Congratulations to Alex Kudera. His debut novel (and the first-ever book from Atticus Books), Fight for Your Long Day, has gone and won the regional IPPY gold award for best fiction in the Mid-Atlantic region. His publisher couldn’t be more proud and also couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than sharing an excerpt of this “uncompromising expose´ of how we live now.” One that takes us through underpaid professor Cyrus Duffleman’s subway commute, complete with stereotypes and stenches and, because we can’t resist a little irony, a well-aimed jab at all those “smiling prize winners.” Who’s smiling now? Well, one thing’s for sure, it’s not Duffy.
Oh shit. 9:40, and now 9:41 a.m., according to the time and temperature on the blue background just above the stock-quote corner of the screen. To meet his Tuesday – Thursday schedule, he needs to be out the door at 9:35 sharp to arrive at his first class in a timely fashion. Now he is six minutes late.
Channel changer in hand, Duffy shoots dead his screen, springs from the couch, shot-guns his tall glass of tap water, and swallows the last half cup of lukewarm coffee, praying he receive not the shits while sampling public transportation. After throwing on a gray and worn-thin wool sweater and stepping into functional beige khakis, finally socks, shoes, and deodorant in case he forgot, he darts around his tiny two-room studio, searching for his umbrella, which he remembers he has been unable to find since the start of April. But he sees from his window that it’s only drizzling, and he lowers each window to two inches so as to let in air but keep out any watery gusts during the day. He turns off the coffee pot, and checks to make sure the toaster oven is switched off. Then he glances down at the oven knobs as he presses firmly against the refrigerator door to test its airtight seal, steps back to the bathroom to make sure the toilet water isn’t running but as he does so, in double-checking the coffee pot, he sees the milk is still out on the counter, and so he returns it to the refrigerator, rechecks the oven knobs with his left hand as he firmly presses the fridge again with his right, and then double-checks the radio despite its silence as he returns to the bathroom and finds all fixtures secure, and not a droplet of sound. He opens the tiny bathroom window as wide as it will go, admires the branch that has been growing off the plastic window sill—a tree seed and soil apparently found its way to the perfect humidity of a window by the shower—and then moves back to the bedroom to doublecheck the computer switch and the back window—where the terrorist or burglar would likely sneak in—and finally grabs his jacket and book bag, walks out of his apartment door, and locks it behind him. As he takes two steps down the stairs, he realizes he has forgotten his granola breakfast bar and peanut butter ’n cheese cracker snack, the two items he needs to save three dollars on snacks from the food carts around campus. So he fusses with his key, reenters the apartment, grabs the snacks, eyes the coffee pot one last time, lowers his hulking bag to the floor as he tosses on his jacket, lifts the bag, and then locks the door, hurrying down the steps before he can remember to check anything else.
Outside, where the drizzle has picked up to a steady, light rain, he gets wet and checks his watch. 9:44 a.m.
Duffy has no time for the calm ride of the slightly out-of-the-way suburban trains, so he rushes for the subway, pacing as briskly as possible without falling on his ass. His shoes are an investment; they are made of a synthetic material used for “walker” models, with good traction and better arch support. He fondly recalls paying twelve extra dollars to buy the pair with waterproofing. As he marches forward, head tilted down enough to avoid puddles but still see approaching pedestrians, his glasses catch the water. A constant drip from the upper rim of the frame plops down just below each eye.
At a quarter to ten, not many are out walking, not in this rain, most having already made it to work, and not yet prepared to venture outside for their morning smoke. In the underpass below the trains, Duffy indulges in thirty yards of dry. As he returns to getting wet, to his left, he passes the Drew building, where they award generous stipends for fiction, poetry, and plays. His terminal degree states that he has a “Masters” in the so-called “Fine Art” of creative writing, and he applied years ago, long before the seven deadly sins of literary blockage—daily drudgery, anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, lack of talent and ambition, and above all, laziness—stole away any chance he had of concentrating for long enough to produce anything even loosely resembling a work of art, or tight and tidy enough to be considered that marketable commodity, “the contemporary novel.” Even in his overworked state, he still remembers to brood and mutter bitterly each time photos of smiling prize winners are published; from Duffy’s perspective, there seems to be something politically correct, connected, or insubstantial about every finalist. Who has ever heard of writers smiling so widely? These winners could not be writers worth reading. Awash in envy, he sees it all as one steamy lump, a movement of the ordinary produced by the educated but scared; the winners’ writing takes less risk than a political front runner in a national election. He could admit that it shows far superior craftsmanship than his endless comments on student essays, all he could claim as his own oeuvre. Such self-crunching honesty doesn’t make him feel any better, and so, with no time to stare at the imposing gray marble, Duffy trudges on.
Just as he briskly approaches and then dexterously stops at the red light at the corner of 21st and Market, a huge SEPTA bus headed west on Market plows past, drenching him from his knees to his shoulders with a shockwave of rainwater. Gathering his wits, he feels grateful this bonus soaking doesn’t come with muddy sprinkles on top. When he crosses, looking both ways, Duffy bravely fingers the bus already a block away. Past the firehouse and the adult book center and peep shows—whose bright red neon distracts him for only the briefest of seconds—he begins the steep descent to the 22nd and Market eastbound subway-surface platform, hoping, as he does so, that he encounters only sane people below. Although the new gourmet market has brought the middle class—yuppies, buppies, two-earner families, and trust-fund slackers—back to this station, particularly after work, Duffy remains cautious. Interaction with the half clad, salivating, mentally ill, or emotionally disturbed is more than he can handle, particularly at such an early hour. That each day includes an inordinate amount of interaction with himself makes life troubling enough.
After a slow, careful, one-step-at-a-time descent of the deep cement stairwell, his glasses fog up entirely with the temperature change. A trolley’s distant squeal transforms to a roar and culminates in a screeching halt; in his haste to progress, he at first shoves and nearly pushes down an elderly woman he cannot see, but then holds her up until he can steady them both. A moment for a deep breath and then he makes sure that she boards safely ahead of his oafishness, all the while apologizing profusely and at last stepping up and into the crowded car. With a tissue from his jacket, he clears his glasses to see the huge driver staring at him menacingly because he witnessed the entire episode. He absorbs the driver’s glare as acknowledgement that he is the worst kind of middle-aged white man in control of the universe—the kind who would run down an old lady in pursuit of daily bread, and no doubt take more than his share.
So Duffy returns the look with sad eyes expressing the guilt of millions, perhaps his paternal grandfather’s buried bones in the mix. At most 37.5 percent Jewish—and rarely feeling like much more of a man than that—nevertheless, culpability for this crime against humanity, this near toppling of a senior citizen, washes across his brow. For a moment, he imagines he knows what it is like to be black. Or even poor. He then recalls that by data gleaned from several surveys he tilts toward poverty or at least a lower quintile, so he shakes his head vigorously as if such brisk exertion could shake out such race- or class-based understanding of the world. He then slides his monthly pass through the slot and turns to meet his fellow passengers.
Posture-poor and folded into most of their seats, overweight brown and black Philadelphians abound, the drab colors of rain jackets and sad or expressionless eyes presciently complementing the rainy day. But there are also careerist, high-thread-count African Americans and others standing near the front, most of them appearing more erect and fit than the slouching writing instructor. He pushes past a few thin Asian girls he often sees in Center City, of varying economic classes and regions of origin—South or East or Southeastern; Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or Asia—most fully hyphenated and a few of ambiguous first language or visa status, but all in tight blue jeans or professional attire. As a people, they appear to have lives and diets; they do not cluster together, and so an attitude of individualism appears alive underneath their name brands. He pauses to marvel at these tender morsels of accessible flesh—packaged tightly in designer wrap—and for a moment feels privileged to bear witness to the Freedom of the West.
But to Duffy, alas, such fruit is forbidden, and with his throat dry and stomach rumbling, he damns himself thrice over—first for seeing so much ethnic difference; second for being such a filthy old man; and third for daring to desire the prohibited in a way that could get him tortured or maimed by radical fundamentalists. He squeezes through the packed-in passengers to find himself wedged between an enormous black woman and a middle-aged hippie. The latter is ostensibly a white male without a harem or wife or clutter of exes, the poorer kind, perhaps laid off, disabled, idled, or otherwise ignored on the employment rolls. Duffy senses that he sees one not unlike himself. Despite this shared life experience, when his nose gets stuck in the hippie’s long locks, he feels disgusted and angry. He can smell the pungency of unwashed dreads. Days, months, even a decade would be possible, and overpowered by this evil wafting, he can barely appreciate or even feel the shock of terror over the arousal he feels from the huge woman’s bosom thrust forward and flopping down into the small of his back. Forced to stare downward, Duffy cannot ignore the bald fact that the hippie rides without shoes, sandals, or any other footwear to protect his tan and yellowish heels and toes from the God-knows-what of public transportation.
At 19th Street, a few depart, or pop out as the doors open, and Duffy feels himself rearranged like one of the candies in a gumball machine. He winds up briefly on a tight-jeaned lap—Vietnamese or perhaps Laotian—who with long nails pinches his neck, the sharp pain succeeding in driving him off and vertical again, this time his face six inches from the hippie’s beard. In the beard, he sees every manner of refuse from the ages, the red of tomato-sauce stains, a fleck of silver, protest posters from decades ago, all in thick-knitted tufts of light brown and gray. When he moves his eyes up and away, the hippie smiles directly at him. Is it a knowing look? Congenial? Conspiratorial? Lewd?
Duffy isn’t sure but doesn’t have time to find out, as the trolley lurches to a halt at 15th Street. He is among the last to pile out, just behind a purple-dreadlocked crusty punk whose perfect cleavage under army camouflage reads “college is a scar” until the last half letter renders visible the fact it was a “scam” all along. Into the dirty, dark cavernous central pulse of public transport, he is but another cow in the common herd. Nevertheless, as an individual, he is cautious and nimble in foot placement, seeking to avoid water puddles and the multitudes of gum droppings both fresh and aged. Good soldier and obedient commuter, he follows the others up the filthy, blackened cement steps and around the bend—two ninety-degree —toward the Orange Line, the North-South Broad Street Line.
As he descends onto the Market Street Elevated Line’s underground Center City platform, he sees a huge pinkish pale cop holding the leash of a seated German Shepherd. The dog has soft, innocent eyes—antithetical to his master’s reputation as a mean-spirited boy in blue. They are there to protect America from violence—both imported and domestic—but no Americans stand anywhere close to their defenders. As he walks past the dog and cop, Duffy glances at the various commuters striking their poses at ten in the morning. One is seated with a cup of coffee, another stands peering at a folded newspaper. A pitch-black obese man in a brown-cloth Kanga hat stares back, reminding him it’s safer to stare at the ground. No one likes being stared at, particularly not in the subway, particularly not by a sad, sallow stranger. Eyes to the ground and plodding forward, Duffy is nagged by a severe urge to pee.
To fight the bladder that be, he picks up his pace—he is, after all, on the verge of arriving more than the permissible five minutes late—and marches on. The corridor narrows everyone to single file, commuters trudging one behind the other, weary, sluggish soldiers who cannot keep the beat. Pungent smells of stale coffee, perspiration, cheap perfume, and old urine compete for notice in the corridor. And then worse, ominous scents hit him, like the shit is about to go down, so strong in his nostrils that Duffy’s ecstasy knows no bounds when the corridor widens once more, and an almost jovial newspaper hawker shouts out, “Deer lynched in the park, American troops dead again, read all about it, two papers for a dollar.” Somehow, the Philadelphia newspaper salesmen have been selling two papers to the same customer. For a dollar you could get two copies of the Daily News at a savings of twenty cents total, an Inquirer and a Daily News at a savings of ten cents total, or two Inquirers at no savings at all. Although he has read that math is an obsolete language—public-school children handed calculators instead of Cuisenaire rods—and that the Daily News is said to be written on the third-grade level, and the Inky only the fifth, he has trouble fathoming who would be buying into such a scam. In the age of the Internet, who would be reading both newspapers, or requiring a copy of the exact same thing? Nonetheless, as he passes the vendor, a lady says, “Two Daily News sir,” and he sees her handing the man a crumpled bill.
Duffy weaves around another beefy cop—this one sans Shepherd and more menacing to account for this lack—and turns down a narrow flight of stairs, with unwashed white tiles for walls, revealing a permanent rainbow of underground grime. Graffiti gets professionally washed away but some dirt and water stains last forever.
On the subway platform, he passes a blank-faced wall of black teenagers, none of whom look old enough to be out of school at this hour. Maybe in another time, another community, a caring adult would talk to the boys, find out if they’re late or lost, warn them against truancy, and perhaps even offer them cab fare, a SEPTA token, assistance in getting to school or calling a parent. But these days, today, the “student” could have a temper or carry a knife or gun, or even an acutely contagious STD according to televised news. So he leaves such inquiry to the cops, who are presently occupied striking their own pose in the war on terror. He paces past, and finds a small gap on a metal bench between two students with eyes stuck in their books. In the mornings, these studious ones cramming in the subway give Duffy a bit of hope for the future. Sometimes he sees one with a novel, deeply engrossed in its contents, possibly even unassigned reading for pleasure. Now, on the cramped bench, he is forced to look straight ahead, in this case at a large yellow sign depicting people in jeans and sneakers with cardboard boxes shoved over their heads. “Labels are for packages,” the large lettering reads. Duffy, so fagged, doesn’t get it. His early-morning hunger pangs for something easier to understand. He glances left to see supersized ads for bright red burgers and fries and then right, yet more ads for treating anxiety and depression. “If you or anyone you know is suffering . . . ”
Then the roar approaches, the train doors open, the masses depart, and those like Duffy, headed to North Philadelphia, surge into each car and fill up the seats. Through the opposite window, he sees the yellow sign’s smaller print: “Embrace difference. Embrace America.” He looks around desperately for dissimilar citizenry whom he could hug or even offer the seat he is about to sit in; he aims for nonwhite but is willing to settle for female, older, younger, or overtly happy. Establishing no eye contact, on second thought he concludes that an act of goodwill would only draw more attention to difference. For packages, right? So he plops down, relieved that only a few students are left standing. Five local stops later, along with most other passengers, Duffy files out and through the turnstiles of the Cecil B. Moore station. As he passes through, he checks the clock behind the SEPTA ticket salesman. It is 10:10 a.m., which would not be so bad if his class were not a five-minute walk from the station. He stumbles up the crowded steps and then picks up the pace, fast-walking as best he can, feeling the familiar ache in the left hamstring, his would-be jumping leg if Duffy could defy gravity just one little bit.
On the first floor of Barron Hall, he rushes into the men’s room to find both urinals busy, one with a student rep for the videogame-obesity generation, and the other with the sort of old fossil who’ll just lean against the porcelain and let her drizzle for days—a scary reminder of what the latter years could be like. Duffy finds a stall vacant save for a boat-sized bowel movement left floating for the next fellow to see. Disgusted and suppressing the simultaneous urges to howl and heave, he pisses straight down, like a marksman gunning for old brown sides rusting in the harbor.He forgets to flush, exits the stall, and breathes again. At the sink, he turns the hot water on full blast, feeling dirty and thus especially disappointed when all he gets is a lukewarm trickle. The soap dispenser fails to produce the pink ooze he can see in its packet, so he lets his hands soak under the faucet, admiring all the more his ideal form of government, the democracy in action of Urban State University. After shaking and rubbing his hands under the warm, faint breath of the sanitization system, Duffy returns to the stairs and ascends to meet his fate.