In a run-down café on an unnamed street, removed from the sound and fury of the city streets, sits a young man dawdling over a hot drink long gone cold. A most unremarkable person, his clothes and features are plain, his shaggy hair unkempt and dull. Only his dark eyes, piercing and keen, are of any note. That young man is me, though I doubt you'd recognize me even if you had met me. I'm pretty much invisible. Sitting alone in a corner, unnoticed, I am carefully recording my surroundings and those who share them. The café I'm currently in is dimly lit, and incense and cigarette smoke hang in the air. The paint on the walls, once a vibrant red I'm sure, has aged and faded. Cracks on the walls are for the most part covered by posters and paintings by local "artists." Many, in my opinion, are the products of questionable talents. No doubt the works of some second-rate amateur seeking some small measure of exposure. The rest of the small café is in a similar state. The dim light cannot hide the wear present on the tables' surfaces, and the rugs covering the floor are dingy and threadbare. The overstuffed chairs and couches are old, and many show signs of recent, improvised repairs. They're still comfortable though, and are occupied by all manner of people.
Most are sitting alone, like me, and are perusing newspapers or magazines over lattes and bagels. In a corner across room there is a small group of kids around my age. They're mostly clad in black, with ripped jeans and t-shirts, their hair a spectrum of colors that certainly do not come naturally. They're all staring with rapt attention as a girl with a shaved head clumsily strums at a guitar that looks like it has seen better days. And two seats to my right sit a mother and daughter. From my vantage point I can overhear bits and pieces of their conversation. From what I can gather, it's a reunion of sorts. They haven't spoken in years apparently, and their tones are guarded, their topics neutral and mostly trivial. A lot of discussion concerning the weather I notice. Turning my attention elsewhere I see a man waiting at the coffee bar. He's young, early thirties I imagine. He's wearing a stylishly cut suit and is talking animatedly into a cellular phone while gesturing wildly. He hangs up abruptly, and looking around with apparent disdain for both café and customers alike, he adopts an air of smug superiority. He waits for his drink to be prepared while glancing impatiently at his watch and incessantly tapping his foot. When it is handed to him he gives not one word of thanks, turning and walking out the door at a brisk pace, his bearing proud and erect.
With a grunt of dismissal I turn in a new direction, searching for a new subject. My gaze finally settles on a table directly in front of me, its occupant a lone woman. She is beautiful at first glance, stunning even, with a delicate frame and a mass of long honey-honey-blonde hair. But on closer inspection, I notice something is wrong. Her expensive- looking outfit (Armani? Gucci? Some other equally meaningless Italian- sounding label?) is wrinkled, and her hair is lank and unwashed. Her makeup fails to conceal a mottled and splotchy complexion, while her green eyes are puffy and bloodshot. She's clearly been crying. As I watch, a single tear streaks down her face. It falls from her chin to land in her coffee cup, sending slight ripples through the dark, steaming liquid. I wonder why she cries. I wonder what sorrow has brought her here alone, with neither sympathy nor comfort. Is it grief that mars her beauty? Or the stirrings of a broken heart?
My reverie, however, is broken by an annoyingly attentive waiter. I wave him away brusquely, and ignore the rather rude comments he mutters under his breath. He casts frequent annoyed glances in my direction, eager for me to either leave or order something else. I decide I might as well go, as all the interesting people have left anyway. I drain the last dregs of chocolate and espresso from my cup and leave money to pay for it on the table. I also leave a tip for my waiter as well, despite his total lack of manners. I pull on my coat and head out the door.
Outside it's cold and wet. It's been raining for days and the city has lain under a blanket of grey clouds. The overcast sky seems almost melancholy, and casts a dismal pall over the city. Not that you can really see much of the sky. Mostly it's blocked out by all the tall buildings towering overhead. Buildings are crowded together, and are seemingly stacked on top of each other. Skyscrapers, man made mountains of metal, glass and mortar, reach higher and higher as if they would challenge the heavens themselves. People race about in the shadows of these testaments to human pride and skill, shielding themselves from the rain with umbrellas, briefcases, and newspapers. Traffic clogs the avenues. People crowd the sidewalks. Flustered pedestrians shout at the top of their lungs, trying to hail cab drivers who seem to take no notice of their presence. Car horns and the raucous calls of street vendors fill the air, adding to the ever-present din of a bustling city. Teenagers with more piercings than common sense loiter in alleys and doorways. Businessman and woman shove through the crowds, wearing their suits like royal robes. They hold themselves like the kings and queens of this urban kingdom, puffed up on their own sense of self-importance. People mill about aimlessly, their steps short, their shoulders hunched, their eyes dead and downcast. No one is smiles or laughs.
"Who are these people?" I think to myself. Looking around I can't help but wonder. What are their hopes? Their dreams? Their fears? Is anyone even happy here? With no answers forthcoming, I shove my hands in my pocket and start walking towards the subway, joining with the endless throng of lost souls wandering amidst the glass and steel canyons of the city. Garbage lines the sidewalk. Trash cans are filled to over flowing. Cigarette butts, empty beer bottles, crumpled candy wrappers and newspapers. Empty McDonald's cartons and Starbucks coffee cups. I kick at crushed Coke can as I walk along, my eyes on the sky. I wish it would stop raining; it just won't let up. It's like nature is trying to wash away the sin and filth of the city. Rain water collects in stagnant pools, mingling with gasoline and motor oil to create grotesque rainbows. The smell of wet garbage and sewage lingers in the afternoon air. My nose wrinkles in revulsion as I keep walking. It's starting to really come down.
There's a hotel nearby, the Winston I think. The awning covering its entrance is a welcome refuge from the rain. A young girl is standing there already, clutching a white balloon in her hand. A middle-aged woman, probably her mother, is nearby arguing with the doorman. The girl looks up at me with wide blue eyes, her overalls muddy. She can't be more than three or four. She smiles. Her front two teeth are missing (a recent visit from the tooth fairy perhaps?), yet her smile is wide and unabashed. I'm amazed by this girl, so bright and so trusting. For the life of me I can't remember what it was like to view the world through such eyes, with innocence unjaded by years. I fear for this girl. I fear what she will have to face growing up in this harsh world. My face betrays my melancholy mind. She looks up to me now, her little face scrunched up in worry and her eyes filled with sympathy. She tugs at my pant leg and I bend down to see what she wants. She doesn't say anything, she just wraps her small arms around me and gives me a quick hug. I look at her, curious and a little shocked. She returns my incredulous stare unflinchingly. But then, as if struck by a sudden thought, she digs determinedly into a pocket, pulling out a half-melted candy bar. She offers it to me expectantly, if a little wistfully, and I am touched by this act of selfless generosity. I laugh and ruffle her hair, thinking how nice it would be if a hug and Hershey bar would be all it takes to make the world's problems go away. I don't take the offered candy, instead I make funny faces for her, delighting in every smile and giggle that crosses her face. Just then the haughty middle-aged woman storms over. Throwing me a look of disgust, she grabs the child's hand and roughly pulls the girl inside, lecturing about talking to strangers. I stare after them for a few moments before returning my attention the street. The rain has slackened. The downpour is now little more than a cold drizzle. Before I leave, I offer a silent prayer for that little girl, even though I doubt anyone is listening.
The thundering noise of jackhammers and construction cranes greet me as I pass a construction site off Lindon Street. I pause for a moment, looking through the chain link fence surrounding the lot. The construction site resembles an open wound on the city's face. A lattice work of steel beams, so resembling a skeleton stripped bare, rises out of the mud and refuse of the construction yard. It's disgusting. If I recall correctly, a small park used to be here, torn down to make room for this abomination. It's sad how everything that was once vibrant and alive is crushed beneath the inexorable tide of Progress. E.M. Forster was right. Life is being melted down all around the world, all to further the growth of a modern nightmare. And what has Progress brought us? Corruption. Hatred. Despair. Little more than "panic and emptiness" as Forster would say. I guess it's best that the Last Englishman didn't live to see himself proven right. That's all life boils down to. Panic and emptiness. Whatever.
As I turn to leave, a small glimmer of color catches my eye. Looking down, I find a small plant, little more than a weed really, struggling for life amidst the mud and filth. On it stems bloom a few puny flowers, colored a pale and sickly lavender. Most of the flowers are dead, their petals crushed beneath the feet of workers and passersby. But one little flower still stands. It's amazing something still grows in this wasteland. A small island of beauty in a sea of ugliness. How long before it succumbs? How long before it's trampled or drowns in the mud? My heart aches for that flower. I don't quite know why, maybe I find in it a kindred spirit.
"I can't leave it here to die," I think to myself as I bend down to pluck that last, fragile blossom. But suddenly, I am struck with another thought. What then? Even if I take it with me, I still can't save it. In a few days time it will die just as assuredly, its petals withering and falling away. I shake my head and withdraw my hand. No. It's better this way. Better it die fighting, upright and on its own terms, then by the slow decay of time.
It's late in the afternoon by the time I finally reach the subway station. Walking down the stairs into the station, I notice a woman struggling to carry several large bags. Not surprisingly, she trips as she tries to get up the stairs, her bags spilling their contents onto the ground. A bottle of a soy sauce rolls across the floor and comes to rest at my feet. I pick it up and hand it to her. Glaring, she snatches it out my hands and gathering up scattered her groceries she stalks up the stairs. I shrug and walk into the station. I deposit my token and walk through the turnstiles, looking around for the right platform. The E train is running late tonight. As always the station is crowded this time of day. Over there is an Indian couple, a sleeping child in the father's arms. The two Latinos next to me are smoking while arguing heatedly in Spanish. Something about an ex-girlfriend or a disobedient dog. I'm not sure. My Spanish isn't very good. And then there's some random guy passed out drunk on a bench, a bottle of cheap vodka clutched in his hand. A touristy looking elderly couple stands huddled together in the corner. A little afraid I suppose; I doubt they see such things in Cheeseville, Wisconsin or Hicksville, Nebraska or wherever the hell they're from. The train's here at last. I shove through the crowd and settle into a seat in the far back, as far away from the other passengers as possible. Out of the corner of my eye I notice that some old guy a few rows up keeps staring back at me. I turn my head to meet his stare and look him dead on, my face cold and expressionless. He sneers at me and turns away. I chuckle to myself and lean back, looking at the graffiti scrawled over walls of the train. Some are symbols as alien as any foreign language. Others are crude statements. Most of them are offensive and nearly all are misspelled. Some noteworthy examples are:
"Punx rule"
"Fags and lesbos go to hell"
"Nuke Iraq"
"A.J. luvs Michelle"
Utterly disgusting, but hardly surprising. People are idiots, plain and simple. Shit, speaking of idiots, it looks like the trained passed my stop two stations ago. I could get off at the next station and double back, in fact I really ought to. But I don't feel like going home yet, plus I've never been this far uptown. Curious to see where it will take me, I ride the train to the end of the line, emerging into an unfamiliar part of town.
There's a vacant-eyed homeless man by the entrance of the station, most of the departing passengers are ignoring him. I wonder what brought him here, what cruel twist of fate could lay a man so low. As I pass, I can't bring myself to make eye contact with him. I pull a couple of dollars from my pocket and hand them to him, getting a wan, toothless smile in response. I smile slightly and continue on, without any thought to what I'm doing or where I'm going.
The rain has stopped and the clouds are beginning to break. The sun is setting, the last rays of twilight play across the horizon. Night descends, darkness comes, but still the city shines. Light issues from cars and homes and signs and street lamps and offices and a thousand other sources. The glare from this fluorescent sea reflects off smog and mist and the remaining clouds, creating a diffused orange glow that I'm sure is visible for miles around. I hate that glow, that unhealthy glare. The smog and city lights drown everything out. All I can see is a sickly moon, her wan and wasted face visible through a wisp of clouds. I wish I could see the stars. I wonder what it's like to see the stars clearly and whole, as one once could in days long since forgotten. But no, the lights of heaven have faded, and the glare of the city has come to rule in their stead. I close my eyes and try to shut out the garish lights of the city, but it's no use. The bright lights beat at even closed eyes, and the discordant chorus of the city assails my ears. Somewhere in the distance, a gunshot sounds and sirens blare. Two men emerge from a bar across the street. Their voices are loud and rough, their steps uncertain. As they walk away, they suddenly burst in song, vulgar and off-key. The song eventually fades, and the sound of someone crying can be heard echoing from a nearby alley. A few moments later a shrill scream pierces the air. With more than a little trepidation, I continue on into the night.
I yawn loudly and try to rub the weariness from my bloodshot eyes. I don't know how long I've been walking, how far I've come, or even where I am. My feet ache. My head hurts. Exhaustion and hunger tear at my body. Too many thoughts race through my mind, and far too many questions. The more I try to unravel them, the more numerous and impossible they become. Love. Happiness. Faith. What are these things we all desire, these intangible necessities that always seem just out of reach? I can't find the answer, can't make myself understand. I cry out in frustration, and smash my fist against a brick wall. The pain is intense as I feel my knuckles split. It's almost welcome; I don't know why but somehow it reminds me that I'm still alive. Shocked back into reality, I look around, nursing my injured hand and attempting to regain my bearings. The neighborhood is alien, yet familiar all the same. With the same cracks in the sidewalk, the same worn buildings, and the same garbage clogged streets that are ubiquitous in this modern purgatory. The sky is beginning to lighten; dawn is not far off. As I pause to consider that fact, I experience a sudden catharsis. I'm not subject to some life-changing epiphany or some divinely inspired revelation, merely a simple, self- evident truth. The sun will rise today. The sun will rise tomorrow, the sun will continue to rise long past the day the works of man crumble to dust. Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of life, I find this simple certainty comforting. I may never know why I'm here or understand why things have to be the way they are, but I guess it doesn't matter. Because no matter what, the sun will still rise each day and life will go on. I know it may not be much, but it's enough for me.