Third Avenue, Killer of Birthdays

I couldn’t bounce back after thirty minutes of watching the man put on three shirts then peel them off again. I left when the 26 bus finally came, but my birthday had turned into a Tuesday and taken on an air of “surviving til bedtime.”

I can sometimes give myself the gift of a good birthday. For one day, I have this extra casing of well-being, and I walk around in it. It’s like emotional stability tinged with modest (not manic!) joy. It’s like the ability to be the actual distance I am from everyone around me, not crowded on the ground or alone on the moon. It’s optimism; it’s protection from dreary thoughts. It’s a fleeting truce with death. It’s taking pleasure in objects, accepting compliments, and looking forward to future events. It’s the smug, delusional mantle of happiness. It’s what people wear when they buy houses, begin ambitious projects, take this woman to be their wedded wife, decide it’s a good idea to have kids. That’s what I imagine, anyway. By the time I stepped out onto Third Avenue to go home from work, I was feeling like I might really make something of myself after all.

It was windy and gray, and my bus was late. On the sidewalk near me, a man put on three shirts and tore them off. His legs were planted firmly, a little bent at the knee, and his upper body never stopped moving. He danced with all six sleeves of these three shirts: A white t-shirt, a dark gray zip-up hoodie, and a lighter gray pull-over hoodie. He was bare-chested in the cold wind for long minutes as he wrestled with them. He bundled, untangled, folded, and yanked them. He tucked one inside the other, then pulled them apart again. His arms spun out low and high, his back arched and twisted. He put the shirts on backward, upside down, and in every possible order.

He got it right just when I thought he never would. T-shirt, pull-over, cardigan. He looked in the window glass, tipped his head to the side with casual self-criticism, and passed his fingers through his hair. He turned into the stream of pedestrians, hooked his thumbs into the front pockets of his tan corduroys, and walked with arms still, shoulders slightly hunched, and head a little down. He took four steps that made him indistinguishable from everyone around him. One. Two. Three. Four. Then he spun back toward the window glass, peeled off all three shirts as one and hurled them down on the sidewalk at his feet. Then he stooped over them and began to charm the sleeves up out of the heap again, and again he danced with the shirts. He did all of this six times before the 26 came.

At no point did he acknowledge anyone around him, and only the motions strung together and the exposed skin in March made it strange. Chopped into pieces, his movements were normal. Almost normal but not quite, because he was as graceful as a dancer, and because it was vaudevillian, comic, a beautiful little hell. He had not a tattoo or a scar or a blemish on his hairless skin. He was lean, but not gaunt—rock-climber thin with long ropy muscles. His corduroys had fallen down off his hips but the wide elastic band of his black boxer-briefs stayed in place. His hair looked clean. His face looked young. As long as he was trapped in his performance, I was trapped watching him.

As he wrestled with the shirts and whipped his bare torso around in the wind, he moved further down the block. The mass of people moving between us thickened. My eyes stayed trained on him putting on shirts and removing shirts. Other people were just shapes that moved in front of him, moved behind him, blew down the wind tunnel of Third Avenue, slid back and forth, collapsed flat and telescoped back. Every bus but mine came twice, three times. People pooled around me, drained onto buses, and then pooled again. No one was the same, nothing was constant, except me and this man and his need to put on three shirts and then peel them off again. The wind bit through my warm layers and the 26 was never coming. By the time it did, I was emptied out and snowed under.

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