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Sight-Seeing New York City Fall 2001 by Jonathan Church

A blind man steps onto the N train at 59th Street. He turns his head and seems to wait for a stranger to gently grasp his elbow and show him the way. Someone does, guiding him to an open spot by a rail. He grabs hold of the rail, giving a nod of thanks to the stranger. No one stands up to offer him a seat.

I follow the blind man onto the train and lean against a rail opposite him. I have a knotted stomach. I am on my way home from work, but I am dreading it. It is early evening on a Friday. I crave a quiet sanctuary after a stressful week. But Rudy, my roommate, is probably home. I imagine he is pacing the apartment, chatting on the phone, laughing like a hyena, drinking Red Bull and vodka, blasting Dave Matthews on his stereo, and gearing up for a night on the town.

I glance furtively at the blind man. He is tall and thin and stooped and has white hair. He wears a kindly smile that seems glued in place, as if he forgot he’s smiling. His teeth are yellow like the sun. He stares at someone across the way with a vacant intensity that would be creepy if he were not blind. Then he shifts his stance. His eyes roam, as if he were surveying the ads or the people on the train. His gaze projects a mind at ease, but my knotted stomach tells me his heart oozes with loneliness.

The train races through the tunnel under the East River into Astoria. I begin to wonder what it is like for the blind man to navigate the crowded midtown streets and then descend the flights of hard dirty steps to get to the N train platform two stories below the ground.

The train neighs and wobbles and screeches its way back above ground. The elevated train comes to a halt at Queens Plaza. People enter and exit. The blind man shuffles his way off the train and onto the platform, either to switch to the 7 train, or to descend the hard dirty steps onto the street below. The rush hour stampede swallows him up. I lose sight of him.

The train comes to my stop in Astoria. I exit the train and move swiftly along the platform to reach the steps before anyone else. The evening sun is giving way to twilight. I walk by Bangladeshi men loitering on the sidewalk, patriarchal and pensive in their khaki trousers and button-down shirts. They smoke cigarettes as their eyes gleam in the last deep rays of sun before sunset. The air is cool and crisp on an October night. It is a month after the attacks, and two weeks after Rudy was fired from Morgan Stanley. He says he saw too much of what life was like as an investment banker and now wanted to see what life was like outside the gold-plated prison of an analyst’s cubicle. On a Friday evening, when a vice president came by his desk to give him an assignment due Monday morning, he told the VP to fuck off and then took the weekend off. On Monday morning, he was dismissed. He has been on a binge of women and drink ever since, and his share of the rent is overdue.

I turn the corner where a barbershop resides. I amble down the street, wondering how I would navigate the treacherous urban terrain of New York if I were blind. A woman walks her dog. A man parks his car. Two neighbors discuss whether the Yankees can win the World Series.

I am halfway down the street when I see the light on in the third-floor apartment of the duplex on the corner at the end of the street that I share with Rudy. I turn to cross the street. I pass over the manhole where Rudy stood holding a baseball bat over his shoulder a week after the attacks, in only sneakers and underwear, because fire engines were raging all around after a car blew up down the street. He thought Bin Laden had struck again, but we found out later that the grid wires underground had gotten too hot and caught on fire, right underneath a parked car.

A young man in sneakers and underwear standing on a manhole in the middle of the street with a bat over the shoulder, was not the craziest thing you might see in this city, but it was up there. It is all spectacle in this city, but something tells you it is not all surface. There is a soul of turmoil we all nurse blindly within our own heart of darkness, where the soul takes its plunge, and dreams of the big life in the big lights of the big city fall from the high-wire and crash into the nightmare of an unforeseen comeuppance. This is the great oversight, not only of naive newcomers, but of men who see over everything from their penthouse suites and skyscraper offices, and who oversee the fate of young men like Rudy.

I arrive at the door of the duplex. The light is on upstairs. It looks like another night when I must bear witness to a roommate who saw none of this coming.

I enter the apartment and see Rudy pacing the apartment in a rented tuxedo while talking on his phone. He is wearing fancy shades on his eyes and looks like James Bond at a state function.

I was considering whether to share with Rudy my thoughts on the blind man, but I decide against it.

Jonathan Church is an economist with a passion for writing. A list of his publications can be found at www.jonathandavidchurch.com. He can be followed on twitter at @jondavidchurch.