Excerpt: Star Child by Lars Russell

Posted on July 30, 2006 by


He had to cross the belly of the island, which is a lot easier than crossing it the other way—and Humph knows because he did that once. Nevertheless it was a pronounced walk.

Humph felt easy about it in the way, when you confront the immense but finite, there is a kind of irrepressible satisfaction. Excitement even—in the awareness the job can be completed. It’s sort of a sinister heir to what Fitzgerald talked about but with an eye over the horizon and a sense of a continent that obeys the word.

Like when Humph once tipped his cup at the laundromat and all his change spilled on the tiles. No coin he stacked seemed to leave any dent on the sprawl at all. But especially because the swell seemed infinite, how marvelous of its necessary finiteness to command the task completed. A raw ripe confrontation with matter; satisfying, only because the task exists in a parenthesis without something like meteors to muck it up.

Anyway crossing the island took a long time. Humph would like to hustle the swiftest diagonal route to the hospital—which was not directly crosstown; rather, up about thirty blocks—but he was unable because of the buildings. They forced him into a kind of terraced, jagged path, up several blocks, across to another avenue, and he grumbled all the way because it made him feel he saved no more ground than making one big right angle. But he preferred continually shortening the distance. He took pleasure that the sun stayed on him and he liked to pass by girls in all the light of day, even though he knew he looked like a mess. The waists showed up radiant and he felt as radiant as his yellow sweatshirt, stained though it was by the puddles he slept on below the trash cans.

If you’re following along in your map, you’ll notice Humph overshot probably a dozen other hospitals on his way. But that’s because Humph’s only following the map in his head, which is basically the subway map plus some things he saw above ground.

Everybody off the chain takes out one policy or another just to tie themselves to something.

For all time he can remember, Humph has stayed out of hospitals and rarely bothered to note them. But some time or other, Humph can remember passing a galactic medical complex camped along the East River. The water, he can remember thinking. The hospitals are there from when easy access to water was a prerequisite—just like the city itself.

He went back through the Village first, lined with hat shops and smack shops and cafes bursting with busy white people. It was like rush hour on the platform but in the middle of the day—in daylight. It was alien almost. It was a bonus world with bonus time.

Humph found it very strange being out of the subway, and then a funny thing happened concerning the subway. A man shook Humph by the hand and asked him for a little help. The hand was grimy and the man out of teeth. Humph’s mouth reminded him of his own troubles and Humph said he knew how it was and well he had nothing to give. The man saw it was true and so he asked if Humph knew where to find a subway. It was an odd question because they stood on Seventh and 9 St where Grove St and the rest come through at odd angles and there were subway entrances with glowing bulbs on about six corners all around.

“Well theres,” Humph said, “a subway right there.”

“No no man I talk,” said the old bum, “about subwy samwiches.”

Humph said he understood and showed him a delicatessen on one of the corners. The man grew fussy and said he only got his subway sandwiches from SubWay, the chain. “The sub way,” he said. Humph believed no man without any bills in his pocket ought to be so picky about where he ate. But there was something even more puzzling in how he told it, “I ony get my subwy samwiches from de sub way,” and Humph stammered into it.

“You know its submarine sandwiches,” Humph offered, “because it looks like a submarine— and they make em everywhere.”

“What submeen you evah seen nigger? The damm samwich look like a subwy dont it?”

Humph agreed to that. The man further produced a folded card from his pocket with a series of stamps, tabbing off the man’s sandwiches since whenever. He said he gets a sandwich from SubWay on the house after filling the whole card with stamps, and he seemed proud of himself for being nearly there. Humph shook his head and walked on. Everybody off the chain takes out one policy or another just to tie themselves to something.

Humph was glad for someone to speak to him as a person, but now it didn’t seem so dire he should grab everyone on the street and learn what they had to say.

Once you lose your valence, as Humph had, you might like to reach in all directions to keep from puttering like a saucer after the butter’s gone. But when you recover one, you discover you have inverted your relationship with all the new people you see.

People way out in the country don’t go through it because they either haven’t got valences or have got beyond them. But remember you have to travel quite a distance in most parts before you come upon a radically different vista. In a city like New York your scape alters every step.

In Manhattan in the daytime the people are always under your armpits. Or, if you’re small, chins piston past like hail. You encounter everyone with the same sense an animal that doesn’t see well detects movement. When you can glance about at any given time and be certain you won’t see any of the faces around ever again, as sure as if you went in the grave tomorrow, they report to your attention as a field regarded only because somewhere within it lies the task at hand.

This is perfectly plain and not at all rude. The brain cannot account for big numbers easily. Even the most discriminate mathematician does not mean a thousand things when he says a thousand. And because every time you go outside in the city you don’t expect to see anyone you know and there’s so much you don’t care about between here and there, certainly nothing else to do or you would have planned it and you’re already thinking in dozens of blocks—perhaps you even ride in a silent car and bark the orders like to a voice-automated teleporting machine—the loop feeds back and now you have simply the mission and some obstructions. For some reason, you don’t fail to see all the fetching girls.

The subway clears away some of this because it gives people a chance to be in the same place as one another, and there are girls there too. But Humph, living in the subway, for a while had nowhere at all to go. No assignment. He could wade into the city instead of motoring through.

In Manhattan in the daytime the people are always under your armpits. Or, if you’re small, chins piston past like hail. You encounter everyone with the same sense an animal that doesn’t see well detects movement.

Even the parade of advertisements which at pedestrian speed was like watching endless brief commercials on television without switching channel—even that ceased and became only billboards. The field of people had become the only other people in his world and thus this constant struggle to wonder what they were about. And at the same time, because he never penetrated any one of them, or because he could not, they were just as much fossils as the stones and cars and mailboxes and windows that suddenly danced at leisure instead of streaking by.

So many windows, and so much broken glass too. Curiosities—because they happen to be anything.

And like Humph, they have lasted. Everything has lasted, you know, in its present. Everything lasts—at some time while it is anything.

Have you lasted? You have.

Then afterward, when Humph swallowed the faces and there is someone who has not only not overlooked him, but appeared the next day … well it was like the reinvention of himself as a protagonist, when he had only been editing the adventure before, or possibly gathering background. Meeting Tracy Lewis let Humph wander among everyone, with the river in his hands like a rope.

Everyone else was only a pilgrim, everyone trying to get somewhere. I am reminded of the story of the Japanese duchess who schemed to usurp the throne by marrying to the heirs successive generations of her own line, and thus her family undertook the empire. All Americans are outsiders—chiefly the white folk—and since they cannot really be American they Americanize. After bloodshed fell out of fashion the only hope was to rise from within and wrest from whoever already seemed to control it the object of American pilgrimage: prospects. That achievement was not only as absurd and endlessly available for erosion as the duchess’s, it also stands solely upon itself. There was no American being to begin with, no corporation to inherit—only the prospects. So all the achievers were empty people chasing after nothing and falsehood. They are not the kinds of central characters Humph would recognize.

Tracy Lewis said don’t take hats from the masses. Humph still inspected the people, because he was out of the habit of hurrying. Girls as ever. Happily he sluiced through them as empty neutral things. They bored beyond one another like passing boulders.

You can’t cross New York without crossing Broadway, and Broadway is a good example of what I mean about emptiness. The customary reference to Broadway includes the bells and whistles of the theatre district but I say that special Broadway has nothing to do with New York. No one who lives here goes to the musicals anymore. Humph never one time went inside one of those festooned auditoriums and if he had he would have expected to walk off a movie set.

Once, however, a few years ago, Humph realized he never met an indian in the whole city. Humph ran into indians all over the west, inside and outside the reserves. In the east you look for indians and the scoop scrapes the barrel. So Humph set out to take the broadest swipe he could think of and see if one wouldn’t shake out of the woodwork.

So there’s Broadway. What’s so broad about it? It doesn’t cross the island east to west—over the belly, as I called it. Not the only avenue running from top to bottom Manhattan. And most of it doesn’t go both ways with a mall in the middle like say Park Av; therefore not the widest of the streets. But check this: What’s really the broadest way from one end to another? Broadway go diagonal. It cheats a lil, cracks open and skips from here to there places like Union Sq. Some places, like west of the park, it’s fairly up and down. And downtown even there’s two more Broadways, East and West, like training wheels, just to get confusing where the streets aren’t numbered. Anyway Humph figured if he could walk from the beginning to the end of Broadway, from the pick handle sticking out of Harlem’s hair to the ballerina toe of basest Wall St, he would find the pulse—or at least some evidence of red blood cells, so to speak. Of course it’s not true that everyone at the carnival hangs out on the midway, but these were the days before Humph got into wide circulation via the subway.

The upper wash of Broad mainly gave him an overland look at the journey he made daily underground on his chief conveyance at the time, the 2-3 trains—before he moved to Veda’s near Columbia’s campus and had to take the local—to Times Sq where the Foot Locker was.

Going through Times Sq then only gave him the experience of going to work. The same gross embarrassment you get having to stoop into a long queue.

He remembered showing up there to file his application way back in the beginning when, philosopher out of college, he left more than a hundred menial résumés at odd jobs around New York. It was just the kind of job he wanted, would keep his mind free to go on about the things he needed to consider and just enough interaction with the ordinary fashions. He hadn’t been searching for it near the big pinwheel but was referred to Times Sq by the Foot Locker on Third.

That first day he handed his paper and shook hands with Toby. Toby became, with Ricky Tick, another of Humph’s supervisors there.

Toby was a different sort of South Carolinian than Tracy Lewis. He was Irish as Swift but he used to claim his old grandy Brown as full-blooded Cherokee. He said she never mouthed a word but spit tobacco into a spittoon that was an old instant coffee can. Never mind that Andrew Jackson elbowed all the Cherokees to Oklahoma territory a hundred years ago. Quarter-aborigine though he said he was, other times Toby asserted that archaeology proves the redhairs and not the redskins were actually the earliest norteamericano. He said none of this to malign Humph, of course. To everyone at Foot Locker Humph was black as a bean —and he was.

There was one genuine Indian at Foot Locker, a backroom stocker like Humph. But he was from India. His name was Ignatz, which needed no extra distinction but they called him Indian Ignatz anyway because it sounded good. Or Ind-Ignatius for laughs.

Humph had this pattern where he processed non sequiturs from time to time without catching himself, conflating certain things around him by accident. For instance, he used to see in Seattle a beveled sign like a big buttercup petal that said Winchell’s Donuts. But this marker always brought to his mind the essayist Walter Winchell. And later he could not cross a mention of Walter Winchell without thinking of the donut joint—where he’d never had so much as a styrofoam coffee. Winchell’s Donuts became Walter Winchell’s Donuts worldlessly, without chance for contravention. In New York, the enterprising Dutchman Petrus Stuyvesant simply became mister Bedford Stuyvesant, housing benefactor. Despite those blunders, he always managed be distinct about the difference between indians and Indians, and thinking of Ignatz as he emerged from Times Sq didn’t alter his march. He just threw his head up against the window dressings and the strange curving vertigo of the saddle part of Broadway. But later when Humph reached a bookstore called Shakespeare & Co near Washington Sq, he did immediately get excited to be so near the famous lending library where he read Hemingway liked to browse.

He said none of this to malign Humph, of course. To everyone at Foot Locker Humph was black as a bean —and he was.

Not far from there was where Humph met Veda on a corner at Broadway and Houston. Turning the corner as a matter of—well this is somewhat fabulized, to tell it truly: Humph turned the corner onto Broadway and there’s these sneaky clean white adidas high heels with the lowercase brand name printed over and over and over in 80s rainbow colors like the adicolors but stark straight diagonal stamped all over the colorless leather high high Humph’s so hightops. It was like being spattered with blood.

Even Humph and all his fresh ass catalogs never saw those fashion killers till he nearly stomped right into the black beauty in the tennis dress boosted off the ground by those four-inch adidas.

He told her so and asked where she got em and she said her own name, “Leesaveda,” and you know it turned out they were both going into the train. She had Kandinsky eyes and they got drunk together the same night. He liked that she liked Midnight Marauders. She dug Humph for quoting LeRoi Jones. This happened about three weeks after the Broadway stroll. A month after that Humph cohabited with this young law student, and her loans paid the bill. She of the sanctified sneaks.

But the runin with Veda is a crank singularity, a flaw even, like the homonymous words which catch Humph’s mind in that certain way. The same way recognizing a person you’ve seen in photograph on the street seems to mean something—and there was plenty of that on Broadway too. So much, people actually visited Broadway to be so blessed. Because New York involved so many crossings and interchanges it was also the core of story, song, pictures—and motion pictures too. The farm work on that stuff got done all over the land, but the mercantile stopover where camels stopped to graze was New York City, Manhattan Borough. The pons colloquium, or—what Indianapolis is to Indiana. New York is not the capitol of America. It is the Empire City. The people who came to cast their living eyes on well known faces were, as always, pilgrims. Pilgrimage was an early broadcast medium. An idol threw its spell only so far as word spread, but the idea of the things far outstretched those who managed a sight. Part of the intrigue depended on this widening arc, this gulf between the proliferated spark of knowledge and the singular object itself. The most universal things were the most remarkable, and the sight of those things was like confirming a myth, the closing of a circle. Same was true of glimpsing the warrior hero or the mayor or the renowned beauty, because you’ve heard their tales in advance. These were the stars of those days, and because people are hopeful they see their destinies in stars. Daguerre’s invention might’ve changed all that, because sights became as ordinary and vulgar as words. But instead, by photograph, anything singular could initiate such an arc. When the well-remembered names naturally belonged to the often photographed, it meant a person could be identified precisely (rather than being pointed out by a familiar) walking out of the house, and another prized circle closed for some accidental pilgrim, another star snatched for home keeping—and it turns out these people live everywhere around us. Now universality itself was the object of worship and the cycle fed into itself. Anyone easily recognized became more commonly snapshot, and the records appropriated by the pilgrim cult ever more substantial. New York got yoked under this bridge whose arch was the loophole for the cultural initiate. Broadway is the diaphanous thread passing through the hole.

Humph walked by all the tourists and their rolls of film. He didn’t find any of the people his dad calls First Americans on the journey. A few times he spotted a telltale pair of braids and round face—a sure marker in Nebraska. But here it would be some Central American woman. Probably she was mostly indian, yes, but she was also fully pilgrim and so did not qualify.

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