How Not To Return Home From An Out-of-town Poetry Reading

Get up at 8:30 a.m. in Tucson. My host, Matthew Conley, swings me by the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. A remarkable place: an entire building dedicated to poetry, with a library, archives, classrooms, a performance space, even an apartment where visiting poets can sleep. Arrive at Tucson Airport an hour before my 11:55 a.m. flight back to New York. The self-service boarding machine can’t access my itinerary. Turns out I wrote down my flight time incorrectly. My flight was actually at 10:55. I am thrust into the realm of stand-by and finally leave Tucson close to 3 pm.

Now we are jumping to the Math Quiz portion of this post:

You land at LaGuardia Airport close to 1:00 a.m.

You have a 2:00 a.m. Metro North train to catch at 125th St. for the 70-minute journey home

LaGuardia is 6 miles from the 125th St. Station, about 15 minutes by car

Do you:

  1. Pay $40 (with tip) for a cab ride to the station, or
  2. Pay $2.25 and take the public bus that is supposed to arrive at 1:16

If you said A, congratulations, you are fast asleep in bed now, next to your wife.

If you said B, then you are at the bus stop wondering why the bus is so late. You are getting on at 1:31. You are looking at your phone obsessively, wondering if you will make it, as the driver goes slower and slower. You are getting off at 125th and Lexington and watching the train you want to be on, the last of the night, on the overpass, slide into the station. You are kissing the train good-bye. You are coming up with a contingency plan. You are still on West Coast time, you tell yourself. You duck into the subway station on the corner and ride downtown to go to a diner till the trains start running again.

The 6-train is a brightly-lit, mobile motel: a number of passengers are slumped in their chairs, hats pulled over their eyes. It’s a ride to work for others, and a ride home for two young women who get on at 79th. But the image you can’t get out of your head is the twenty-five year old man, with his two year-old son asleep, belly-up, in his arms. The father’s hands are locked around the boy’s waist. The father has a large backpack parked under his legs and a large brown shopping back wedged under the plastic seat. You hope they are going somewhere: a relative’s, a friend’s. You pray that they aren’t riding under the city all night. You remember the father you saw the day before at the Tucson Street Fair; he was with his daughter, who appeared to be about eight. There were five cops surrounding them. “Leave him alone, not in front of his daughter,” you were tempted to say, till a bystander said, “the father brought it on himself. He was cursing and yelling at one of the cops.” You think of your father, the Monday Night Football game when you were eleven, the drunken vibe in the air, the wasted guy in his Wrangler jeans and mustache and glossy eyes, who cursed at your father right in front of you, mocked him, how you felt angry, sad, and helpless.

You get off the 6-train at Union Square. It’s 2:50 a.m. As you walk the shadowy, empty streets to the Lyric Diner on 22nd and Third, you wonder if someone will try to intrude upon you. When you were twenty, you had a thirst for confrontation, but you are forty-three now, rolling a handled suitcase, and wearing a Steven Alan sweater. And you have a four year-old daughter at home, who you haven’t seen in five days. You ease into a booth in the diner and order Earl Grey and eggs and read the Duino Elegies for a class you’re teaching. The next train isn’t for three hours. Rilke says, “only in praising is my heart still mine, so violently do I know the world”.

Originally Published: April 5th, 2011

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...