Signs And Wonders

By Carlo Rotella

Dec. 17, 2010

After college, I moved to New York City with my girlfriend.  We had a basement apartment in Brooklyn, and on weekday mornings I’d put on office clothes and good shoes and catch the subway to midtown Manhattan, where a boss and a modest amount of responsibility awaited.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life; this existence was a shakedown cruise, an experiment in adulthood.
There was a subway stop where I could cross a platform from the express to the local.  One morning I was doing that when I saw a woman sitting on the stairs that connected the platform to the station above.  She looked to be about 60, neatly dressed, hair done.  There was a shopping bag next to her, and she had one hand up on the bannister, lightly holding it.  As I slowed to a stop and then stood there on the platform in the surging rush hour crowd, I realized that she was dead.  It looked as if she had suddenly felt her time run out, and she’d sat down to try to conserve some small part of the life slipping out of her.
The local closed up its doors and left.  More trains came and went.  Waves of commuters flowed around me, flowed up the stairs past the woman, without really noticing either of us, two points of stillness in a scene of motion.  After a while a cop with a German Shepherd on a leash came along and took up a post near her.  He said something into his radio.  The flow of moving people altered a bit to accommodate this new unmoving element.
It’s hard for me to say exactly how I came to do what I do.  Probably on some level I had wanted to write for a living since I learned that there was such a job description.  But it’s a little easier to point to moments from that formative post-collegiate time that make up a chain of events bringing me closer to a profession.
There was the dead woman in the subway.  There was the voodoo portent of a car-flattened turkey in a canvas bag in an intersection, the yellow feet sticking out to identify the shapeless lump in the bag.  There were long sessions in bars with friends who had their own dress-up jobs, their own projects in grown-up-ness.  And there was the gonging tedium of afternoons in the office, a shocking new order of stasis to arrange one’s life around not having to endure.
And then there was a guy on another train, a Metro North train, marking up a printed-out manuscript with a pen.  I watched him the whole way down from New Haven.  He was maybe 45, my age now, neither dressed up nor dressed down, entirely absorbed in the work of sharpening and refining what he read.  I couldn’t tell whether it was his own writing or someone else’s, and it didn’t really matter.  He was helping it say what it wanted to say, and there was deep satisfaction in what he did.  Somewhere inside me, as I remember it now, a circuit opened, a relay closed:  here’s one thing you can do.  You can gather up the signs and wonders, and you can write about them.


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