Monday, February 9, 2009

The Wheel Deal

Unemployment - Day 35 in Human Days; Day 25 in Business Days

It's been 7 hours and 35 days...since they took my job away.

I write today from Los Angeles, CA.  It's my birthday.  My 30th birthday.  On a fateful November day three months ago, while I still had a steady paycheck, I decided that I wanted to spend this momentous milestone somewhere other than New York City.  I had a broken heart and a chill in my bones, neither of which showed signs of departing anytime soon.  If they won't go away, I thought, I'll go away.  Two days later I booked my flight to LA.  

Even with a job I needed to do the trip on the cheap, so I arranged to stay with my stepbrother, who so far has turned out to be a host and playa of incomparable talent.  When I lost my job, I seriously considered canceling this entire trip.  But four of my friends had also booked flights to join me.  I couldn't be a no-show for my own birthday party.  Not to mention the fact that a refund for my flight was out of the question, especially now that airlines have begun charging fees every time you use extra oxygen to sneeze or burp.  The money was spent; the trip was on.  

Under better economic times, I would normally take a car service to the airport.  But I heard that it was possible to take the subway to JFK, and if I could do it without dying, I could potentially save forty bucks.  That's forty bucks that I could use to buy a plastic tarp and welcome mat for my cardboard box.  And so I hopped onto the MTA web site to search for this magical mystery route.  Turns out it wasn't just an urban legend.  From Brooklyn you can take the J/Z to the JFK Airtrain at Sutphin Blvd.  (The J/Z train is not to be confused with rapper Jay-Z, who according to wikipedia may or may not have gotten his name from the J/Z train lines when he had to take the subway to the airport in the days before he made it big.) 

And so, on the day of my departure, I applied a final coat of lip gloss, put on my indigo dress coat and caramel knee-high boots, heaved my laptop and oversized purse onto my shoulder, and ventured down the stairs of my building with a suitcase that had just made it into the next weight class with the three extra pairs of shoes that I shoved into it at the last minute.  (Mental note: In future, close suitcase at least two hours prior to departure and refuse to open it even when last-minute packing urges reach unbearable heights.  Also, stop writing run-on sentences.)

In retrospect, maybe I should've done a dry run the day beforehand of the icy walk from my apartment to the J/Z subway.  I would never produce a show without a dress rehearsal, so I don't know why I choose to embark on my endeavors off of the stage without rehearsing.  Must be all my improv haphazardly imitating art.  The 10-block walk over patches of salty ice with my 50-pound suitcase in tow was far from pleasant.  Especially when one of the suitcase wheels broke.  But the little voice in my head kept pushing me forward...forty bucks forty bucks forty bucks.  I turned a muddy corner and the green awning of the Hewes Street station appeared in the distance like the Emerald Palace.  There's no place like LA, there's no place like LA, there's no place like LA.

The Hewes Street J/Z subway station is elevated, which was highly convenient for my situation.  I stood at the bottom of the steps and looked up at the staircase before me.  I made it through a half mile of ice and hidden puddles through the depths of Mordor...I could make it up these steps.  I dragged the suitcase one step at a time.  I think sometime halfway up I even began muttering "heave ho, heave ho, heave ho."  It's hard to say for sure -- there wasn't much oxygen reaching my brain at that point.  I just want to take a moment to point out that three Hasidic men passed me on the way up the steps and not one offered to assist me.  One even bumped into me and then gave me a dirty look as if I was some vile pest who owed him an apology.  This is not the first time I've encountered rudeness from the men of this community in my neighborhood.  But I'm here to tell stories, not pass judgement, so I'll get on with the story.  

I wouldn't be able to get my suitcase past the normal entrance, so I made my way to the black metal emergency door.  I turned toward the booth and made eye contact with the husky woman perched inside.  (She was no Barb.)  I pulled out my Metrocard, pointed to my luggage, and smiled a smile that if it could talk would say, "Hi there, kind MTA woman!  I am just a poor, lonely traveler who seeks your kind assistance on my arduous journey.  Please, dear lady, recognize my need, accept my tole, and let me pass."  Smile smile smile.  I swiped my Metrocard and turned back to the booth.  Smile smile smile.  I tried to open the large metal door, but it was still locked.  I turned to the booth once again.  Smile smile smile.  She just stared at me.  I flashed my pearly whites again and pointed to the door.  Smile smile smile.  Nothing.

The booth woman began shouting at me and motioning with both her arms.  "Girl, you gotta turn da wheel!"  Ohhhhh, a wheel.  I have to turn a wheel.  Of course.  How silly of me to just expect doors to magically open.  My journey would be long and hard, and I would have to pass many challenges along the way if I were to save forty dollars.  A wheel challenge made complete sense.  I went back to the metal door and looked for the wheel.  I didn't see it.  I looked back at the woman.  "Girl, turn da wheel!"  Alright, okay!  Hmmm, maybe if I outstretch my arms in the 10 and 2 position as if my hands are on a steering wheel, the wheel will materialize and show itself to me, I thought.  I put my hands up and began to drive.  No wheel.  I looked at the woman again.  I'm sorry, I said, I don't see the wheel.  Could you come out here and show me the wheel?  Or maybe give me a hint on how to find it?  A riddle maybe?  Do I have to pull a sword out of stone to activate the wheel mechanism?  Put a wooden stake through the eye of Cyclops?

"Jesus Christ, girl!  What's wrong with you?!  Turn da wheel!"

I looked back at the door.  I'm thinking too big a picture, I thought.  It must be a little wheel.  One that's opened with just two fingers.  I focused my energy on the door knob, trying to discover the tiny wheel that must surely be nearby.  But I would still need more information if I was to win this challenge, make it through the door and save forty dollars.  I shouted to the booth woman again.  "Seriously, I don't see the wheel.  I'm trying very hard to find it.  Could you give me more specific instructions?  Is there a diagram?"

"Girl!  You gotta turn da wheel!  How do I know you paid if you don't turn da wheel?!  Turn da wheel!  TURN DA WHEEL!  TURN. DA. WHEEL!"

Finally a man standing nearby came over to me, looked at me as though I belonged in Creedmoor, and turned the turnstile next to me. 

"Ohhhh," I said.  "You meant the turnstile.  It's a TURNSTILE."  Smile smile smile.

As I waited for the J/Z train to arrive, I thought of the new word I just learned.  Wheel.  Employed people call it a turnstile.  They ride the subway to get to their jobs.  They don't have to use the emergency door to make way for unwieldy bags.  I am no longer employed.  I now ride the subway with baggage to get to places other than the place of my employment.  Turnstile is dead to me.  It is now a Wheel.

There are sure to be many more challenges in my future as I undertake city life without a job. But I know that if Jay-Z can rise to the top, so can I.  The band Journey once said, "the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'."  Yes, it does.  But who turns that wheel?  We have to turn da wheel.

Jobless City Challenge #1 - J/Z Subway to Airtrain - Money Saved: $40!


  1. "Turn Da Wheel" could be a Jay-Z song.

  2. Even I took that line out to the airport once during my brief stint as a New Yorker. It's an experience, to be sure.

    Happy belated Birthday my dear. Enjoy CA!

  3. I think you should know that my word verification was "wine soun." What? Is your blog telling me you and I need to have wine soon??!!