Manhattan Park, from the novel Bolero

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Manhattan Park

This is the subway station at 7th Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan–just another Times Square station to the rest of you. Countless entries lead to what is reasonably considered the most crowded gateways to underground Manhattan; descending labyrinths of stairs, mobbed with people during the day, haunted, even threatening at night; countless tunnel-like entries that lead to tunnels that lead to tunnels.

The subway station at 7th Avenue and 40th Street in Manhattan–among so many entries, levels, trains; northbound, southbound, eastbound, westbound; people that head out somewhere then change their mind and come back to where they had started, nervously consulting their poorly unfolded maps and glowing cell phone screens.

This entrance still leads to Manhattan’s underbelly; except that what’s underground New York to you is not exactly the same underground New York to me; we can share the rest of the planet, but in New York we belong to different planes of existence; because you’re the tourist, the visitor, a temporary and weightless presence; a shadow looking for fun, a good time and confirmation of your prefabricated knowledge; whereas I live here, although you wouldn’t know what “here” means in my language. And yes, we’re on the same platform, waiting for the train–but your train is not my train, even though we are both visitors, on opposite sides of this thin border between our worlds…

This is my job: to stand on the station platform at 7th Avenue and 40th Street and make sure that each and every one of you paying tourists is enjoying the New York subway experience: the Chinese man playing Piazzolla tangos on an out-of-tune violin, the magazines with naked flesh on dirty displays, the Jewish broker wiping the sweat from his forehead with a crumpled cloth handkerchief, the longitudinal student that reads Virgil’s Aeneid or Dante’s Inferno under a psychedelic advertising sign.

I’m the type who waits on the platform; the Visitors Authority pays me good money so I can risk my life every day among you, tourists arriving from all four corners of the world; I am exposed to the bacterial flora you carry with you and the bombs you may have hidden in your shoes, brassieres, and vaginas; installed in a world intrinsically unsafe that can be instantly annihilated by a direct missile hit, poisonous gas release, or anthrax-laced newspaper.

Then night falls and my shift comes to an end and I take the elevator–my elevator–to that other level none of you can access, the elevator that will take me to another platform, filled with hard-working people like me; and a train arrives to carry us all to the deep entrails of our island–or where home is, to say it in a different way.

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The old New York subway was built as a public transportation service, to help people connect with their workplace. Its strategic advantages would become evident much later–like the possibility to exert absolute control over entries/exits, the natural protection it offered against an aerial attack, and the very fact that people there always circulated in groups, but these groups were transient, short-lived. They had no time to grow or cultivate any kind of collective self-awareness.

Underground New York wasn’t created overnight. History tells us that the New York subway was generally safe, protected and, more importantly, defensible. Thus, when the big and civilized burrowing towards the underbelly of Manhattan started, no one was caught off guard. Of course, by now September 11th had already happened and the World Trade Center area was still a smoking ruin in everyone’s memory; even the last truck loaded with stinking debris had left Ground Zero to disappear into the merciful fog and planes were back circling above skyscrapers like vultures upon a battlefield; except now, no one liked the sight of them anymore; not even children who kept their eyes to the ground.

And so it happened that the real New York abandoned its weathered, scenic carapace and moved down below, into the safety of the Earth’s entrails.

In the beginning there was a fairly benign expansion of service between the lines and the stations; short efficient tunnels connecting other ones; one- or two-car trains called shuttles helping customers get to more important trains waiting like ocean liners docked to their majestic and tastefully lit platforms; smaller scale subways to make up for design flaws of major networks which–as everyone knows–were initially allowed to grow rampantly around core simplistic, but nonetheless functional, concepts; later on, with the impressive breakthroughs in tunnel-digging technology (the Afghanistan war proved to be of crucial help at this point), it became possible to build municipal structures for a variety of satellite services around old and new lines; after all, as the exit from the system became increasingly time-consuming, the multitudes of commuters began to ask for more stores, gyms, ATM machines, and daycare centers and cafes with Wi-Fi access and massage and hair parlors, perhaps only, and only so that they could brag how splendidly they spent the day and occasionally even the night underground.

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Underground New York is run by the Fire-Fighting Authority and its ancillary organizations: the Crowd-Management Authority, the Anti-Terror Authority, and the Visitors Authority. The attentive reader won’t fail to detect here a necessary inheritance from the Twin Towers disaster; on the other hand, nobody denies that we decided to go live deep underground, urged by the idea that some bearded guy was now plotting, somewhere, another attack against our towers, and gleaming shopping malls, the mystical geometry of our elevators and escalators with which we’d conquered heights, and everything else we are hated for by our enemy.

The Crowd-Management Authority itself was created as a result of the successful merger of two old municipal agencies: the Transit Authority and the Port Authority. Its main responsibility was and continues to be the administration of the labyrinthine network of tunnels and trains and passageways and ventilation shafts and moving platforms and elevators, on which our very life and welfare depends. As the city crept entirely underground, one of their first and much-talked-about decisions was to remove windows from subway cars; this was rightfully thought to be an undeniable sign of the paradigm shift in the philosophy of metropolitan life; because the window had accompanied urban culture ever since its beginnings; but, on the other hand, windows are useless when there’s nothing to see. For what’s a window if not a disruption of continuity, a visual connector now rendered useless, between an “inside” and an “outside”; from that moment on, the sidewall panels of the trains were dressed up in advertising boards and TV screens and interactive recruitment centers; while the underground residential quarters where the city’s elites had moved were designed to be windowless from the start.

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No one had ever promised that life underground would be carefree; in spite of all the tireless efforts by our multiple Authorities, many of us would still long for–at least occasionally–the chaos, and sunlight, and–most of all–the two-dimensional world of the abandoned city above. Our generation, born on the surface, finds it practically impossible to visualize a city organized as a matrix of interconnected levels; because for the moving subject, there would be no orientation points. Also, residential areas, in relation to shopping and office areas, are randomly distributed; more so their distribution follows certain restrictions imposed by the transportation network itself, which are not always distance-dependent; in other words, the only practical, or reasonable, way to measure or estimate the distance between two points underground is through the route one has to take in order to get from one point to another; it’s like living in a normal, three-dimensional universe, but also being allowed (compelled really) to use wormholes or inter-dimensional shortcuts in order to move from one point to another. Contrary to what most people imagine, underground New York isn’t just some common metropolis expanding into the immense spaces or caves under the Manhattan rock; but rather a wholly new concept of a city, in which the living space and the moving space no longer coincide. You are in your room and you have to take a train to get to the office; but otherwise you have no idea where this office is located in relation to your room: above you, or to your left, or ten levels below you; actually, you don’t really need this kind of information, though you can look it up, at the closest Information Kiosk. Yet, to go to your office you must take the train that goes to your office–in other words, you have already traded awareness for convenience.

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It goes without saying that the first casualty of the city’s adaptation was the old concept of the city itself: we now have no streets and no traffic; nobody (except for maintenance robots) can actually SEE the trains from outside, let alone the tunnels and the elevator shafts; you can still take a walk, but inside a shopping mall, or on a treadmill; gathering spaces such as squares, or sidewalks are now the memory of an inefficient past; but people can always express their dissent in other forms–mainly by refusing to use certain services; and, in fact, the only public space that remains is the one inside the train car–where the concentration of sensors and cameras is at its highest.

On the other hand, advances in telecommunication, data encryption, multimedia interactivity, Internet access, and virtual-reality technology have radically changed the way people interact with one another in social situations; physical presence is gradually becoming exceptional, and all the activities still requiring human bodies are left with no more social prestige and reputation than that of a twentieth-century nudist colony…

No one ever promised that life underground would be carefree; many of us still have trouble adapting to this new reality; hence the blossoming of new religions and spiritual movements, like the Church of Solitude and the Church of Delayed Satisfaction, which cleverly combine New Age teachings with aromatherapy, soothing martial arts, meditation, and hypnotic self-effacement. There’s no doubt that here in the underground we are planting the seeds of a new civilization; of course I won’t be around to enjoy the miracles of the future, but at least I am consoled by the belief that my progeny will always remember me as one of the pioneers…

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My job is to stand around on the platform at the 7th Avenue and 40th Street station, and make sure that each and every one of you paying tourists is enjoying your New York Classic Subway® experience. Sometimes the trains are late; sometimes the trains are really late. Serious delays are usually simulated, but not planned; minor service interruptions do occur. Paying visitors are entitled to an environment that is as authentic as possible–including delays, incidents, interruptions; of course, it’s not easy to define “authentic” in this context, since the Malaysian or Azeri tourist has no point of reference, except the New York subway myth itself–a myth that exists and is reproduced in the obscure interstices of the world’s collective subconscious.

My job is to wait here for an uptown train; it becomes important that during service interruptions–be they real or simulated–visitors aren’t scared off by the sight of an empty platform. Today you can safely visit Manhattan Park; although something unexpected can always happen in a simulation; an unplanned catastrophe, another miniature or even simulated September 11th, a caving in of the daily routine, a triumph no matter how ephemeral the entropy inside a computer system controlled by a computer; still the average tourist expects chaotic traffic and one that’s possibly spiced with occasional road-rage violence; the leather-necked drunk under the sun, standing at the corner, can’t forget to curse at the passersby, while the impish mugger has to run between the taxis that slowly, like sheep, circle Mayor Giuliani’s bronze statue at Columbus Circle; every now and then, overtaken by strong emotions, someone will fall to the ground from a heart attack or epileptic fit; in such occasions, there are plenty of simulated or non-simulated ambulances that arrive with blasting sirens to assist the victims.

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Now that old Manhattan has completed its transformation into a theme park, the only way for a New Yorker to come here is for work. Hundreds of twentieth-century skyscrapers are now empty, hollow structures, that offer the scenic backdrop to what is considered, the world over, the most coveted tourist attraction in the Western hemisphere. Even so, every day many New Yorkers have to abandon their comfortable underground habitat to return to the surface; so that the other, the city of the tourists, never lacks its ethnic vendors, and mustachioed limo drivers, the yuppies with careless ties thrown over their shoulders, the secretaries that return from the salad bar half a pound heavier, the gentlemen walking their dogs, the sidewalk smokers, and the elastic joggers.

Each day, early in the morning, giant elevator platforms ascend from the deep underground to unload on the surface the motley swarms of homeless junkies, hippy drunkards, litter dispensers, urban painters, Latino pimps, Jehovah’s witnesses, ambulant singers, rat and pigeon trainers, performance artists, and Peruvian pan-flute players. Nowadays, even being black has become an above-the-ground job, because the tourists expect to them to roam the streets barefoot, singing the blues, and preaching the Gospel.

Then, there’s the Subway®. Not OUR subway, of course. I mean the subway as one of Manhattan Park’s main attractions. The conservation experts at the Visitors Authority’s labs have done a wonderful job to preserve the old tunnels, the trains, the platforms, and the stations as they were. How could our city survive without this business? What authority would dare to ignore the tourists’ need to be pushed down dirty stairs, to trip on the reclining bodies of drunkards, slip on homeless people’s vomit, and get stuck on the fruit-flavored gum a cherry-mouthed 16-year-old has spit out; to give out change to all kinds of unshaven, foul-smelling ogres, and to eventually be squeezed into claustrophobic cars crammed with wheezing old men?

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I’m not talking about the legends and myths that hang like a Gothic mist over a reality too grandiose to be fully comprehended. There are those who claim that even the tourists are on the Visitors Authority payroll; or those who believe that our underground city exists only as the effect of a collective hypnagogic dream; or those who think that by the time Osama’s firebirds hit, on September 11th, the city had already been thematized and the Twin Towers were basically empty; and finally, a few nutcases trying to convince us that the doubling of Manhattan into a city below and a “city” above is just the way our limited human minds perceive and interpret an informational catastrophe that would have otherwise remained completely enigmatic and beyond reason…

One thing, though, seems to be true in spite of how we have chosen to fool ourselves: more than a metropolis, more than an actual functioning city with real functioning inhabitants, New York is now a collective myth that survives and reproduces independently of what happens with the city itself. This myth–and not the world the myth is rooted in–is what the visitor is after; the Visitors Authority is actually the real steward of this myth, whereas we, the above-ground slaves, are in a way its priests.

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My job is to stand on this platform and wait for a train that never comes; leaning against a rusty pillar, clutching in my hand the Manhattan Post, I watch the trains move back and forth; visitors getting into them like high tide, visitors getting off them like low tide; but there are other people in the cars, aloof professionals like me who act as everyday commuters; people with no special individuality nor memorable features; walk-ons that are there just to fill a function, a position, a role or a task on the huge canvas of everyday life in the New York subway; they move by train but they don’t go anywhere; the timetables change, and the numbers flash, and the public address system roars out useless warnings and information; but this carnival is always based on a script, and is always repeated, and always staged, including myself, now telling this story to nobody in particular. The largest show on Earth, they say; and maybe it has always been so.

Bios

Ardian Vehbiu

Born in Tirana, Albania, Ardian Vehbiu is a writer, researcher, and translator based in New York. He has authored 12 nonfiction and fiction books as well as a number of research papers in linguistics and semiotics. Vehbiu won the 2010 Gjergj Fishta national nonfiction award for his study of new patterns in public discourse under the totalitarian regime in Albania (“Totalitarian Albanian,” 2009), and the 2014 Ardian Klosi nonfiction award for his essay dedicated to the image of the West in an isolated communist Albania (“Things Washed Ashore.” 2013). His writing has been featured regularly in the Albanian press and translated into Italian, English, and Romanian. Since 2007, he has managed Peizazhe të fjalës, a blog that has become a strong point of reference for cultural, social, and linguistic debates in the Albanian-speaking world. He has also translated several works from Albanian into Italian, as well as from Italian, French, and English into Albanian. His most recent work in Albanian is Bolero, a metafictional novel published in 2015, and from which the extract featured here is taken.

Ani Gjika

Ani Gjika is the author of the collection of poems, Bread on Running Waters (Fenway Press, 2013). A native of Albania, Gjika moved to the United States at age 18, and earned an MA in English at Simmons College and an MFA in poetry at Boston University. Her other honors include awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, the Banff Centre International Literary Translators Residency, and the Robert Fitzgerald Translation Prize. Gjika's own poetry has appeared in Seneca Review, Salamander, Plume, Silk Road Review, From the Fishouse, and elsewhere. Her translations from the Albanian have appeared in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, AGNI Online, Catamaran Literary Reader, Two Lines Online, Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art, and elsewhere.  

Bolero. Copyright (c) Ardian Vehbiu, 2015. English translation copyright (c) Ani Gjika, 2015.