Dear Municipal Transit Authority (MTA):
I am writing to you today in regards to Citation #31312035T. I have enclosed a copy of said citation. I am asking that you please dismiss the citation and the $100 fine.
MTA, about 39 years ago, there was a little girl in Harvey’s Drugstore in Manlius, New York. You have probably not heard of either the town or the store. Manlius is a small town, though it was ranked #98 on CNN’s top places to live in 2005. I don’t think it was that good 39 years ago, except maybe in Harvey’s Drugstore: There were jars of all sorts of candy sticks lined up one next to the others. Peppermint, sure, but there was also orange, and lemon, and cherry, and licorice, and anything you can imagine, in colors too magical to be anything except candy.
In this story, 39 years ago, a 4-year-old girl asked her mother for a candy stick. Because it was close to dinner, the mother said no. The little girl darkened like a cloud.
The little girl — angry and full of desire so strong it was stronger, even, than reason or fear – put four sticks of candy in her dress pocket. The cunning girl slid down to the floor of the station wagon’s leathery red backseat rapturously. The radio played Fleetwood Mac, but not loudly enough: Her mother heard the plastic crinkling in her daughter’s hands. She turned the car around. The girl was marched into the drugstore, spitting an apology through her tears, paying for the candy with sticky hands. She did not have that kind of money. It took weeks for her to work off the candy money with chores. It took weeks more for the tears to stop.
MTA, that little girl was me. In the 39 years since then, I have not stolen a thing. This is not because I am good. I have done some really, really horrible things in my life — far worse than, say, accidentally not paying a transit fare. I have broken hearts. I have told lies. I have cheated at Monopoly. I have done shameful things that hurt other people and caused damage that I will never begin to repair. But, MTA, I can pay you the fare that I somehow didn’t pay when I got on that morning. You will find a check for $2 attached. Please take this check in lieu of the $100 requested, because:
If you check my fare history, you will see that, like clockwork, I pay a morning fare to get to work, and I pay a fare to get home from work. Every day. Why would I suddenly decide it was time to skip a day?
Fare Inspectors are waiting at the station when I exit. They’re there every day. They’d be hard to miss in their fluorescent yellow jackets.
I pay a $2 fare. Does it REALLY make sense that I would suddenly risk a $100 fine for $2? There was $38.75 on my transit card. Why wouldn’t I pay?
Let’s put it all together: Maybe I decided not to pay the fare EVEN THOUGH I HAD MONEY on my card AND I KNEW there would be Fare Inspectors AND I ALWAYS GET CAUGHT WHEN I DO SOMETHING WRONG, or I was somehow distracted or unaware that I didn’t pay the fare, because:
I was thinking about my new job. I work with homeless senior citizens. This is a population rife with substance abuse, failing health and mental illness. My days are busy and devastating.
I could have been thinking about my boyfriend, and whether pain is inevitable where love is concerned. I could have been thinking about how silence still makes noise on the phone, or whether tears of sadness and tears of joy are different colors. I could have been asking myself, how do you know when someone is your home? How do you know to stay?
I have an ear infection and to keep the oily drops in, I put cotton in my ear. That morning, the car was crowded and I squeezed up against the fare box. I didn’t listen for the ding-ding-ding it makes when you pay your fare. I assumed it happened. I was trying to find somewhere to stand.
Maybe the car wasn’t crowded. Maybe there was an empty seat and I lunged for it because I have this ear infection and my balance is off and I forgot to knock my card against the fare thing. It’s possible.
Because it was May or because I was hungry or because I hadn’t had enough coffee or because my shoes were too tight or I don’t know.
Look, MTA. $100 is a lot of money to pay for a $2 mistake. I didn’t mean to take your candy. I thought it had gone through on my transit card. I thought the thingee box beeped. Really: I didn’t mean to take a ride without paying. I promise you, I know not to steal – I promise, I don’t. I won’t. Please, let me spend the money on therapy. Let me spend the money on shoes that don’t hurt. Let me spend the money on candy.
I promise I’ll share it with you.
I am starting this letter with “K” and not your name because there is an “I” in your name. When anyone else says it, they say it like eye, but in your mouth, it becomes ah, a breath, a sigh. I read it the way you say it. That sigh could carry me away and I need to stay here long enough to tell you this:
We are made of place. Your city is land-locked, known for government, business, and innovation. It is stable, but it is part cowboy, and it stares in the sun for fun. My city is on the edge of the continent, waiting to fall off. It is criminals and goldrush, boom and bust. Our sanctuary has been sliced apart by a silicon chip. Your citadel is being choked with some sort of high-speed cable.
Nothing lasts forever.
The first night in your city, your girlfriend out of town. You ran after a moving car to kiss me. The roof of a friend’s house in Seattle. Your teeth on my neck. We told lies to people we loved. When you called me “baby” for the first time, it made me shiver. The stairwell in a hotel in Minneapolis. Everyone said you were such a nice guy. Dependable. Stand-up. Tongue and heat. Your heart like a raging bird. You sent me mixed tapes in the age of the CD and I learned every song by heart. I said, Please. You said, You can do anything to me. You were on your back. I spread your legs and you smiled. I was better than I could be because I was yours. I said, Meet me in Las Vegas. You said That would be nice. I said Let’s do it. You said, In Texas, we have stars, and in Vegas there are lights, and dimes shine more than nickels. The world holds its breath on maybe, a coin spinning and spinning.
We wrote to each other in light and fever: emails, texts. Dimes are the size of bullet holes. Ann Margaret and Elvis. Your bed with your girlfriend out of town. You sang to me: If you’ll be my Lee Harvey, I’m your Jack Ruby tonight. You said Butch Cassidy and Sundance. I never saw that movie but I took you on faith. We kissed in the rain and the rain in our mouths and naked except for the rain. I said Las Vegas. I said, They have to know, let’s just tell the truth, let’s make this a thing, and you said, I’ve thought about that, I’ve tried to figure out how she’d take it. I hummed the first three notes of Viva Las Vegas.
Fall in California, I held my head up. I said, If you’re going to propose. Don’t you. Can’t we. Be happy. But please. Tell me.
In Winter in New York, everything was frozen. The doctors had just told us my mother was going to die. My head was in her lap. I was crying. The internet told me you were getting married. My mother stroked my hair. My tears were a veil, were a handful of rice tossed, were tears. My mother sighed because that’s love, and because the cancer hurt. When it stopped hurting her, I was still hurting.
Do you? Are you?
When I met you, you worked in a rock ‘n roll club and I lived in them. You shaved your head and I grew dreadlocks. You grew a pompadour and I cut my hair. You toured with a band and I got my Master’s. I went blonde. You changed your glasses at least twice. Your cat died. Your wife swelled and belled. My cat died. Your baby became a child. There were more cats. And I fell in love and fell in love and fell in love and ashes to ashes. Lost.
I met a woman on the street today. Do you have any change? she asked.
I have an ex who said that every breakup is like a bet you lose. I got lost. Know when to walk away. Know when to run. You wrote to me. You wanted to talk to me about a girl. About the way she made you feel. But your wife, I said. Your baby.
Her eyes, you said.
But, me, I thought. You wrote to me, incandescent, when you kissed her. Big and bright.
You told your wife about her. You told her about me. I’m sorry, you wrote. This is your story, too. I should have asked first.
It’s okay, I wrote, I know.
I’m divorcing, you wrote, and I wrote, ache and rise. I wrote, I want to tell you about this tunnel. There’s supposed to be an end but I keep going and I can’t. And I wrote and you wrote I can’t. I feel dirty when I talk to you.
Please, I wrote. Don’t. Please.
You did not write. You went to be in love.
I sat in the dirt, looking at the dirty stars through a haze here in my city.
My body broke trying to clean them. I decided only to bet on sure things: I got a dog. I started working with people who had nothing. My dog was broken. I loved it more. The internet said you moved to Las Vegas.
I read about it. You can’t see any stars in Las Vegas: There are too many lights. You go to sleep next to her every night. You have a job where you can say things like residential density and coworking. I’m just not sure.
I met a woman on the street today. Her cheek was faint blue and red rising. It would grow blacker as night got closer. I sat on the sidewalk with her. I’m sorry, she said. I’m sorry. Her tears were nickels or dimes. She had been raped. She had talked to police. She had been to the hospital. She would not let go of my hand. I let her keep it. I took her to a shelter. I said to her, I need my hand back you’re safe.
Do you have any change, she asked?
No, I said. I have to go. I didn’t say, They are done paying me for today. She looked like someone’s mother. Know when to walk away. The small chandeliers of her tears in the overhead light.
There are something like 15,000 miles of lights in Las Vegas. There are something like 200 miles of tunnel under it.
There are thousands of people living under the city in the drainage tunnels in Las Vegas. Sometimes they drown during flash floods. The stars are free but are not underground.
You must think this letter is maudlin or dramatic. You will show it to someone because you are rattled or you are disgusted or you pity me. You will roll your eyes and throw it away or you will laugh or snort. Or maybe. Just maybe.
My city used to be a refuge. Your old city used to be a wildlife preserve. You are glass and email memos. I am duct tape and transfusion.
There is a photo on the internet of you and your lady. You are shining, bulletproof. There is only one photo of us. It is buried somewhere. Ashes to ashes.
How do you stargaze without seeing the drones behind them? I wish and wish. Maybe someday. I only bet on sure things. Find me. Don’t let go. I stare at electric lights and remember. I don’t know any other way to love. Do the people in the tunnel come out by choice or force?
I knew your heart. Who is this city for?
If you took my hand now I would still not let go.
About Pretty Much Dead:
Beyond the surface glitter of tech wealth currently overwhelming cities like San Francisco are the interstice communities that have barely survived the onslaught. In the streets, in transient hotels and in rent-controlled buildings, the residents settle and search, trying to hold on in the city at the edge of the world.
In these stories, Daphne Gottlieb chronicles inner and outer worlds, shedding light on the significance of a cat, the larger meaning of a parking ticket, the violent mutability of an indoor hurricane, and the contents of a bag as the owner stalks like a wounded tiger though the streets, dragging the memory of her objects through the collection itself. Artful, heartrending, clear-eyed and darkly magical, Pretty Much Dead is part fable, part witness, and part chorus with the voices that are only heard when they start to yell.