I was loitering on a street corner in Hell’s Kitchen, doing my best impression of a person. “Just waiting for a friend,” I could say if anyone asked (and in fact that was the truth). But I was tense, even more aware than usual of my failure to blend in, of my inability to integrate with the rest of the milieu. That afternoon, in the park, I’d been taken off guard by a woman who’d asked me why I was sitting all alone. I was so bewildered by her question — what exactly was she insinuating anyway? — that all I could do was gape at her and stammer, “I’m waiting,” with no explanation of for what or whom. When she heard that and saw the panicked confusion in my eyes, she literally ran away — consumed, I suppose, by the awkwardness of having attempted conversation with a stranger.
Now I was better prepared. There was a restaurant on the corner in Hell’s Kitchen and I was pretending to watch a baseball game on the enormous TVs inside. There was a whole row of them, easily visible from the street, looming above the tables so insistently that I wondered how it was possible to have a conversation in there — if that was even a thing people did at dinner anymore. The weather was warm and the doors had all been thrown wide open, so I was able to watch from the sidewalk, rather than lurking, peeping-tom style, at the window, as I might have preferred. I was only partially interested in the game. Most of my mental energy was dedicated to preparing a speech for my friend, or my date, rather, a speech inspired by my earlier encounter in the park, about how that’s how I spend my entire life: waiting. Especially when other people are involved. “Damn these intolerably slow, distracted, chronically late hordes of people I share the world with!” — that’s how I’d begin, to test her sense of humor once again, and maybe I’d even shake my fist too while I was at it.
As I watched the baseball game and sorted through these thoughts, trying to put everything in the proper order, I was also trying to couch everything in such a way that it didn’t seem like too much of a personal attack — since after all, it was her I was waiting for just then. That was fine. In a sense, I like waiting, or I’ve tried to learn to like it anyway. I’ve become resigned to the fact that it’s just a symptom of how people are: They are late and I am waiting, if not for them then for something else, something I’m not sure of, so what’s the difference anyway. I glanced at the various people wandering by. It was Friday night, a warm evening in September, so of course the streets were packed with people, all looking for a suitable restaurant to squeeze into. I knew I should have been at home, in the solitude of my apartment. But instead, I was making another attempt at dating — spending normal, friendly time with a normal, friendly woman. It was making me want to die.
As if on cue, a bus swooped by, so close to the curb that another inch and I would never have had to wait for anything else again. The bus driver seemed to wink at me as she passed, as if to say, “Is that really what you want?” The crowd had thickened… and they were all smiling, laughing, holding hands, intoxicated by alcohol and each other’s company. How could it be, I wondered, that everyone else in the world — and they were all here now, all 7 billion of them, right on this street corner in Hell’s Kitchen — how could they all be so ecstatic about being crushed together on a few dozen feet of concrete and funneled into rows of restaurants to stuff their faces and shout at each other over blaring music and television sets?
Even the people that would otherwise have been alone had dogs with them, overcurious little animals straining at their leashes as they attempted to smell everything in sight, then pee on it. I watched a frumpy lady with a white dog slowly weave her way down the street. She indulged its every whim, as it sniffed first a tree, then a bicycle tire, then a filthy patch of sidewalk. The woman smiled as she approached, and I smiled back at her, even as the dog began snuffling at my feet. The animal reminded me of a soccer ball — a soccer ball that had been left in a muddy ditch all weekend — and in my heart I would have liked nothing more than to dropkick it clear across Ninth Avenue. But no one gets to enjoy his life that much.
The way the woman was shuffling behind the dog and smiling at me, like I was going to be delighted by this invasion, depressed me, but that just made me smile harder. As I said, I’d been reminding myself a lot lately that I had to make a more concerted effort to be a person — someone who does things, someone who enjoys adventure, someone who relishes new experiences — for the sake of this girl I was dating, but for myself too. This was a perfect opportunity. So I let the dog rape my sneakers with its muzzle, its nose sliding wetly across the leather, its tongue searching whatever crevasses it could find on the sides of the rubber soles. I stood there, implacable, grinning like I just couldn’t get enough wet snout all over my clothes, and I even waved at the woman as she wandered away, dragging her dingy little soccer ball behind her.
It is unreasonable, I thought, as I watched them disappear into the crowd, how much I hate dogs. But it was true, and it seemed to be getting worse all the time. I decided to make it my mission to like the next dog I saw. I would study it carefully and watch the way it interacted with the world more forgivingly, rather than simply being disgusted straightaway by its mindless energy and obvious neediness. Even if it squatted right in front of me and squeezed out turds like little sausages in a runny broth of piss, as its owner cooed and whispered encouragement, I would be strong and love that dog. I must! After all, what kind of person is filled with rage at the sight of such a loyal and fun-loving creature? A hero! — my heart said, but I quickly suppressed the thought.
A few moments later, about halfway down the block, I saw a woman with two dogs — large dogs: gray, muscular, svelte. They were bounding down the street, almost dragging the woman behind them. As they got closer, I saw that the woman was pregnant — very pregnant. She was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt that was unzipped to reveal a bulging tank top. My immediate impression was that she had a globe stuffed under her shirt — and in a sense, pregnant women are carrying the world in their bellies. The dogs were leaping around, almost dancing, crisscrossing the woman with their leashes. Her stomach was so preposterously large and bulbous, I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The dogs continued dancing in the periphery with appalling joy, and their frenzy seemed to be reaching a crescendo. My mind reeled as I imagined one of them leaping up and sinking their teeth into the woman’s belly, ripping it open and dragging the baby onto the sidewalk—a pink, yellow, and red smear on the gray cement canvas. The woman caught me gaping at her and smiled, a fleeting New York City smile. And why shouldn’t she — after all, she had no access to the darkness of my mind. I’d have liked to return the gesture, perhaps even say, “Nice dogs,” in a friendly, casual way, but instead I stared at my shoes, struggling to get the image of her bloody entrails out of my mind. Silently, I cursed the dogs for making me think such a terrible thing.
I caught a glimpse of one of the animals’ eyes before I looked away, and I could find no traces of intelligence there, like most people seem to. Just a mindlessly lolling tongue, sharp teeth, and a tremendous, unpredictable capacity for violence. Then the woman and her two dogs were gone, lost forever in the smiling, happy crowd. I resumed my post on the street corner, waiting, formulating my various explanations.