Yesterday was a very cold day like the day before was too. I had to go up to Madison Avenue and 33rd Street to the FedEx office to get an envelope with a work check in it, and because the tag left on the door of my building said the envelope wouldn't be there for me until after four pm, the sun was already going down when I left. I was anxious to get the check so I decided to take the subway up, over and down, rather than walk. I took the number one train to Times Square. It was just past four, so it was not too crowded yet. Between the one train and the shuttle, I came upon a woman singing along with a little music machine. She looked like Sister Souljah, wearing a great big puffy blue coat and rhinestone hoop earrings, and she was right in the middle of the famous aria from Carmen with a big, powerful voice that followed me all the way to the shuttle.
The shuttle train came rattling into the station all dressed up like an American Airlines plane and stopped with a noise that sounded like a big sigh of relief. All the people poured off and everyone waiting poured on. Inside, the whole train was decorated seats and all with photographic images of European capitals. I sat down on a row of tulips between Brussels and Zurich and as soon as the doors closed, a woman a few seats away from me switched on a little music box of her own and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time for a little local entertainment!” Then she started to sing the old Donna Summer song, “On the Radio,” and I saw that she had a lot of gold teeth in her mouth. She was Puerto Rican and all bundled up in an army coat. I thought her voice sounded good. She finished the song as the train pulled into Grand Central and said, “Thank you so much for your attention, ladies and gentleman, this is real, honest-to-God local entertainment, and all donations will be appreciated very much by my eight cats and four dogs, I can tell you that, and may you all have a blessed holiday.” I wondered if it was true, what she said about the eight cats and four dogs, and something about her made me think it probably was. And it reminded me of something I’ve noticed for years in New York, which is that among people who love pets, it seems that Puerto Ricans outnumber everybody else.
Halfway through the tunnel leading to the number six train, I came upon a pair of volunteer underground preachers offering free literature about going to Hell. A big hand-painted sign was there to let us know that God Will Judge the Whoremongers, and two card tables were covered with pamphlets and books. The volunteer preachers were busy telling everyone to please take whatever they wanted, and I stopped to look. “Go on, everything’s free,” the preacher near me was saying, and I looked at a very well-worn bible lying there, and shiny books emblazoned with hellfire and pamphlets full of gospel. “Eat ‘em up, people,” he said, “They’re all free, so eat ‘em up!” I opened one of the books with the shiny flaming cover and looked at a random line saying that dogs are often better friends than people, and that dogs have medicine in their tongues. The preacher approached and said, “Please, take it!” But I closed it and put it down. I didn’t want to take it, but he wasn’t overbearing. I had the feeling that the little sentence I had just read was part of something bigger that was going to suggest Hell as a consequence, but I can’t be sure. I agreed with the sentence, with both parts of it. Now I wish I had taken the book so I could look the sentence up again and see how the passage ended. What I did take was a little folded pamphlet with a big red question mark on it and the words, “HEAVEN or HELL—Which For You?” Inside it offered a list of suggestions on how Hell might be avoided if a person wanted to follow the simple instructions, but it left the decision entirely up to the reader. There were no judgments in the pamphlet, just the tips on getting your soul all cleaned up and saved if you felt like it. It was much gentler than the lady preacher I used to pass every day on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street who would tell each person passing her by that they were going to Hell for sure, with no apparent alternative. She was not friendly about it at all, standing there with her little bullhorn. “That means you, Miss,” she would say, and I would hope that it wasn’t true.
I took the number six train one stop to 33rd Street, and when I came up from underground, there was the upper half of the Empire State Building awash in soft pink light, and the top of the Chrysler Building and its platinum eagles gleaming in the same gentle and frozen glow, while down on the ground it was already night. I walked as fast as I could toward Madison Avenue to the FedEx office and got my envelope. Once I had it in my bag, I decided to walk downtown rather than take the train at rush hour. I passed a bum with sign that said, “MY LUCK WENT TO HELL AHEAD OF ME.” He had a cup sitting at his feet, but the message on his sign seemed self-defeating. Another bum I saw had a sign offering to listen to complaining for a quarter, and I thought he probably makes better money. It was just five-thirty when I reached my corner, but the Empire State Building had already turned on her big lamp, because it’s winter.
December 16, 2010