Johnny America


Forty-Five Sec­onds at an In­ter­sec­tion in Har­vard Square


The sig­nal light at the con­flu­ence of Mass­a­chu­setts Av­enue, JFK Street, and Mount Auburn Street that faced the foam­ing cur­rents of traf­fic com­ing in from Mass Ave turned am­ber. Sure, all the oth­er lights turned am­ber, too, but this was the on­ly one with a smi­ley face paint­ed on­to it.

Out­side Au Bön Pain, a queen was un­der threat from a stag­gered gang of pawns and a rook be­hind en­e­my lines. The chess mas­ter slapped his but­ton on the game clock and not­ed his own sense of con­tent­ment — not the tri­umphant joy of a sports­man de­feat­ing an op­po­nent; rather, it more close­ly re­sem­bled the sat­is­fac­tion of a crafts­man in­spect­ing a well-fit­ted joist. Stand­ing on the near­by sub­way grat­ing, a large man sell­ing Spare Change said, “Hel­lo, love­ly ladies, would you like to buy a copy of Spare Change?” and, “Have a nice day,” in a sten­to­ri­an bas­so pro­fun­do to a pair of women who passed with­out look­ing up. “Hel­lo, sir,” he start­ed again, inviolable.

A lone mo­torist, en­raged by the car­a­van of merg­ing dri­vers that had cut him off and cleared the light, tried to blast through the in­ter­sec­tion but was forced to a jerk­ing stop in the mid­dle of the brick cross­walk as the traf­fic light went red and the cross­ing sig­nal ex­hort­ed the pedes­tri­ans — most­ly home­bound worka­day white col­lars with a sprin­kle of ivied un­der­grads — to WALK. They surged in­to the street to the chirp­ing call of the cross­ing sig­nal, strand­ing the car in a flash flood of peo­ple. The driver’s face briefly con­tract­ed in a lupine gri­mace as he slapped use­less­ly at the steer­ing col­umn. None of the pedes­tri­ans looked or cared. An LED timer ap­pend­ed to the cross­ing sig­nal start­ed count­ing down from forty seconds.

Punk kids loung­ing in the Pit out­side the T stop arranged car­pools for a grind­core show in Northamp­ton. The home­less bivouacked amongst the punks like a rag-tag bat­tal­ion be­tween land wars.

A young woman in a peas­ant skirt asked the busker play­ing an ade­noidal jinghu next to the Har­vard Coop if she could take a pic­ture of him for her pho­tog­ra­phy class at the Cam­bridge Cen­ter for Adult Ed­u­ca­tion. He agreed, and she pulled out her dad’s old Nikon FG from a couri­er bag around her shoul­der. Af­ter tak­ing a light read­ing and fo­cus­ing the lens, she looked up. “Don’t pay any at­ten­tion to the cam­era. Just act nat­ur­al. Pre­tend like I’m not here,” she said and be­gan to shoot. He stared at her army boots and tried not to smile. When she was done, she dropped a five dol­lar bill in the emp­ty tis­sue pa­per box at the busker’s feet, nod­ded, and walked away, won­der­ing if maybe she lacked the sub­tle­ty to sub­cu­ta­neous­ly en­ter and cap­ture a scene with­out bump­ing in­to its com­po­si­tion­al el­e­ments. Was that the kind of thing you could learn?

On the third floor of the Coop, a man sat in the win­dow seat over­look­ing the in­ter­sec­tion and read­ing a copy of LSD: My Prob­lem Child, by Al­bert Hof­mann. Oc­ca­sion­al­ly, he would jot down a quo­ta­tion in­to a spi­ral note­book propped up on his knees. He put the book down to stare out the win­dow. He con­sid­ered this nook, where he would some­times spend hours read­ing books he did not want to buy, to be his own lit­tle se­cret cor­ner. He was not fa­mil­iar with the lo­cal li­braries. A per­fect sniper’s nest, he thought to him­self, and pre­tend­ed to pick off var­i­ous pedestrians.

Over­head, the cloud that looked like a duck trans­mo­gri­fied in­to a sub­ma­rine ex­tend­ing a periscope and then just a fun­ny-shaped cloud that didn’t re­al­ly look like any­thing. Dusk sun­light surged up Brat­tle Street, cut­ting sharp shad­ows and gild­ing Out of Town News. The glossies in the racks lit up like Kliegs. In front of the news­stand, a woman saw, for the first time in months, an ex-boyfriend scan­ning cov­ers and smok­ing a cig­a­rette. He looked the same. His right hand was work­ing in his pants pock­et, try­ing to sep­a­rate loose coins from the lighter, pack of Camels, pens, tis­sue pa­per, and any­thing else he might have grabbed off the dress­er be­fore leav­ing the apart­ment. She crossed the street to­ward him on her way to the bus stop.

Was he ner­vous around crowds and com­pen­sat­ed by tun­ing out the world, or was his de­fault pub­lic self a gen­uine­ly obliv­i­ous fog? Ei­ther way, he hadn’t seen her, and she could have con­tin­ued on her way. But the last time they spoke, he had got­ten the best of the ex­change, and she’d left his apart­ment cry­ing. As she passed be­hind him, she fired an epi­gram­mat­ic “Those’ll kill you,” and con­tin­ued on with a slight lift in her step. His head twitched up and fol­lowed her as she walked north, in­to the shad­ow of the Coop. Who drops an ex­it line like that and then bolts stage right? He scrunched his nose, stubbed out the cig­a­rette, and hoofed it up JFK af­ter her. There was a place a few blocks away that served pan­cakes and amaz­ing cof­fee. Maybe she was hungry.

Filed under Fiction on October 4th, 2013

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