staring into reading, a breakdancer in the troupe gave us, the mostly reluctant audience, a lecture.
He was pissed off. Not because almost no one gave him money. It was because of our attitude and I fear that my unamused expression was a large contributing factor to his indignity.
What I heard him say to me, in essence, was, “you don’t have to be a bitch, we’re trying our best and you’re sitting there pretending not to see us. At least smile when we’re finished, clap, you don’t have to pay us, just give a little respect.”
At the time I was so taken off guard that in my head I became very defensive and imagined all sorts of things to yell back. But the next day his point began to sink in and I am actually grateful for the talking-to because I feel that I now am able to respond appropriately in an honest and friendly manner, by boldly smiling and not paying, when someone unexpectedly performs at me.
Back to the bus ride home. I got off the bus at 86th Street and walked home with an armload of books. The library no longer gives plastic bags but you can buy one for $1, or not. I hoped I would run into one of my ritzier neighbors on the way in and they would notice the library stamps and call numbers on the books I was carrying and they would realize that I go to the public library and this realization would also be a proud, in their face assertion of my Jewish, liberal upbringing and my Jewish, liberal family and our continued presence in this ever-WASPier building.
I think you definitely should call the bus company and tell them he’s your favourite driver.
We have a very beautiful
downtown library here
that smells like
I’m all for housing the homeless
the less fortunate
and the mentally ill
not at the library.
“I quickly gathered the books I wanted to take, and my water bottle from which I made a note not to drink from and to throw out as soon as possible.”
I have never been to a library in America. This is a major failing on my part, I think. I’ve been to many Australian libraries, one New Zealand library, but when it comes to the US of A… nada.
This must be solved.
I used to live in Hoboken and take the bus to the PA every day. One time, we had a driver who was cut from a different cloth. On this morning, when he saw the bus line to the PA was too long, he turned to us and asked, “What say we take the short cut?”
We all agreed that would be best.
He then barrel-assed that bus through the bowels of the PA like something from an old Miani Vice episode, and let us off on the lower level, which was empty. I think the other buses are still there.
When he braked, we all applauded.
…He was pissed off. Not because almost no one gave him money. It was because of our attitude and I fear that my unamused expression was a large contributing factor to his indignity….
There’s one thing that’s dead certain, and that is that no artist deserves a stage. Ever.
They’ve got to earn it, and if they don’t continue to earn it, some other artist will. This is exquisitely true for artists who are entertainers (and many authors ARE entertainers, particularly genre fiction writers).
Rebecca…you’ve got this crazy brain-dump-stream-of-consciousness thing going on that SHOULD be really annoying, but is somehow instead very engaging and full of can’t-put-it-down.
It’s a great trick. Your serial cataloging of images around you serves to paint a picture of YOU (i.e. the persona of the narrator), that ends up being so appealing and compelling, one just ends up wishing to be one of the characters in your orbit.
very hard to explain what I mean without sounding creepy about it. But you hold your reader enthralled with that persona.
Nice to see you here Rebecca. It seems like a series, these drifting-through-Manhattan pieces. They have a brand of ‘signature loneliness’ I quietly love. very gentle and wry and appealing.
dwoz: i take that as a really great compliment. i was worried when writing this that the voice was too annoying but hoped somehow it wouldn’t be, thank you!
…and so you should, because it was intended as a compliment!
If I had to take a stab at the feature that prevented it from devolving into tedium, I think it has to be that there’s a “careening” quality to it, that shows us that there is a center of gravity, and at that center is someone who has a sarcastic wit that is also guile-less, there’s a distinct lack of self importance in it.
That may be it.
It IS difficult to know what to do with the subway performers. Because I possess a seriously guilty conscience, I often give money. But, while I’m rooting through my bag for a dollar bill, I’m wishing that the performers would just pass on through so I could listen to my iPod in peace.
I do, however, have a soft spot for those guys who sing “Return to Sender.”