I ate an Indian takeaway meal in my apartment, did a final check of tickets, passport and money, locked up, dropped the keys into the letter box, and dumped a final bag of garbage on the pavement before shouldering my backpack and heading off down 86th Street towards the subway station on Lexington Avenue, and Africa.
Up ahead on 86th Street, I saw the black woman who sat each night by the warm air vent out in front of the Republic Bank at Third Avenue, smiling at the passing parade: the zen of pan-handling. I'd kept the change from my dressing table for her, and she grinned.
'Hey, thank you! What's with the bag?'
'I'm leaving town,' I said.
'You're kiddin' me. When?'
'Tonight. I'll be there in the morning.'
'Africa,' she sighed, far-away. 'You know, I always wanted to go t' Africa. Uh-huh. Sure did.' She averted her gaze a moment. Then she looked up solemnly from her plastic stool on the wet, shiny concrete. Her eyes were alive, her skin warm, face virtually unlined. 'God will bless you,' she said.
'Oh, I don't know about that,' I laughed. I put out my hand and she smiled and squeezed it.
'No, believe me,' she said. 'God will bless you.'
I took the Number 4 Express down to Fulton Street, and changed for the "A" train out to JFK. But when the train arrived I was on the platform telephone saying goodbye to a friend, and did not realise until I had boarded and the doors had closed, that it was the wrong "A" Train.
It rumbled out under the East River, and when it stopped at the first stop over in Brooklyn, at High Street, I stepped out with my luggage and waited on the platform for the correct "A" train, the one to Far Rockaway. I realised with a prickle of mild discomfort that I was on the near-deserted platform of a station I did not know, on a miserably cold Sunday night. How unfortuate that would be, to get mugged on my final night in New York. I looked around uneasily, and found I was standing beside a gangly black teenage girl who had also got off the train. She wore a pink jumpsuit and had a child's packpack with a giant Minnie Mouse on it.
'I’m goin' to Far Rockaway,' she enthused. 'Seein' my sister. I love to see my sister! I don't like my mom.' She paused and looked me over. 'Goin' t' the airport ain’t you, with that bag 'n all.'
'Yes, I'm going to the airport.'
'I'm Charlene,' she said, and we smiled at each other, side by side in the silent subway station.
But then we realised there was somebody else. We heard him first, rather than saw him. He was sitting on a piss-stinking flight of steps, gorging himself with long slow chews on a slice of a pizza and drinking down a can of Pepsi, grunting occasionally before slurping down another mouthful of the drink. He was young and white, no more than twenty-five, and he looked like the actor Matt Dillon, only overweight and busted up, as if the Drugstore Cowboy had been broken in, fattened up and put out to pasture.
'Rock rock, Rockaway Beach,' he muttered low and guttural, just on the point of singing the old Ramones song. 'We can hitch a ride t' Rockaway Beach...'
Neither of us looked at him, but he wasn't deterred.
'Tryin' get to the airport, huh? Jesus Christ, I know all about the trains in New York. Every fuckin' train. I'm from fuckin' Brooklyn. Why wouldn't I fuckin' know?'
He finished chewing, belched, drew himself up to his feet, and sidled down the stairs towards us.
'You gotta get the train to Far Rockaway,' he said.
'I know, thanks,' I said.
'Yeah.' He looked wearily up and down the hushed tracks. We were the only three people on the platform now. 'Y' know, my cousin got himself killed the other week. Hit by a car and a truck at the same time. Real fuckin' mess. So now I'm tryin' to get out to my aunt's place on Long Island.. She's got a spare bed out there now, y' see...' He smiled at me bleakly. 'Fare's three dollars.'
His manner wasn't threatening, but he was sizeable and the situation unpredictable. I had some quarters I'd been saving for a final call from the airport to some friends upstate, but there probably wouldn't be time to call them now anyway, so I gave them to him. It was about three dollars worth. He peered down at the silver pieces resting in his hand, then looked up and beamed like a giant child. Despite the pummelled, panel-beaten quality of his face, his dark eyes were soft, with long lashes. His lips were full, the ends tweaked with humour. His voice was low, enigmatically engaging. I thought he was probably a shy man forced by circumstance to beggary. His jumper was threadbare, and his old sheepskin-lined denim jacket smelled like boiled offal.
'Some guy just bought me the pizza,' he chuckled, tongue running round the inside of his mouth, recalling the taste. 'Just some guy up on the street. I hadn't eaten in two whole days. I'm a homeless person,' he added, the term sounding very technical and demographic.
All this time Charlene had been quiet, just watching and listening. 'Too bad, huh?' she said.
'Yeah,' he said.
The train arrived in a piercing shriek of metal brakes and hard chugging of engine, and we clambered on board. The homeless man, who introduced himself as Joe, go on too and the three of us sat together in an otherwise empty car.
'So where're y' goin' tonight, from th' airport?' Charlene asked.
'Africa,' I said.
'Who-ah!' she said, excitedly turning to Joe. 'Say, he's goin' t' Africa! How'd you like that? Africa!' Her plump young lips curved around the word and held its shape a moment as her thoughts raced on. 'How long does it take you to get there, t' Africa?'
'Actually, I think it's only about seven hours.'
'Seven hours!!' the pair of them chorused. I couldn't work out whether they thought that a surprisingly long or short space of time to shift worlds.
'Seven hours, shit man I can't even sit on a bus, not even jus' for a fuckin' hour,' Joe said.
Charlene had never been on an aircraft. When I mentioned I was from Australia, she thought it was in Europe. The one place she really wanted to go to was Mecca.
'My dad went down t' Washington for that, you know, Million Man March,' she said. 'Minister Farrakhand, Nation of Islam 'n all.'
'So what you think of America, and us Americans?' Joe asked me. 'Pretty fuckin' crazy... not such great, like, manners 'n all, uh?'
'Oh, I don't know,' I said. 'Actually, I think Americans are very polite. Unless they're actually shooting you, that is.'
He laughed and Charlene joined in. I asked Joe about his family.
'My dad's French. My mawm's dead. I'm French, Russian, Irish, bastard, every damn thing!' he laughed.
'Does your dad live in America?'
'Uh-huh. With my step-mawm.'
'You don't live with them?'
'Naw. She hates me, see.' A cloud passed over him. 'No place to live, no job.' Then suddenly he brightened. 'Finished high school tho'. I got my fuckin' health. And I know the subway like the back of my hand.'
He showed me the back of the big white hand he knew as well as the subway, and its prominent veins and blotches did have the appearance of lines and stations.
The train rattled and banged at speed through a station. 'East New York,' Joe announced. 'Now that's a bad stop.'
'Amen,' Charlene intoned, Gospel-style.
'And Bedford-Stuyvesant. That's another bad stop. Lotta bad stops on this line. Lotta bad stops.'
'Amen,' Charlene intoned again. 'Man, I just can't wait to get to Far Rockaway. My sister's place. You should see it! She's got this real pretty balcony, stickin' way out. You can see the sea from it...'
We were interrupted by a deep voice from behind us, very loud. 'Alright you people! This is NOT a robbery! I repeat, this is NOT a robbery!!'
I jerked around in my seat and saw a very big, bald black man in an orange parkha standing powerfully erect, centrestage in the empty subway car.
'Now I could rob you all! Easy! But I won't, 'cos that's not my way! That's not what I'm doing here,' he proclaimed. 'I'm collecting money for the needy!'
I saw one of those indefinable charity-style nametags on him, the kind worn by people who panhandled cash from subway commuters while at the same time asking the hungry to come forward for food. He delivered his spiel in a booming voice, his eyes scanning left to right as if addressing a full car, even though it was actually just the three of us there, huddled together on a single bench seat. 'If you got money, give now!' he barked. 'And if you're hungry, speak up!'
I had never heard anyone take up this offer, but to my surprise, and the black guy's, someone did - Joe.
'Hey, you got an apple, man... little juice maybe?' he asked. 'See, I just had pizza, but I’d really like an apple. Gotta get your fruit.'
The black guy sized him up with undisguised suspicion, hesitated, then rummaged in a filthy old crew bag and produced a sachet of cheese popcorn, the words "Artificially Flavoured" printed in bold type on it. Joe took it without a word, ripped it open and started stuffing popcorn into his mouth. 'Man I'm hungry,' he said.
I handed the black guy a dollar bill. He looked at it disdainfully, and at me with equal disdain, his look riding the delicate line between encouragement to donate more and robbery with menace. Then finally he picked up his bag and swaggered on into the next car. Through the lit-up doorway we saw him announce to the passengers in there that this was not a robbery.
Watching him, Joe shook his head and grinned. 'Man, I was scared. Real scared.'
'Me too,' I said. I had just imagined myself robbed of my French franc travellers's cheques, my US dollars in cash, and my credit card - the money for the entire African trip.
'I thought he had a gun,' Joe said.
Charlene misheard. 'You thought he had a donut?'
'No, a gun,' he grinned. Because of the thickness of his Brooklyn Irish accent, and the gun sounding like "gon", it might really have sounded like "donut"'.
'He acted like he had a gun,' I said.
'Yeah, he pulled a whole lotta focus,' Joe said.
'Donut,' Charlene cackled.
The train stopped just then, and a neat-looking young black guy got on and sat down beside Charlene.
'Hey, Jay Jay,' she giggled to him, 'imagine, robbin' a subway train with a friggin' Dunkin Donut!'
Jay Jay laughed a pleasant, if restrained chuckle.
'Jay Jay, this guy's goin' to Africa tonight,' she announced, proudly proprietorial. 'Say, I bet you speak French,' she said. 'Bonjour, merci, that kinda stuff?'
I said a few words and she giggled again. Joe grinned happily and Jay Jay nodded politely. Then Joe turned towards me and made significant eye contact, and I knew what was coming. The fare to his aunt's place had just risen to eight dollars.
'Okay,' I said, 'I'll give you some more before I get off the train.'
He nodded thanks. I saw crumbs of scoffed popcorn in his lap.
'Do you get cold at night?' I asked him.
'Do you ever get cold at night, sleeping out.'
I was wearing an extra layer against the cold, which I wouldn't need once I got to the airport, and certainly wouldn't need in Africa. I asked Joe if he wanted it. He looked at me curiously, as if not quite taking in what I was saying.
'This sweater thing,' I repeated. 'Do you want it?'
He nodded, and I took it off, an old whindcheater, and gave it to him.
He put it on.
'Charlene, Jay Jay, look!' he announced with disbelief. 'He's givin' me the shirt off his fuckin' back!'
'God will bless you,' Jay Jay said.
'So people keep telling me. But I'm still waiting.'
The three of them burst out laughing, and I joined in.
'You must be blessed if you can just up and fly off to Africa like this,' Jay Jay said.
'No, you're right,' I said. 'I am.'
The train pulled up at Howard Beach, where I was to connect with the airport shuttle bus to the terminal. I gave Joe another five dollars, said goodbye to the three of them, and got off. As I walked down the platform and the train pulled away, I saw the flash of my windcheater on Joe, and Jay Jay leaning across saying something to Charlene, on her way to Far Rockaway.
The Ramones classic, live:
The "A" Train
From my book, The Blue Man, Lonely Planet Journeys. http://www.amazon.com/Lonely-Planet-Journeys-Blue-Man/sim/186450000X/2