Chemistry

“Bromine and hypobromous acid make water at room temperature,” she said, over the rapid clack of the train wheels on the downtown #2 express. “Remember that; it’s going to be on the test.”

Tall and slender, she clicked her gum and swayed her taut black-jeaned hips against the brushed steel pole as her shorter blonde girlfriend and the coffee-skinned boy listened. He leaned against the door, facing them, who together clutched the overhang to my right.

His voice was soft and familiar when he looked at the tall girl, “You know kinetic molecular theory will be on this, right?” A smirk creased his smooth skin.

“Shut UUUP!” she shrieked.

The second girl: “Oh, man.”

“It’s totally going to be on it,” he said. “I am totally ready for it.” His white teeth appeared.

There was silence for a moment as the train hurtled past the 66th Street station toward Times Square, my destination.

“Let’s see,” the tall one began again, “H-G is… H-G…”

“…is mercury,” a new voice piped. The voice was seated below the four of us. “Hg is mercury.” A woman with grey hair falling from her scalp like thirsty weeping willow branches, eyeglasses with yellowing lenses and whitish peach fuzz on her cheeks looked up at the three. “I was a chemistry major.”

“No waaay!” And the tall girl handed the group’s study sheet to the older woman, A Mentor Discovered.

“Well,” as her voice dropped in pitch, and as she looked at the pencil-written one-pager, “it was a long time ago. 1965. A lot has changed.” She held the page between her hands like she was holding butterfly wings. The white, single-ruled note-sheet shook slightly as she glanced over sentences, charts and pictures. The three teens formed a canopy over her.

A lot has changed. Hg was still mercury; the Periodic Table was, is and always would be; but in 1965, was this woman the one with the bellbottom jeans, the sleek blonde hair, the rosy cheeks, or was she always hidden, only to emerge with the answer to a question others were wrestling with in front of her, as though she was the invisible contributor who is ever ready but never intrusive?

She handed back the paper after her brief study, and there was silence. The train wheels clacked, and the long iron tube thrust southward, passing 50th Street, carrying hundreds of the more than five million people circulating like blood through arteries around an island at the edge of an ocean.

The teenagers resumed their chattering. The old lady looked into their conversation—wistful for what was lost? longing for something never gained? judging her popular classmates nearly half a century after the fact?—her eyes participating, probing, tacitly questioning and answering, her lips forming a slight smile.

photo: Howard Freeman

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Sediment

At Columbus and 84th Street, I step through the swinging door of the canvas foyer at Lenny’s Delicatessen and am hit with the smell of the Hudson River. It is raining lightly.

Like in E.B. White’s essay, “Here is New York”—when he was in Central Park and heard the sad, moaning horn of the Queen Mary trumpeting across the west side onto the plaza around Bethesda Fountain, where a jazz musician was playing his coronet, the sounds mingling—so now I am overcome with the slick oiliness of the water only five hundred yards to my left. It is a smell of dirt and place, evocative of tugboats, the Little Red Lighthouse storybook when I was a boy, whitecaps visible from the Riverside Park promenade, and a swirling brown current like frothy chocolate milk I knew would be precarious for any weak swimmer and perhaps most strong ones.

I open my nostrils wide to the smell, hearing the raindrops hit my black umbrella, and walk toward the subway.

photo: Maltphoto

Unclear

A white man ran after a black man about 20 feet behind him on 84th and Broadway in mid-afternoon one day last fall.

I stopped with others and watched; moments earlier I had got off the subway at 86th and done my customary walk down Broadway to turn west at 84th toward home. The two men ran at full speed east across Broadway, ran under the AMC theater marquis and toward 83rd. The black man shot back over Broadway, heading west, the white man still running just as fast, now nearly catching up. I looked to see if the black man was holding anything. Unclear. Maybe 70 to 80 people stood motionless along Broadway on both sides and watched. Cars stopped and a few drivers got out and draped their arms over their doors, also watching. A few people held their hands over their mouths and turned to each other, whispering.

Now, the black man—tall, thin, in his mid-30s—ran up Broadway on the west side, in the street, toward the corner where I and a few others were standing. He had come almost full circle from where I first saw him. I thought this odd, that he would be headed back this way. He ran next to the median, in between the cars in the left lane and the 3-foot high concrete barrier.

A small animal ran ahead of him in the street. The black man caught up to it and, reaching down with both hands, scooped it up in his arms. He held high over his head a small brown and black dog, perhaps a silky terrier. The white man came up behind the black man, and the black man handed the dog to him. A white woman came running out from the east side of Broadway to the two men and was given the dog.

People on both sides of Broadway gasped, and then we all clapped.

photo: Baba Zuwa