The End of the Line
JAMAICA RAILROAD STATION in Queens in New York City is a depressing place to read a newspaper. Not surprising, really: railroad stations are, as a rule, depressing places in which to read, what with all that railroad-regulation decaying Georgian brick and the stale urine smell drifting from the tunnels where the winos sleep, and the annoying fat bookies who stand next to you in the crush and elbow you in the lower back every time you try to turn off the sports page. But Jamaica Station is special.
It's special mainly because it's in South Jamaica, a not-so-quietly festering black ghetto in the borough of Queens, the borough that is supposed to have only Archie Bunkers and no ghettoes. South Jamaica is a singularly depressing place, famous as the home of the Friday Night Riot--the one that starts up every Friday in the summer at 9 p.m. sharp, the one that the storekeepers learn to set their watches by before they finally decide to sell out and leave for good, the one that you rarely read about in the newspapers because nobody ever gets killed and it's mostly just broken windows and jaws, and really, who cares? because it happens every damn week. In South Jamaica every biological and social function is depressing--eating, breathing, getting up in the morning to look for a job, not finding it, rolling the drunks outside the railroad station.
My, life is tough, you think as you look out over the platform at the surrounding landscape, eyeing the bums lounging in the late-morning sun in front of the local rip-off tavern--the one that raises its prices twice a month, on the days when the welfare checks arrive in the mail--and watching with a sort of morbid curiosity as a crew of teenagers begins harassing a crippled wino as he staggers his way into the local pawn shop to barter away his past for a pint of skull-buster. How the other half lives, and all that, and you turn back to your newspaper. But then you realize that it's not what's outside the station that is so depressing.
Looking around the station you see the usual weekend crowd, multiplied by a special Fourth of July factor, streaming across the platforms to the Manhattan-bound trains. It is a white, albeit well-tanned crowd: Jamaica Station is the terminal stop for all the trains coming in from the Hamptons and the other smoking-jacket resorts on Long Island, and affluence hangs heavy in the air on a holiday weekend. Young couples, sleek tans glistening under alligator shirts and Gucci shorts, tote their tennis rackets on top of their other luggage; a slightly older woman, just beginning to lose her lifelong war against crow's feet and encroaching fat, coddles a toy poodle who whimpers against the sharp hissing of the monster diesels; a gaggle of paunchy businessmen, obviously chafing under the discomfort of the sand that still clings to their Coppertone-greasy skin, discusses the probable trends in tomorrow's market. No one quite notices the crowd of young blacks huddled against the newspaper-and-dirty-magazine stand, or feels the resentment in their stares.
Life is tough, you repeat to yourself, but the memories of your own rather pleasant weekend, filled with morning sails and evening gins-and-tonic, gives you the strength to fight off any and all twinges of upper-middle-class guilt. Back to the newspaper, which offers little solace: the holiday weekend; it reports, featured a grand total of 15 murders, not including the 150 or so wounded in the explosion of an ice-cream truck in Manhattan. And the summer hasn't even begun to get hot yet.
The newspaper, you decide, is too depressing. Besides, it's getting late, so you trash it, fight off the little chill that runs up your spine as you sense the cold stares that follow your back across the lobby, and head out into the street to look for a cab. There are none, of course--South Jamaica, despite the presence of the railroad station, is not a smart place to cruise around looking for fares--so you prop yourself, more than a bit self-consciously, against the wall of the Rip-Off Bar and Grille, and wait.
CAB, MISTER?" abroad black face inquires, and your eyes follow his extended hand to a junkyard-special '67 Chevy that is obviously suffering in the heat. Whatever color it may have been originally, time has faded it to a sort of nondescript grey. You start to move, then remember--it's not yellow, it has no medallion form the Taxi Commission, it's a gypsie cab. A hundred newspaper headlines fire the peculiar sort of panic that only the truly paranoid feel. The visions of being driven to some out-of-the-way alley, held up and perhaps shot by this mysterious driver, flash by in an instant. You clutch your wallet, tell him no thanks, you'll wait for the bus, and watch him smile the rueful smile of an honest man. The drunks coming out of the bar snicker at your blind fear, and nod at the cabbie, who walks away shaking his head.
Off in the distance sounds the steady buzz-rattle of the air-hammers that are systematically chewing apart the old elevated train tracks of the Jamaica Ave. subway--the last of the rusting steel dinosaurs that once roamed all across New York's working-class neighborhoods. The El is the last remaining symbol of the era, long forgotten, when New York was a carefully-watched melting pot, a neat patchwork of ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods linked by the roaring steel subways that carried people to and from their work. Now that era is gone, destroyed as methodically as if someone had taken one of those frighteningly indiscreet air-hammers to it. And there is no work.
Too depressing, you think, as your bus finally rounds the corner of Sutphin Boulevard and whines to a stop in front of the bar, barely missing one of the derelicts lying along the curb. Your token chuckles down the coin slot and you sit back in the plastic seat, comfortable for the first time in an hour. The doors close and you are on your way to the airport, heading away from all those cold quiet faces and their insistent stares.