Lives of the Cannibals: Rage

It is 10 pm on Wednesday night and a man is screaming on the 1/2/3 platform at Times Square station. His voice gives no clue as to age or race. It’s impossible even to determine the man’s trouble: his tone is shrill and his words are stretched and twisted to accommodate rage. Walk down the platform twenty feet and discover that the man is Chinese, bald, in his mid-fifties. He is 5’6 or so and portly. In different circumstances, you would not think him capable of producing this noise. The subway arrives and the man boards, amply preceding himself. His voice is undiminished inside the metal walls, and his fellow riders immediately flee to other cars. He doesn’t care. Over the train’s clamor you can hear him screaming all the way to Brooklyn.

It’s an important irony that here in New York, in this city that is the finest achievement of modern American urban life, a city that fairly reeks of cool and sophistication, we are reduced (or refined) to our basest fundamental selves. Stringent isolation and the madness of the crowd coexist here, giving rise to New York’s exquisite hybrids–the stone-faced mothers and muttering businessmen and sly derelicts. Had Darwin lived today, he would not have had to visit the Galápagos to induce his theory. Two weeks in the city–at the Pennsylvania Hotel across from Penn Station, perhaps–would serve him well enough to discern natural selection and test its mettle on the street. Indeed, New York is the result of 7,000 years of urban technology, the fantastic product of art, science and political method, and yet nowhere on Earth offers a comparable opportunity to observe human behavior in its purest instinctual form.

We pine in love and we decay in sadness. In shame we cower and from revulsion we withdraw. Fear chases us away. These are retiring emotions. Expressed or simply felt, they are private things, shared and managed among friends, or at least those we know. They emanate modestly, rarely achieving anything like powerful broadcast. Anger is different. Anger is the orangutan’s effulgent orange ass. It exists for its expression, and even in its chastened state we describe it in a way that indicates its volatility: it seethes and smolders, and we step lightly nearby, reasonably fearing its explosion. Internalized, anger is nevertheless evident. The hissed obscenity and the compact jab of an arm (silence! it says, get away!), these are inflections of rage suppressed, and they are obvious to see. They are warnings we heed.

If New York lost Broadway, if thieves looted the Museum Mile and if the observation deck of the Empire State Building were closed permanently for renovation, the city fathers would still have anger to trot out for the entertainment of cash-carrying visitors from the heartland, a sort of ecotourism tweaked for the Ur of contemporary urban landscapes. After all, New York is nothing if not a whore–why not capitalize on its wealth? Colorful pamphlets could be distributed, primers that elucidate the finer points of rage-watching and direct curious visitors to the best blinds in the city. Zagat could compile a survey. Twenty-eight points out of 30 for the corner of 44th and Lexington, where Grand Central Terminal disgorges its fretful loads. Bright red double-deckers could tour the worst traffic snarls and at the same time exacerbate the gridlock, thereby affording their wide-eyed charges the opportunity to be targets of the city’s sporting take on road rage. The Germans and Japanese, the Kansans on holiday, valued, credit-wielding consumers in sherbet bermudas and baseball caps, they would feel a sudden sense of brotherhood twenty feet up as they listened to the narration of their tour-guide (“notice the dents in the hoods of the cabs–bonnets to you Brits–made by the fists of pedestrians”) and pointed out to one another the most fearsome verbal and gesticular threats from these fascinating New Yorkers, ranging free in their preserve.

None is above rage. The extravagantly degreed publisher on his way to work is likely to test his manhood, his courage, by way of the pitch of his shoulders on a construction-narrowed sidewalk. Beneath these skyscrapers and amidst this rush of transit, by God he will not give ground to the slouching thug or the high-heeled secretary as they make their opposite way in the shuffling line beside him. And how many times has he struck another, absorbing the blow of a body as steadfastly as possible, giving nothing away, not even a flinch? Why, every day. Multiple times a day. This is a dynamic city. There’s construction on every block.

Certainly, New York City is a brightly painted streetwalker, vulgar, sexually overt, but it is a debutante and a housekeeper too, and all three ladies are masters of the subtle sneer and the public snub. Rage finds many forms, not least of which are disdain and its underprivileged cousin resentment. The brutality of these expressions takes its cumulative effect, transforming the city into a breeding ground for creeping insanity, making it the de facto capital of lonely mumblers, who quietly suffer the violent discourtesy of thousands in the course of their plodding daily lives. There you go, Chief. No, really, it’s my fucking pleasure. In these poor sensitive souls, whose nerves would be grated by the comparatively mild depredations of a Midwestern city like Pittsburgh or St. Louis, New York effects a paranoia of the chronic, distracted variety. These obscure ghosts, whose eyes remain fixed on the distance or the concrete before them, and whose tolerance for the physical intimacy of subway cars tends to endure for a stop or two at most, these victims are spotted easily for their twitchy gaits and pained faces, and for their hair-trigger shoulders, which tense at the first peal of laughter in the street.

Fifteen years ago, New York received a great deal of credit for its sustained calm in the wake of acquittals for the LA cops who beat down Rodney King. There was wonder in the voices of politicians and pundits, who saw unrest in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia and Newark, and assumed that America’s shameless skyscraping capital would fall in line with the others. It didn’t. Remarkable, they said, an unlikely development. In fact, if not for the pustulating seam of rage running right down the center of this city, we would have been at each other’s throats. We were physically exhausted from the angry contest of our day, and we had no energy left to avail ourselves of the cool relief of riot. Anyway, we have our own infected wounds from which we draw murderous inspiration. It would hardly do to adopt the rage of another, lesser city. Los Angeles can keep its Kings and Furmans, thank you very much. We’ve got Howard Beach and Crown Heights, Yankel Rosenbaum and Al Sharpton, and apocryphal packs of black teenagers, who wild away a lovely evening under the electric lamps of Central Park.

Jed Palmer

[This is posted by Abbas because Jed had some trouble with his own account.]