A Voice in the City
I’m hearing voices again. This time it’s in the all-night supermarket at one thirty in the morning.
The city had been experiencing a massive July heat wave. Beginning that Thursday afternoon Manhattan began to empty out, like a colossal amusement park roller coaster ride coming to a halt after the final hair-raising plunge. Riders just get off and go elsewhere, leaving empty seats behind.
I’m not leaving for the weekend, so I just get off the ride, buy another ticket, then get back on until something else happens. Or maybe nothing at all, which is fine with me. So here I am, walking around this shiny-floored, fluorescent lit, overstocked food warehouse, carrying a blue plastic hand basket, tossing in sustenance items for my bare essentials studio apartment existence. At the same time, I’m wondering who on earth is going to buy all the rest of the stuff in this place. I can hardly fathom that, so I kick that thought out of my head. It’s none of my business who buys it all since I don’t have to worry about selling it all. As soon as I leave the store I’ll just think about something else anyway.
I do believe that just then I am the solitary night owlish shopper lurking in this cavernous subterranean market at this late hour. This sensation of aloneness is weird enough – and now things are getting even weirder.
The static-blurred, half-tuned late night soft rock radio station breaks the silence of the vast aisles. In the back of my mind, the music is mildly annoying, but not to the point of being irritating. I shop on.
As I browse the coffee aisle, balancing my half full basket, the scratchy music suddenly stops. A few moments of complete silence, and now a melodic and soothing woman’s voice, which echoes throughout the store. I surmise that the voice is that of the radio station’s graveyard shift D.J, alone like me but behind a door somewhere in the city, down some lonesome office building’s hallway, broadcasting airwaves out into the night.
Normally, I expect to hear a man’s voice on nighttime radio, so that catches my attention first and momentarily takes me away from considering the bounty of coffee brands before me. The Voice comes through loud and clear and, oddly enough, static-free.
The Voice:“Remember – there are so many people out there in the city who need help – so much suffering. The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life, don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, ‘Is there something I can do for you? Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden. You don’t have to struggle in silence – share some of your heavy load with me.’”
I look around, unsure if that clear-as-a-bell rhythmic voice is, in fact, coming from the radio, or what. After all, aren’t I the store’s lone shopper? So who could be talking to me? Is the night manager or cashier some type of spiritual preacher, using the supermarket’s public address system to send out a message in a store they think is completely void of shoppers, just to pass the time, rehearse a sermon, or whatever? In any event, I feel as if The Voice is speaking directly to me, and it’s spooky.
“When we help others, asking nothing in return, the effect of our actions will radiate out in ways that we cannot even imagine, and touch so many other lives. Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives, mystically and beautifully. We are not alone. We are all connected. So people, listeners, fellow New Yorkers, we are so fortunate to live in this great city that affords us limitless opportunities to reach out and help our fellow citizens, our brothers and sisters. Good night for now…”
Her clear hypnotic voice trails off to dead silence as soft rock music fades back in, with static once again.
I find myself stuck in my tracks, staring at the coffee selection for who knows how long. I come to, wondering what has just occurred. It’s like trying to recall a dream within a dream upon awakening.
I am in Manhattan – it is late and I am shopping.
I continue to fill my basket, proceed to the checkout, pay, exit and carry my bags back across the street. I take the elevator up eleven floors and go to bed. Sleep comes quickly.
The next day the unrelenting heat persists. On my way out in the early afternoon, Henry, the doorman, suggests that I prepare myself for the scorcher that waits beyond the thick glass front doors and the pleasantly air-conditioned lobby. He is not kidding! I get blasted, as if I’m standing behind jet engines on a concrete tarmac at LaGuardia Airport. However, it’s my usual time to take a break, get some extra strong coffee, and take a stroll to relieve a writer’s double vision and help shake the cobwebs out of my head at the same time. I walk east from Lexington toward Third to pick up my Columbian Java on the corner of East 32nd and Second, a walk I’m very familiar with and can do on autopilot.
I write stories about Manhattan and what goes on here. Not only is the island smack in the middle of a confluence of great rivers, rushing ocean tides, glacier gouged sounds and bays, but it’s equally a place where humanity in all forms, shapes, colors and sizes collide within a grid of avenues and streets – especially at the intersections where they all merge, like the one I am approaching on the corner of Third and East 32nd.
The exodus of the city continues in full force. Third Avenue is a parking lot with gridlock, honking horns, angry faces behind windshields, sweaty walkers and traffic cops. The latter seems to have all but given up and are just standing around, helpless to even urge the congregation of city buses, yellow cabs, delivery trucks and passenger cars to move mere inches ahead.
At this moment I feel most fortunate to be a walker. When I see cars now I don’t perceive luxury, comfort or prestige; I envision problems, seventy-dollar tank ups, insurance bills, traffic tickets, danger and worry. I like to walk. Sneakers don’t need 5,000-mile check-ups and oil changes, E-Z passes, yearly registrations or inspections. When they get worn out from overuse, I just get a new pair and leave the old ones behind at the sneaker store.
I snake my way through the insanity, thinking only of coffee. After ordering the usual rich bold roast and kibitzing with the servers, an activity which has become expected and is always enjoyable, I turn back toward Lexington, deciding that it’s just too darn humid and brick-oven furnace-like to hang around and drink hot coffee, even while on a bench or leaning against a wall someplace, people watching. I’ve never been a fan of iced coffee – it does nothing for me. The pull-back effect of my little air-conditioned studio apartment is too much to resist on this day. On Third Avenue, nothing has changed congestion wise. It’s still massively and miserably gridlocked.
I notice that an extra long, double-length “Galaxy” articulated bus blocks the intersection, so there is no way to see the GO/DON’T GO crossing signal. It doesn’t matter anyway, since Third Avenue has now become one solid rail of interconnected vehicles, and they are all stuck, stuck, stuck. I weave my way around hoods and trunks to cross, coffee in hand, sipping away.
Midway across Third Avenue, containing layer upon layer of solar-absorbing asphalt, not to mention the presence of heat emitting engines, it must be at least 120 degrees. The heat and humidity make it feel as if my lungs are trying to suck breathable air out of the exhaust pipe of a city bus.
That’s when I hear the odd noises, over and over.
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr
I wonder where that noise coming from.
As I look around the jumbled vehicles, my ears zero in on one blue work van emitting the sounds of a stalled engine that is desperately trying to start up but failing, time and again and getting weaker with each turn of the ignition key.
The hoped-for cha ching of a successful start is not happening. The battery is slowly failing. A few more unsuccessful tries and it’ll be completely dead.
This repeating motor turning over noise is an unnervingly familiar sound to me, left over from my younger penniless days when I could only afford to drive old heaps that were on their last legs before the car crusher ate them up and they would’ve sold for nickels per pound as scrap carted off by the junk man. I can also strongly identify with the feelings of panic and frustration the driver must be experiencing.
What a mess – what a furnace – what chaos. I want to be back in my air-conditioned writer’s nook where I can enjoy my Columbian brew. With that single purpose in mind, I creep past the world of cars, traffic, worker bees and would-be city escapees.
That’s when I hear The Voice again. It sounds vaguely familiar but it is not yet in the forefront of my consciousness. The Voice is dim, and more like an emanation from an old forgotten dream or déjà vu, or like a flashback to the distant past suddenly awakening cerebrally recorded sights, smells and sounds, desperately trying to make connections to the present moment.
The Voice clearly says, “The next time you pass a person who seems to be struggling in life don’t just pass them by. Stop and ask them, is there something I can do for you. Can I help? Let me help you relieve some of your burden…”
I reach the sidewalk on the opposite side of Third, merely a few tiptoes from the relief beckoning me back to my cool and safe nook. But, hypnotically, I turn in my tracks with that strange DJ’s voice, or what I believe might be a DJ’s voice, whispering in my brain, and walk directly over to the van, where the frantically sweating driver was still struggling in vain to get his vehicle’s tired engine to kick over.
My approach, coming to him right in the middle of the road, startles him out of his trauma. “Hey, man – what’s going on?” I ask. “Do you need some help?”
He desperately responds, “Oh yeah. Thanks – it won’t start. I’m screwed here. I’m surrounded, stuck – this thing won’t start – always on a Friday…” His voice trails off in disgust and utter frustration.
“Okay, first, stop trying to start it,” I suggest. “You’re killing the battery. Let it sit for a while and let it cool off. It might be flooded. I’ll go back there and direct traffic around you so you don’t get slammed from behind, and stop these jerks from honking at you too, okay?”
“Oh, man, yes, thanks, that would be great.”
Now that he has me with him, I can sense some of his burden lifting as his sweat-soaked brow unfurls a little. For my part, I feel oddly peaceful to take on some of his worry, and my own cares seem to shrink in my head. I am living in the moment.
“Often our compassion for others will come back to us in our own lives mystically and beautifully…”
After waving away the traffic behind him, I walk back. “Try it now. If it still doesn’t start, when this bus on your right moves we’ll push it to the curb and at least you’ll be out of the middle of the avenue and danger. Then you can call for help, sound like a plan?”
“Okay, great plan. Thanks a lot.”
He tries again to crank it to turn over.
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr
Ahhhhh rrrrrr re – er – rrrrrrrr rerrrrrrrrr
It’s clear that nothing has changed, so I tap him on the shoulder. “Okay, stop. Forget it. Let’s push.” I head for the rear. He’ll steer and shove from the driver’s door and brake at the same time.
As I travel to the back, a large black diesel smoke-emitting 18-wheeler creeps alongside this much smaller blue van in the lumbering stream of traffic. At first there appears to be ample room for me to safely pass between the two trucks with room to spare. Seeing at least an easy two-body width’s passage, I march into the passageway without concern to get myself into pushing position. Meantime, the bus on the opposite side finally begins to move, opening up the necessary curbside space to complete our operation. It is time to push hard and fast before the crucial gap closes.
I’m committed now. As I walk back, the 18-wheeler suddenly veers to the right, shifting dangerously close to the stalled van. This ever-so-slight rotation of tire and tonnage instantly narrows the gap I need in order to pass safely to less than a single shoulder’s width of my body.
You are about to get crushed between very heavy metal. Act fast – lightning speed fast, or say goodbye.
In a flash of mind over matter, I twist my body sideways, cutting my width by less than half. Miraculously, the back end of the huge 18-wheeler slips past me, just barely brushing my shirt and covering it with soot. I feel the slightest pressure of its traveling mass against my upper torso. My heart beats like a drum. A close call, to say the least.
It is the luck of all times but there was no time to dwell on my narrow escape and The Voice that made it possible.
PUSH! As the 18-wheeler passes ahead, the stalled van’s driver forces his steering wheel hard to the right. I plow my shoulder into the rear doors, releasing a Herculean grunt as my sneakers dig in. I hold fast in the softening 120-degree asphalt. With all our might we both PUSH and PUSH!
It is a beautiful thing. The van coasts, engineless, into a rare vacant curbside parking spot. It goes just as planned, with impeccable timing and precision.
Voice: Good Job!
The driver reaches into his van and grabs his cell phone, makes a call, and then comes over to me. I am in the shade, leaning against a mailbox for support.
“Will you be okay now? I guess your company will get help for you?” I ask.
“Yes, they said they’ll send a tow truck. Listen man, I can’t thank you enough for helping me.”
“Not a problem. I was glad to.”
We shake hands. I walk away feeling fortunate that I have less than half of a city block’s distance to cross to arrive at my cool and comfortable sanctuary, and do not have to fight my way out of the city for hours like all those stuck in the nasty traffic jam. I feel grateful and at the same time troubled for all those working folk desperate to get home or get to some cooler weekend destination. With all its wonder and intrigue, New York is still a rough city. Its romantic skyline can be painfully deceptive at times like these.
After a short while, cooling off and reflecting on what had just happened, it occurs to me how close I had come to being crushed between a truck and a bus, and having the life snuffed right out of my body.
I hear The Voice again, as if it has read my thoughts.
How fragile life is.
Without thinking, I answer out loud, in my small, safe apartment.
“Thank you for giving me the compassion and courage to help the man in the stalled van and for warning me of that danger I was in, so I have a tomorrow to be available for more opportunities to care, and try to reach out and help our fellow citizens – brothers and sisters.”
Just then I realize that I left my cardboard coffee container, still full, somewhere on the street. No problem! I opened the new grinds I had the night before and make a fresh cup of Colombian brew. It sure feels good to be alive right now.
I know what you must be thinking, but no, The Voice was not in my head.