“May the lord remember
the souls of the holy
and pure ones.” *
On this day there were a larger than usual number of Homeland Security guards in the tunnel-like walkway leading to the Thirty-third Street exit of Penn Station, and my friend, who I’d met minutes before in the broad concourse beneath the wide departures board, held his eyes on each casually vigilant cluster of two or three that we passed. Our plan was to have breakfast together in a coffee shop on Eighth Avenue before he took the train home to Washington DC.
As we walked, I told him about something that happened just before he arrived. I had used the men’s room, and just as I was about to leave a red-sleeved arm swung upward, just outside the doorway, quickly downward again, then repeated the flapping motion as if the person the arm belonged to were doing jumping jacks. I paused, and when it seemed to stop, I poked my head out and saw a woman, now waving her arm above her head, looking across the crowded concourse and shouting into a cell phone, “Can you see me now?”
He pointed to the Homeland Security guards and said, “Why the hell do they wear desert camouflage in a train station?” but then said ”Ah,” and answered the question himself: “To do the opposite of what camouflage does. If that lady you just told me about were wearing one of those uniforms, she wouldn’t need her cell phone.”
This happened on Friday, November 21st, 2008, one week before Jdimytai Damour, a thirty-four year old temporary employee at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, would be trampled to death by a throng of holiday shoppers who, just before 5 a.m., after waiting anxiously through the chilly night to get at the Black Friday bargains, smashed the glass doors and rushed into the store. During the first week of December, we would see repeatedly, via television news, security-camera footage of shattered glass lying on pavement, a crowd rushing like water around a small number of people, their backs to us, standing over Damour, whom we do not see, and at an uncertain distance beyond the entry area, floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with indistinct, brightly colored animals of different shapes and sizes, moving their heads up and down, then from side to side, then up and down again like humans saying yes, no, yes, no….
When my friend and I returned an hour later we passed the same uniformed guards and this time, perhaps because we were now walking deeper into the station, I sensed how uneasy he was made by their presence.
We reached the concourse eight minutes before his train was scheduled to leave, and found that the track had not yet been posted, so we watched the time slowly pass on the analog clock at the bottom of the departures board, and just as the minute hand reached the scheduled time of departure, the phrase stand-by replaced the phrase on-time. We then noticed that a loose circle of guards had placed themselves along the walls of the concourse, as well.
“How big is this place?” my friend asked.
“The whole station?”
“The part that’s underground.”
“I don’t know. Maybe three, four square blocks.”
“And this part…?” He looked apprehensively around the wide room.
“This part’s in the middle of it?”
Before I could answer, a voice over the P.A. system announced the track number, which suddenly spun into view on the departures board. The gate was close, which added to his evident relief, and as we walked toward it he said, “When the track number finally swung into view it was like seeing an answer on ‘Family Feud.’ He then imitated the voice of the show’s host: “Survey says….”
I said goodbye, started to walk off, but then heard him call my name. I turned and he waved me back. When I got there he pointed to the man, standing six or seven people ahead of him at the front of the line. “That’s Eric Holder,” he said in a loud whisper, smiling. “Our next Attorney General. The late track announcement… all the guards…that explains all of it.”
I place this day between two others: three days residing in imagination and memory: three beads on a string.
The first, occurring in the recent past: someone elsewhere in the world assembling cheap electronic toys under brutal conditions for seventeen cents an hour.
The second, a Friday in late November on which two friends meet in a train station, dense with the effects of history being made at a distance.
The third, one week later: a seasonal employee at a department store, hired to restock the shelves overnight after they’d been emptied of merchandise by shoppers during the day, is asked to guard the doors and help keep out a frenzied crowd anxious to get inside.
These beads, strung together in time, resist their proximity to each other, as the events themselves resist meaning. Nonetheless, I tie them in a circle.
“And for this act,
may his soul be bound
in the bond of life…”
* Note: The quotes that precede and follow this narrative, which is based on a journal entry, are from the Jewish memorial prayer Yizkor. The first instance is the beginning of the version of the prayer as it is said collectively for larger groups of people; the second instance is an excerpt from the last part of the prayer as it is said for an individual.