99 / 365 – Out in the street

LARS NILSSON

Walking the streets of New York. I thought, Who would have known there are so many people who wouldn’t mind being crowded together like this? I have to be able to walk outside in the morning, see the distance. Even from the apartment where I live now, it’s nothing like a New York apartment. It’s twice as big, for one thing. When we were getting Laura’s things together, Finn asked her old roommate, Marika, Is this really supposed to be a bedroom, or was this just a closet with a window? Then we looked at the walls, the woodwork in the corners, and you could see that someone had put a wall down in the middle of the bedroom, made one into two. Twice the rent, I guess. Marika said they’re all small like that. I guess they keep dividing the space into smaller and smaller pieces until someone complains.

Out on the streets, though, it just people, people, people. The first day, I couldn’t get used to it. I kept wanting to see the sky, and I had to look up. So I kept running in to people. Almost stepped on one guy’s dog. Another guy I ran smack into, he was big, wearing a dark hoodie. He said, “Watch out, idiot.” I guess I was an idiot. Almost walked over a woman’s kid. I apologized, but she was still yelling after us when we’d walked half a block away.

Finn wanted to ride on the subway. Said he and Laura had ridden them a lot when he’d visited. So down we went, down lots of steps, in tiled corridors that bent this way and the other. You could hear the clatter of the trains, even from up on the street. The air was stale down in the subways, and there was a breeze that blew. You could smell stale water. There was litter in the corners and down in the dark pit, where the tracks were, where there were puddles between the rails. You could look up the tracks, a long dark tunnel, and watch the lights coming, slowly. Across from us, people sat on benches, waiting for a train to go the other direction. Staring down at the floor, some reading. A lot of them with earphones on, listening to things. Everybody somewhere else, in their minds.There were other tracks between our side and theirs. Trains rattled through. Worse clatter than the loudest combine I was ever on.

When our train finally came, we packed into it. I couldn’t navigate for all the bodies pressed tight. Finn found me a seat and I sat down. At first, looking around, the people seemed so strange. People who looked like they came from all over the world. Asia. Mexico or South America. Black people. Clothes, all kinds of bright colors, plastic boots, jeans drooping low on guys. I didn’t know what all this meant, although nobody looked threatening. I don’t think I was even there, to them. I heard languages I had no idea what. Finn elbowed me and whispered, ‘I don’t think you’re supposed to look directly at people.’ So I tried to pretend I was looking at the floor, as I’d seen other people doing. The train rocked and rattled and clattered. Then Finn said, ‘I think we’re going under the river.’ I said, ‘The river?’ He said, ‘The East River.’ I couldn’t imagine that, being under a river. The world is for walking on top of. Rivers you stand beside and look down in.

We came up in downtown New York, Manhattan, Finn said. The buildings were even taller than anywhere. I had to stop, so I could look up. At home I like to look out, see it level, watch the sun come up from the far horizon, over the day see it walk across that level. You can see things miles away before they come at you, like the weather, when dark clouds are there. Someone driving out to your farm, your field. New York, it’s all about up, up, higher higher. You wouldn’t look straight ahead except you have to, to get out of people’s way. I couldn’t even think on the street, there was so much noise. I’m looking one way, to watch out for pedestrians, then voices yell from across the street, horns honk from down the block. Then it’s like birds, horns answer up and down the street, all the yellow taxicabs packing together, honking, like a bunch of aggravated geese.

We stopped off at the police station near her house. It was like the kind of thing I’ve seen on TV. People waiting in a room, hunched over, angry. People coming and going. A sort of menacing room. There was a window with thick glass on it and an officer sitting behind it. The glass looked like it was an inch thick, like they were protecting against someone coming in to shoot. There was an officer whose name I had, who I had talked to on the phone. We had to wait. A door opened and a mother came out, dressed up, with a young boy, all lanky and loose-limbed, head down. She was giving him a talking to. The door opened and a man called someone in, like a drill sergeant. The person got up and came in. You could hear lots of talk, laughing, from inside.

Finally, we were called in. He led us down a hallway, people stopped up and down it, talking. People in rooms to one side or the other, talking on telephones, loudly. An officer yelling at a man slumped in a chair. Our officer, Landriani his name was, led us into a room with four or five desks. He let us sit down, even though we didn’t talk long. He was very sorry. He read through the description I had given him back in August. He had it right: woman in her 20s, 5 feet 9 or so, strong build, light brown hair, brown eyes. I had sent him some records from her dentist. In case. He said nobody had turned up by that description who wasn’t known. He had her name in a database. Other agencies could see it. There wasn’t much else they could do. I asked him if that was it. If a child was lost would that be all they would do? He said no, a child was different. They would put a team together to find a missing child. But, he said, this is a big city. Eight million people, just in the city limits. How many people live in North Dakota? I said I didn’t know, six or seven hundred thousand. He said we have three or four times that many just here in Brooklyn. He said, It’s easy to get lost here. And he said, Sometimes that’s why people come here, to be unnoticeable. I said, It’s like she just walked off the earth. I said, This place isn’t that anonymous, I don’t think. How could someone come here and walk off the earth and not be noticed? Just vanish into thin air and nobody thinks a thing about it?

He said, Stranger things have happened. I thought, a lot of strange things have happened to me today, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff I could never have imagined. But I don’t think I’ve seen anything as strange as someone who could just walk down the street and suddenly not be there. Somebody would bump into you. You would think.

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