I’m taking the bus to the Port Authority. The driver navigating the rattling aluminum box we’re sitting in slaloms through the scrum of New Jersey traffic and dives us under the Hudson River. I’m always a bit nervous going through the Lincoln Tunnel. When I was a kid I was always afraid it would spring a leak. It didn’t help when my grandmother teased me about not bringing an umbrella.
I’m a man now. I’ve put childish fears behind me. I look at my fellow passengers. Almost everyone’s Hispanic. Espanol is the lingua franca of el autobus. Some people are sleeping. Others are chattering into their cell phones. No one seems excited about going into The City. I wonder if suburbanites riding the bus to jobs in Paris feel the same way. I guess if you’ve seen one naked city you’ve seen them all. The heavy man sitting next to me smells like garlic and onions. Fast asleep, cheek pressed flat against the window, a dribble of saliva works out of his mouth and jitters down the glass in synchronous rhythm with the tires bouncing on the pavement. Across from me a young man with a peach fuzz mustache clutches a backpack tightly. He can’t be more than nineteen. Maybe he’s thinking about some girl. Maybe he’s thinking about the ten pounds of plastic explosives he’s got in the bag. I check and see if he’s got wires or a detonator peeking out of his sleeve. I sniff the air for rosewater. I read somewhere that terrorists bathe in rosewater before setting out on their one way trips. Then again I used wait on a regular customer who reeked of the stuff. She never blew the restaurant up.
The drivers radio squawks reassuringly. The calm measured voice of officialdom seeps through the speakers and floats past my ears. I read the sign saying undercover police officers might be riding on the bus. I wonder what I’d do if young man with the peach fuzz mustache got up and started praying to Allah. Would I tackle him? Jump over the fat guy and dive out the window? Pray there really was a cop on board? I’d hate the words “blown up in the Lincoln Tunnel” to be in my obituary. Suddenly I realize I prefer the fears of my childhood.
Peach Fuzz is not a terrorist. I’ve read too many spy novels. I have an overactive imagination. But I can’t get the vision of the London bombings out of my head – the twisted charred metal, people’s shoes lying everywhere. That’s the problem with having a well developed imagination. If you can think of beautiful things you can think of terrible things.
Ninety-seven feet under the river we cross the line separating New Jersey and New York. I look out the opposite window and stare at the thin metal catwalk hugging the left side of the tunnel. When I was a kid I used to look for the maintenance workers zipping alongside in their little electric cars. If the tunnel sprang a leak they would rescue me. I’m still looking for them thirty years later.
We approach the end of the tunnel. I suddenly remember Hitchcock’s sly cinematic move in the last scene of North by Northwest, where he used the imagery of a train powering into a dark tunnel to represent what Cary Grant was doing to Eva Marie Saint. If going into a tunnel represents sex what does coming out of one mean? Birth? If it does I’m coming into the world smelling like garlic and onions.
The bus breaches into the dull light of a late December afternoon. I look down into the cars racing below us. One guy’s arguing on his cell phone while another driver applies her lipstick. I’d rather chance terrorists and public transportation than drive with those people.
The bus angles upwards as we hit the ramp heading into the Port Authority Terminal. As we start climbing above the streets I look at the windows of the apartment buildings close by. Each window is somebody’s home. Each window is people talking and hating, crying and laughing. Each window is awe and possibility. Each window is sex and loneliness. Each window is gentleness and light. Each window is the Power and the Glory.
As the bus corkscrews towards the sky there’s a gap in between the roadways, revealing the streets below. As if peering through the asphalt and steel iris of a concrete god, I see a modest coffee shop squatting on a busy corner. On the other side of its plate glass window a waitress drops a check at a booth. She has dark hair and might be pretty. I wonder how long she’s been working there. I wonder if she’s scared of growing old and lonely. I wonder what she dreams about at night. Before I can wonder anymore the god’s eye closes and the waitress is gone.
The bus pulls into the terminal. The kid with the peach fuzz mustache jumps out of his seat before the bus comes to a stop. He wants to get off first. I guess he’s not blowing anybody up. The fat man next to me wakes up and peels his cheek off the window. I disembark, go down escalators and stairs, and head towards the 42nd Street exit. Three young women are walking in front of me, pulling suitcases on rollers. They look like college students from Minnesota. Unlike the passengers on my bus theyre excited about being in New York.
“Oh my God!” one of the girls squeals. “I’ve never been so excited and scared in my entire life!”
I smile to myself. It must be wonderful to see New York for the first time. I watch as the girls step onto the street and do what every tourist does when they first gaze upon Gotham, look up.
Standing together on the sidewalk, the immensity of New York City breaks over us like a neon tsunami. Even though I’ve lived around the bright lights of the big city since I was a boy, I find myself looking up too. For a moment I forget who I am.
A bum interrupts my reverie and asks me for a dollar. I give it to him. The girls from Minnesota ask a young cop for directions. I smell pretzels baking. I buy one with mustard. I eat my pretzel and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city. I glory in being all grown up. A million faces walk by. Happy faces, excited faces, cunning faces, drunk faces. They’re like those apartment windows. Like that waitress they all have a story. Suddenly I’m filled with joy. For a moment I’ve become the Eye of God.
The western sky simmers violet as the sun finishes its dive towards the horizon. I look at my watch. I’m running late. I finish my pretzel and throw the wrapper in the trash. I stick my hands into my pockets, walk down 42nd Street, and disappear into the babble of a million stories.
I’ve never been so excited and scared in my entire life.