June morning heating up, sun above Times Square pushing it to 90° atop an open-top doubledecker in the barely moving crush of Broadway traffic, exhaust haze rising amid the racket of buildings hammered and bolted and blowtorched up and down, hi-rez videoscreens on all sides blazing apocalypse and tits and Disney with maybe fifteen people up here with me on the hot plastic buckets of this sixty-seater shuttling through a city ripe for fire from heaven. “CERN’s got nothing on us,” I’m saying into the microphone. “Times Square’s a gigantic human particle-collider. This ain’t just New York City, it’s New York City City:too much of everything piled in one place just in case you’re afraid of missing out.” I’m the tour-guide in company getup, white synthetic shortsleeve shirt, trademark on the breast pocket and royal blue epaulettes, with black cargo shorts and soft black shoes below, yammering about the bronze gentleman in front of the Celtic cross over there on your right, Father Patrick—waitaminnit, is it Francis? only been doing this job a couple-three weeks—Father Francis Duffy, the most decorated clergyman ever to have served with the United States Armed Forces, the Fighting 69th from Hell’s Kitchen, statue by Charles Keck, who was a student and disciple of Augustus St. Gaudens . . . When what I really want to tell them is Run for your lives! Get outta town before it goes lethal on ya! Go home and forget you been here! It might not be too late! Run!
Leaning on the rail alongside the stairwell looking toward the rear of the bus I don’t see anyone down the aisle too interested in hearing about Charles Keck—though the mention of Hell’s Kitchen might have perked them up a sec—but the show must go on. I see no way out.
“As we edge slowwwly down to 42nd Street through a traditional midtown traffic jam the next bronze Irishman ahead and on your right is George M. Cohan, the Yankee-Doodle Dandy who gave his regards to Broadway and helped invent the American musical—but why no statue of Damon Runyon who wrote the stories behind the musical Guys and Dolls? ‘Rusty Charley is not just a tough guy, Rusty Charley is a tough guy as tough guys are tough guys.’ Come on, people, sign the petition, we need to put that marker down.”
The stray of punters between here and the back of the bus look puzzled. I decide not to tell them that Runyon figured the odds on life in general as six-to-five against.
Then there’s the worrying large-size Australian up front in the first row against the windshield with his much smaller girlfriend seated to his right. Looked angry when he got on but behaved climbing aboard, volunteering ticket, accepting earphones, returning welcome, so I figured aggro was just his default facial presentation. But now I’m picking up a vibe and turning to scope his ox-heavy shoulders in that worrying convict-stripe Harley-Davidson shirt and the display of hair upfrothed on top and hanging past his shoulders—can’t see his face until he turns toward his girlfriend with his goatee, yammering up and down at her. Yep, he’s pissed off about something and his girlfriend is shrinking lower in her seat.
Now he gets up, huffs his superstructure and is coming toward me up the aisle in a power-walk as if knocking barstools aside in a movie.
Quick assessment while I wait for it: large furry Australian, not tall but a fireplug, maybe five-seven, estimated weight 250, light brown lion-mane array of hair, long outlaw goatee, baggy Harley shirt untucked over belly and hips. Thick hairy legs trunked in khaki cargo shorts. Hey, some of my best friends are Australian, I want to tell him. He advances up the aisle eyes fixed on mine while I do my MC bit at him, “Sir it’s quite dangerous to walk around when the bus is in motion, especially here in midtown with all this stop-and-start traffic, don’t want you to take a tumble, won’t you please—?“
He keeps coming, though, an unspecified fury in his posture. Did I look at his girlfriend funny? She’s not turning in her seat to observe the encounter. How’s it look, I wonder: young bullock confronting a bald-headed Jew-looking greybeard well over sixty wearing bifocals and a paper-straw Panama to keep the sun off, both of us swaying on the rocking bus-top above sidewalks and pedestrian plazas chockablock with rush-hour hordes jammed into the crotch of Broadway and Seventh agape for an overdose of the irreal, hundreds of thousands of them beset by Spider Men, Iron Men, Batmen, Statues of Liberty, American Eagle Outfitters’ bikini-babes, Naked Cowboys, actual desnudas wearing only thongs and red-white-blue body paint on their upper decks hustling for the selfie dollar beneath the flashing adverts of a culture proudly bridging the gap between the sentimental and the inhumane.
Downstream behind the Australian two giant metal sci-fi elongations, one yellow, the other orange, angle storeys high from the street on tubular extendo-arms, their beaks tearing the faces from last week’s heroes and villains and nearly naked models.
He’s reached me.
“Your man downstairs,” he begins, “your company’s man on the street selling the ride, ripped my wife off for twenty dollars on the tickets.”
“Sir we don’t do that. I’m sure that if you—”
“Twenty dollars, mate. Two tickets, sixty-eight apiece, and he touches her for a hundred thirty six, that’s twenty taken, pure theft.”
“Honestly sir, we don’t do that, our people don’t do that. If there’s a discrepancy please just get in touch with our office and they’ll—“
“But I’m not at the office, am I?” he points out while crowding me. “I’m with you. You represent the company, my wife has been ripped off for twenty dollars, and you’re all the company I’ve got to talk to.”
“I’m just a tour guide, sir.” I try to hold my ground, mindful of the gap at the top of the stairs on my left and to his right: he’s near enough to fall into it if he steps the wrong way or the bus does a lurch. “If you take this matter up with the office—“
“You’re all I’ve got and I’m taking it up with you.”
“I’m not equipped to, I’m not qualified to . . . Look, sir, if I can just walk you back to your seat and try to put you in touch with the office on the phone.”
“Ow, you’d like me to sit down, would you?”
“Just to get away from the stairwell for the moment . . . Wait a minute, what were those figures you mentioned?”
“Figures? What you talking about, figures.”
“The numbers. The amount of money for the tickets.”
“Like I said. Sixty-eight per ticket for which my wife paid a hundred thirty-six dollars making it a ripoff of twenty bleedin’ wombats.”
“Actually, sir, sixty-eight plus sixty-eight is a hundred and thirty-six.”
“What?” He’s trying to follow the numbers but he’s too angry to focus on it through that rucking forehead.
“Try it this way. Sixty plus sixty is a hundred and twenty, right?”
“And eight plus eight is sixteen. One-twenty plus sixteen, check me if I’m wrong, is a hundred and thirty-six.”
He might be getting it. “Say that again?”
I say it again, slower.
It dawns: “Right.” He relaxes. “Then that’s all right then. All right.”
“Yes I think it is.”
“Right, then.” His shoulders are lowering back to parade rest or do I mean, Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th, do I mean at-ease?
What I’d failed to notice was not that the bus had stopped—I did subliminally notice that the bus had stopped, but since we were redlighted in chockablock traffic, we were stopgapped all the time—but a third voice coming from somewhere invisibly below me to join our colloquy: a repeated squawk that sounded something like Lea him low, lea him low, you muss talk office!
It wasn’t until his head appeared as he clambered up the stairs alongside me that I realized that it was Chao, our driver, small Chinese guy in his thirties, a notably gentle man in a rough profession—must have heard our argument over my microphone line and had come upstairs to save me, a rookie, or at least to straighten things out. Now he’s reached the landing and stepped into the aisle between me and the Australian and is waving his arms in the guy’s face. “You mus lea him low, you mus lea him low and talk to office!”
“What?” The Australian squinted into Chao’s accent, trying to make the words out.
“You no talk he, you talk to office!”
“Oh! Hey. Look,” he lowered his face to Chao’s. “It’s all right. We worked it out. It’s okay. Okay?”
“No! You you mus talk to office!”
I try to get Chao’s attention but can’t, by voice or a touch on his shoulder.
The Aussie lowers his lion-face close and personal into Chao’s. “It’s all right, get it? It’s all right! It’s okay! Okay?”
“You mus talk office and lea him low!”
I saw it begin and decided to get in the way before it happened: Chao waving his arms had brushed the guy’s shoulder twice and hit his ear on the return, and maybe it was just a reflex or display but the guy was raising his big right arm up to where he could bring it down on Chao, who was standing beside the lip of the stairwell.
I thought the thing to do was pull Chao back from the guy and away from the stairs, so I laid my hands on Chao’s shoulders, the guy’s girlfriend was standing up from her seat to face us, the traffic light was turning green, there was a siren in the uptown distance, usually it was an F.D.N.Y. ambulance in these parts trying to get through a herd of cars that would not or could not budge, and as I pulled Chao gently-under-the-circumstance toward me, Chao reached forward for something solid to hang onto and that turned out to be the Australian, with the result that I was the first of us to topple backward into the open stairwell, seven steps down, hard surfaces on all sides, tubular steel bannisters bright yellow against grey panelling alongside ridged steel-tipped steps.
There was half an instant of balance, then a tipping point, and I saw and felt us pass through it as Chao lost his footing, fell toward me while retaining his grip on the Australian’s Harley-shirtfront and the Australian started to topple forward.
Hard to follow the rest of it in detail, but a multi-culti sandwich of the three of us with Chao the meat in the middle catacalysmed down the stairs in a bundle—the Australian’s bulk almost wedging him for a second but then on he came, perhaps redoubled, piling up our combined weights on the way down.
I felt a heavy blow to my head, but the first bones I heard crack were Chao’s and must have been his ribs, then as we hit bottom in a pile I heard and felt the breakage in my chest. My breath blown out of me and a piercing. A gabbling strangle of voices while I was trying to figure out if the sensation was one of pain or something else entirely, then an unprecedented experience possessed me: the things of the world were blotted out and my sight filled to all horizons with uniform impenetrable fire-engine red.