Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Spare some change?

The phone rings for the second time is as many minutes.
"Hey Joe, how're you?"
He takes it literally. "Well, y'know, I don't really like to lay my problems on other people. But I've got a really terrible migraine, and asprin isn't working. The doctor can't see me til tomorrow, but says I can go to the emergency room. There's no way I'm going to the emergency room with a headache..."
"I'm sorry Joe." I pause for a sympathetic length of time, making the most of my free minutes. I pause so long it seems pretty crass to bring up the whole maintanence issue, but it's 10.30 by now and I want to take a shower. "Any news about someone coming to let me into the bathroom?"
"Oh yeah. Sorry. That's why I called. Plumber's coming up now. It's 5E, isn't it?"
"Well, there should be no problem. Like I say, Eddie's a mul-tie-talented guy. And if he can't I'm definitely sure I can come look at it, by, like, tomorrow at the latest... so bye, I guess" For some reason we're always awkward when we come to end phonecalls, Joe The Super and I, like adolescent lovers reluctant to hang-up.

In the end, all it took was 5 seconds jiggery pokery with a screwdriver and I was no longer locked out of my bathroom. If I were Eddie I would have drawn the thing out a little more in the dual interests of saving my face and preserving his professional mystique. As it was I just had to shrug apologetically and thank him out the door with indecent haste. Why didn't the damn screwdriver technique work for me?

I've never been a very practical person. I have a problem with directions and locks and child-friendly caps on mouthwash and medicines. Often inanimate objects seem to be out to thwart me. No matter what commanding tone I adopt they just don't recognise my mastery over them.

I was still rolling my eyes at myself for making such a mountain out of a molehill when I got to the subway stop. As I was going down, a gray-haired man was hauling himself up the steps, using the handrail as a climber uses his ropes, ice-pick and crampons. The effort made him pant. My futile wrenchings of the door handle seemed pathetic compared to his epic efforts to surmount such an everyday obstacle.

As if the ensemble cast of the Manhattan-bound C-Train had scripted a moral lesson for me, I was no sooner on the train than a pan-handler approached me for money. We don't have the term in London, but we do have the same genre of performance, and in either city I start to dig for my purse as soon as they start spinning tales of cold and hunger; just like all the other guilty, cossetted saps.

What was unusual about this guy is that for once I caught the second act. We were nearing my stop on the Upper West Side as he returned. This time I didn't put any money in his Dunkin Donuts cup. Taking me in with the rest of the carriage, he swept the cup around, his slurred diction took on a new passion and clarity:

"May God see all those people who didn't help me, who didn't look at me, and make life worse for them. That's all I'm saying."
"Charming!" I muttered primly, turning back to my book. Malcolm Gladwell was explaining that however much we like to idealise successful people, in reality their successes are produced by a complex set of circumstances, rather than any special quality in themselves. It wasn't until I'd climbed out of the subway that I realised the manifold ironies of the situation.

Damn, those C-Train players are good.

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