Somewhere Under Manhattan

A homeless man is asking for money on the N train.

At second glance, he’s selling spinning tops — they remind me of Cobb’s totem from Inception, enlarged toy versions. In the movie, if the totem stops spinning, it means this world is the real one.

The man walks past us to one end of the temporary subway stage and releases a spinner, walks to the other end and flings a second. He stands between them while they spin and spin. No one bites. The colors are electronically illuminated, and at such high speeds, they seem almost spectral — whirring approximations of red and green.

I bite.

“Green,” I say, as he digs into his bag. “Actually, yellow.”

“Yellow is the rarest color in nature,” I explain. “That’s why movie subtitles are usually yellow, because they stand out.”

I pay him the small fee and then we talk as the train rattles through its dark tunnel, the portholes providing little to view. He alludes to the announcement sometimes emitted by the loudspeaker, asking us to please not give. He wants everyone to know that he’s a salesman, not a beggar.

The spinners are still spinning. They show no sign of stopping, but they must have stopped because this happened the other day.

“If you can’t make it here,” he said to me, “you can’t make it nowhere.”

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