The Flight Album

When in doubt, there’s always New York
Photograph by David DrebinCentral Park

I don’t want to finish the joke. I feel the heat rising in my body, that prickling message from the brain that signals embarrassment, that one that hits your armpits and the back of your knees, reaches like a hand up the nape of your neck and over your forehead. I am tired and not thinking straight, overwhelmed by New York’s twinkling winter lights and dense knots of buildings, hinting at much more beyond. This is not to excuse, rather to explain why, when the kindly cab driver told me his name was Stanley, I said, in an overly forceful tone, a put-on tone attempting God-knows-what, “And where are you from, Stanley? ” To which he said, “I am from Haiti.” His words like little bells. And then I said, “I know a joke about Haiti.”

An hour earlier, I had shuffled off the airplane to Baggage and wrestled my oversized camping backpack — a gift from my father — onto a cart. A man, maybe seeing me flounder, asked where I was from. “Can-a-da!” he exclaimed, half- enjoying the word and half into me being from there. With a wink, he answered his cellphone, the ring a loping hip hop beat I didn’t recognize. “Yo,” he said, and, not waiting for someone to respond, “I’m almost home!”

LaGuardia Airport was shabby and small. Even at the late hour, it was thick with bodies. As instructed by a friend’s sister, a Manhattan expat, I avoided the car service desks; the cars, pictured on sandwich boards, were a series of identical Cutlass Supremes, their windows blacked and seething with potential danger. I was supposed to get a friendly, yellow cab with a friendly, smiling driver. So I did. I know a joke about Haiti, yes I do.

“Oh yes? ” Stanley says gently, his eyes level on the road. Unlike the New York cabbies I’ve pictured (“Follow that car!”), he drives very slowly.

“Uh. Yeah. Have you heard of Dave Chappelle? ” I was raised on stand-up, particularly black comics like Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor. My mother is a fan, and anyway she’d determined never to conceal any facet of the world — particularly the world of performance — from my sister and me. We were plunked in front of Saturday Night Live and Mr. Dressup alike. As a pop-bottle-glasses-wearing five-year-old, I entertained her high school drama classes with pitch-perfect jokes from Murphy’s Delirious : “Your mother got a mouth in the back of her neck, and the bitch chew like this.” Riotous applause. Eventually, I applied this skill to TV commercials, snl sketches, talk shows. I still do it. Stand-up-wise, Chappelle is a new favourite. Stanley nods.

The prickle is all over my body now, and I want nothing more than to stop this and apologize to Stanley, to explain without actually having to explain that I mean nothing by anything; you see, Stanley, I was raised in a tiny Canadian town where I could get away with it.

“Well, he’s talking about the Elian Gonzalez thing,” I say instead. “You know, the kid from Cuba who showed up on a raft near Miami? ” Stanley nods. “Well, uh, he says, Chappelle says, ‘Don’t worry, I ain’t got no Elian jokes. All I’ll say about it is this: if Elian Gonzalez was Elian Mumumbo, from Haiti, we never would have heard about his ass.’”

Stanley smiles. For one breathless moment, his eyes roll over the rear-view mirror and across mine. Queens turns into Brooklyn, but I do not perceive the change. Stanley nods. “Smart. He is a smart man.”

There is an album I pick up the year I live in New York, off a stack of albums we’re free to take from the music magazine that drew me there. It’s called Show Your Bones, by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a band I didn’t think I liked. My nagging secret is that I’m not into much of anything I’ve just heard. I need time — time to listen and time to contemplate — which is frowned upon in the lightning-fast music writing world. (You also never, ever give a record five out of five stars, unless you are Rolling Stone and the album in question is at least fifteen years old.) So at first, I just pretend I do, pocketing the disc for further research. After all, in this office the band is well respected. As I wish to be.

“The second album from New Jersey’s Yeah Yeah Yeahs,” begins the review I might have written, “could tear fans asunder — those who revel in the band’s ability to make them shake it resenting the tender balladry that Karen O. and Co. have cultivated here. But those who were really paying attention saw this softer side in Fever to Tell ’s breakup anthem, ‘Maps.’ And if you think O.’s done stomping around in her art rock finery and deep-throating microphones, think again: spend a few minutes with ‘Warrior’ or ‘Turn Into’ to see a band more complex than, and just as fierce as, ever. (Four out of five stars).”

I listen to Bones the whole way through on my way home one night, the A train typically packed. I recently bought cheap black headphones, because my boss has warned me — producing an online article for corroboration — that the telltale white earbuds invite targeted iPod thievery. I hold them in at stops anyway, to prevent an accidental brush-by yanking.

Trouble at home, travel away, you say. The road don’t like me. Travel away, travel it all away. The road’s going to end on me.

My favourite subway performers, a guy roughly my age and two boys, one about fifteen, the other ten-ish, board in Chinatown and start stretching, doing chin-ups on the bars above them. As the train accelerates out of the station, the middle one props a Timberland boot on a metal armrest and looks around, grinning; the eldest claps, signalling that they are about to dance. In the few minutes between stops, they use the bars to launch themselves into backflips, use each other to swing and roll and pose. It’s somewhere between breakdance and ballet: boots coming within inches of people, nearly grazing their arms, heads, feet, but never connecting. And no music.

Men they like me, ‘cause I’m a warrior. A warrior.

The first time I saw this, I was delighted, my mouth agape like a goof. I alone applauded when they were done; apparently, everyone else had seen it before. Now I, too, am someone who has seen the show, but I’m still captive to their initial bravado, that simple clap, a moment of silence, then they begin. It’s weird how my music matches them. I love when the universe does that, like when a high hat is struck in time with a blinking traffic light, or a piano’s arpeggio mirrors the pumping of a cyclist’s pedal.

Yeah, the river it spoke to me. It told me I’m small, and I swallowed it down.

When the subway doors open, the performers stop dancing as if on a dime. I’ve never seen anything so urban, adapted. The doors close. They begin again, and this time the youngest boy catches my eye, glides over, and holds out his palm. I reach for my wallet. Gladly. Instead he grabs my other hand, shakes it, and, straightening out my arm, pushes off into a backflip. It’s perfectly executed, but I clap my hands to my mouth. The trust! Why doesn’t anyone else look at them? And then: I just helped! I was part of it.

I bury my head in my coat, pushing its thick, fur-lined collar against my wet eyes. This happens all the time now, it seems. The city squeezes it out of me. The woman next to me stands, pulling my earbud out. I replace it. My stop approaches.

If I make it at all, I’ll make you want me.

For my first few months in the city, I am a bridge-and-tunnel girl. Back in Vancouver, I rented a Brooklyn apartment off Craigslist, doing what you’re not supposed to do and sending a stranger a month’s rent in advance, as a deposit on a room I’d never seen. I very much wanted to sit on the stoop of a brownstone and meet people from my neighbourhood, which I imagined as a cross between the worlds of Sesame Street, The Cosby Show, and The Godfather. Who can forget Sonny Corleone — the hothead son who reminds my mother of my father — beating up his sister’s husband, Carlo, on a steamy Brooklyn street? The neighbourhood kids, who have been playing in the spray of a fire hydrant, watch as Carlo’s battered body splashes into a puddle. I wanted to be on a stoop in that neighbourhood. Maybe on the next block over, though?
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AnonymousOctober 18, 2010 07:50 EST

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