As stalactites dripped some undefined liquid on DL’s shirt, panhandlers surrounded him. Each of them raked in seven times more than DL’s salary. One played a riff on a cardboard imitation clarinet. When DL turned away, the panhandler said, “I love you, bro’.”

Another, wearing a sign saying he’s deaf, dumb, and blind as a board, held out an enameled cup, which he rattled every time somebody came near. “How’d he ever find his way in here?” Holly asked.

“Go frick yourself, Sunshine,” the beggar grunted.

A third, in white robes, ordered, “Feed the children, mister.”

“Sorry,” DL shrugged.

“Praise Allah anyway, a-hole.”

There’s charity and then there’s clarity, DL thought as the liquid dripping from the stalactite burned a hole through his plaid flannel shirt. Maybe this whole system is beyond salvation. He and his leonine lover boarded an uptown train and got off at 59th Street. The escalator wasn’t working. They faced a creepy six-story climb to Bloomingdale’s and the street.

Jackhammers burpped all around them. Tires squealed. Car horns blared on top of one another. “It’s just as noisy up here as it is down there,” DL said.

“And just as filthy,” Holly added, kicking a floating newspaper page. He nudged her into a sidewalk cafe.

“What’ll you have, buster?”

“A bottle of FRITZ.”

“Never heard of it.”

Her brown lettuce salad cost more than a full-course steak dinner back at Oat ’n’ Mary’s Diner. DL wondered if he’d ever grow accustomed to The City’s extortionist prices.

Meanwhile, in a subway station five blocks away, three punks tried to rob a token seller. They shouted and pounded on her booth. She refused to open the locked door. The piranhas poured gasoline around the stand and watched it wash into her cabin before they struck the match. As flames engulfed the booth and exploded, they dashed away, leaving the railway worker, thirty-one-years-old and mother of three, to crawl to the street. A passing Transit Authority policeman founds her badly charred, horrified, sizzling body.

Forty-five minutes later, when DL and Holly began their trip back to her mother’s, he wondered why that station was closed in the middle of the afternoon. He was angry at being forced far out of their way to make up the missing connections. The rickety old cars they ended up taking looked and smelled like giant sardine cans.

“Praise Allah anyway, birdhead,” a white-robed voice said as its hands lifted an old man’s wallet. All it takes is a bump on a crowded car, and wealth vanishes from a pocket. The elderly victim wouldn’t notice until he had left his station. He wouldn’t even be able to call a daughter to come and get him. He wouldn’t be able to afford a bus, either. If he was lucky, maybe he’d panhandle the fare. So much for charity.


For more from my THIRD RAIL collection, click here.


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