Friday, August 11, 2017


It was particular hot but clear that Tuesday in early July in Chelsea.. I was walking back from a client meeting on West 22nd Street. It wasn't quite noon. The heat wave was in its fourth day. The heat from the baked sidewalk almost burnt through the soles of my shoes in the mere half block I had walked since leaving my clients brownstone. Walking east in hours before the sun had bent to the west forced me to shade my eyes from the sun as I counted off the lines in the sidewalk. There was a woman coming the other way silhouetted by the sun, a big black woman dressed in eggplant hospital garb. Her heritage allowed her to completely ignore the heat. She almost bounced down the street her cellphone attached to her ear.  You only get that momentary breeze created by the movement of air the air we leave in our wakes and sucked in every degree of cooled air as she passed. In that fleeting second as she passed by I caught a floating speck of her conversation, "I touched myself and oh my god..." and she was past and out of earshot.

The heat of July did a slow spiral up from the baked subway tracks below. Manhattan tests your metal and grades you by the perspiration stains that darken in the arcs under your arms and make maps of Africa on the back of your cotton long-sleeve dress shirt. He was different.
The heat of the thirty-fourth street station was unable to penetrate his gait. It was crisp yet his appeal went way beyond his walk. It's not uncommon in New York for many of us to wear our personalities through the clothes we chose to pull from our closets on any given day. There are the uniforms of business and the ladies who lunch but the man briskly moving through the waves of heat in the stifling subway was anything but business or lunch meat.
From head to toe he was a mélange, a history of fashion throughout the decades. It all started with his two-toned wingtips in cordovan and white with a hint of multi-colored anklets peeking out over the rims. His bony knees were exposed just under this madras Bermuda short in shades of blood red, deep aquamarine and golden yellow the colors of the earth and sky. He wore a stripped short-sleeve dress shirt neatly pressed and stainless buttoned up to the collar and tied with blue deco bowtie he had tied himself. His glasses were the thick black-rimmed kind a geeky nerd would wear but he capped the whole look off with the current height of fashion - a man bun. He'd hit every decade and every style over the past sixty years and achieved his goal of making all of us walking in the opposite direction melting like ice cubes into the coolest of smiles

The bus from the airport to the subway was packed. Luggage littered the aisles as each of us tugged and pulled our own bags over and around those already seated trying to find an empty seat or claim enough standing space for our feet and our bags away from the heat outside the bus. I was the last on before all the seats at the on the bus were snatched. A family of three: mother, daughter and son were just ahead of me. They scurried into the remaining seats at the very back of the bus where the heat of the air-conditioning system toasted the leather and fought off any touch of freshness. As they tried to adjust there luggage and themselves they'd temporarily used an additional seat for their bags. People continued to squeeze into space that didn't exist as those desperate get on forced out the air between us. We were stuck together in a single mass glued by our own perspiration. Sensing the claustrophobia of the mass the mother pulled their bags to the floor between her feet and moved her daughter over opening up a single space for me to sit. I sat down using my knees as a vice to hold my carry-on from rolling into the person standing in front of me. The bus closed its doors with still another dozen or so travelers left outside having to wait in desert conditions outside for the next bus to come. The mother smiled at me and then tapped her daughter on the shoulder and pointed to a middle-aged woman standing just in front of me. Her daughter, I'm guessing to be around ten years old, got up and offered her seat to the woman. The woman declined saying "Oh thanks dear but I'm going to have to sit for a long flight, standing will do me good right now."
The little girl sat back down and pulled a book out of her backpack, a large size paperback the kind a school would hand out. She began thumbing through until she came to a page she'd earmarked. Her thumb started a journey down the page, her eyes following and her forehead crinkling into a question.
"Mother" not mom or mommy, "How can I figure out how many valence electrons get transferred from a nitrogen atom to a potassium atom when they try to combine?"
Her mother while bouncing her younger child in her lap continued the conversation in the same way my mother would have tried to describe how to tie a shoe to one of my sisters. It was nonchalant and every day, an activity so familiar to them there wasn't a hint of abnormality to it.
The conversation went on until the child with her mother's coaxing was able to figure out the answer for the formation of the compound potassium nitride, the answer being zero valence electrons. Dah. Frightening yet exhilarating. Seems science is safe in the hands of mothers and daughters.

Manhattan From the Brooklyn Promenade, 1954
Louis Stettner, photographer
Represented by Benrubi Gallery, NYC

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