In the Pernod-sodden pages of Kerouac's and Burroughs' And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks the guys talk about the young sailors who ride the subways with their legs splayed and their eyes wide open. This being New York, where the happy hours keep truth and fiction pleasantly indistinct, no sooner had I finished the chapter than I realised that I had a real, mouth-breathing specimen splayed out on the seat next to me. He was out of uniform, and in the mood for conversation.
"So do I get off here for Broadway Lafayette?"
"No, you need to wait til we get across to Manhattan. Couple stops."
"Gotcha. I thought that since it was Broadway Junction, maybe... I don't know. Maybe all the Broadway trains crossed here or something."
"Nah, doesn't work like that. Don't take the A-train much then?"
"Never taken the subway before."
"Where you from boy?" (I never said that it was me he was eager to talk to)
"Texas originally. But I've been in boats in this district for the past five years. Know New York like the back of my hand. Just, y'know, not the subway. Know all the harbours though."
Turns out our man is in the merchant navy, "the fifth arm of the armed forces" as he put it. The phrase was meant to be grandiose, but just made me think that the US military sounds like a fairly grotesque body politic, a lopsided god of war. It's one thing to be in a branch of the services so elite that you can't really talk about it, quite another, I imagine, to always have to explain that what you do is y'know, really just like being in the army, navy or airforce. Same, same but different.
But even after he waved goodbye at Broadway Lafayette, I couldn't stop thinking about this other New York that the sailor knows. My Gotham must be a place apart from the one this man navigates, where it's not blocks, but shipping lanes that matter, where the city limits are marked not by Bronx Zoo, but by the ports of the Catskills, and where Jersey is not a joke but a port of call like all the rest.