Just A Stranger On The Bus

I was at wits end by the time I hailed a cab at the corner of 80th & Columbus.

Moving has been death by a million paper cuts. Merging thirty plus years of material acquisition and two diverse aesthetics into one 750 square foot apartment requires some sacrifice. Whole bunches of stuff’s been left behind: chairs, desks, futon frames, air conditioners. The five flights between my old apartment and the street haven’t done much by way of motivating the move, but time is running out; the lease ends on Friday. And so tonight found me riding the Broadway line back to the Upper West one last time.

I stepped onto the deck just as the sun fell behind the hills of New Jersey. I paused to take it in one last time: the broad, blue sky brushed with wisps of cloud, the burnt red brick buildings glowing in the evening light. Intellectually, it struck me as an important moment, something meaningful and nostalgic. Emotionally, though, I was scarcely present. There was work to be done.

I have been hauling boxes up and down those five flights — seventy stairs per trip — for weeks now. Each time I drag a chair, or crate full of dishes, I wonder, ‘Just how many times have you endured this torture?’ Today I calculated. I lived at West 80th from November, 2004, through March, 2007. Twenty-eight months. Thirty days a month. At least 140 steps a day…

117,600 steps.

Let’s imagine that each step is good for one foot (or twelve inches). That’s roughly 24 miles. That’s almost a marathon. That’s nearly 1/3 of the way to outer space.

Couple the sad sight of my big, empty, dusty living room — the place where I hosted parties, played shows, and spent at least a few of the last 720 days of my bachelorhood — add in a fair shake of day job exhaustion, and the general melancholy that dusk brings, and, well…

I was at wits end by the time I hailed a cab at the corner of 80th & Columbus.

I’ve grabbed a hundred cabs there before. And tonight was no different. I strode out into the street just as the signal changed, waved down the nearest white light, and opened the door even as the vehicle came to a stop.

“56th & Ninth, please.”

“Straight down, huh?”

“Yessir. Thank you.”

I paused to decide whether to engage…

“How are you tonight, sir?” I asked.

My cabby –a gray haired, dark skinned, sixty-year-old man — paused.

“Eh,” he said. “So-so.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “That’s how you distinguish the good days.”

“That’s right,” he said, laughing.

We could have left it there. Some days, a few minutes of quiet in the back of a cab is all you get. Other days, you need more.

“So how was you Easter?” he asked.

“Pizza and beer,” I said callously leaving my melancholy to linger in the silence between us.

I looked out the window at Lincoln Center. Juliard was under construction. Well above it, the North Star shone like a beacon.

“Are you listening to WNYC?” I asked.

Cab driver Antoine Ilione and I spent just twenty-four blocks together. In that time — seven or eight minutes, tops — we transitioned from WNYC to NPR to Fred Rogers.

“He was good man,” Antoine said in his thick, Senegalese accent. “No more like him now,” he said earnestly.

In that seven or eight minutes, I felt deep inside of me the difference a random act of kindness can make.

On a day when everything seemed heavy, when the distance between things seemed greater than ever before, Antoine somehow reminded me the value of simple, human connection.

Stepping onto 56th and Ninth as I’d done so many times so many years before, I felt tears pooling in my eyes. Was it the cold wind blowing off the river? Or something else?

I’ve been listening to Joan Osborne’s “One Of Us” a ton lately. I’m not sure why. It seems to fit my mood as I walk through the city, and as I ride the subways. Tonight, though, as I passed my old apartment and stepped towards the new, I wondered…

What if God is all of us?

And what if it takes 117,600 steps to even begin to reach the atmosphere, and Beyond?

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