Jessie sat in the front seat with Lope and Jill. Lope was thrilled to have Jill so close and immediately started to grin broadly. Jessie took the window seat. The first part of our ride was in the shadow on the IRT, one of the few sections of above-ground subway in Manhattan.
Harlem was different from the other neighborhoods we’d seen since we left 42nd St. People were on the streets. Ordinary people were hanging out and talking in groups. A few businesses even seemed to be open, like laundromats and video stores. I took it all in and wondered if Harlem was simply more self-sufficient and self-assured than the rest of the city. Maybe the rest of the world.
“I feel really racist that I wanted to kill you, Jessie,” I confessed. I’d been waiting to make this confession.
Jessie snorted from his window seat in the front. “We had guns. We were threatening you. Find something else to feel guilty about.”
“What are things like in Midtown?,” Jessie asked. He didn’t address his question to anyone in particular. He continued looking out the window, like the rest of us.
“Weird. Crazy. Not like usual. Weirder. Crazier,” Moira answered.
“The weirdest and craziest stuff that we’ve seen was in Sheep Meadow, at the Burning Pit,” I said. Jill stiffened a little bit, but then she relaxed almost immediately.
Jessie nodded. “I’ve heard a little about it,” he said. “They’ve expanded to the Great Lawn with those pits. Didn’t have enough room to meet customer demand in Sheep Meadow. I’ve heard that people are just jumping right in.”
“They are,” Moira said. There was an uneasy silence.
Then, Mike picked up the conversational ball. “You said people are coming up here to get away from the creepy men. We ran into one of those right away, in Midtown.”
“At first I thought it had to be one guy hoping to make himself into some kind of hero. Or Messiah,” Jessie said. “But, more and more people were showing up, telling us about similar men in different buildings. Sounds like an organization, to me.”
“We think so, too,” I said.
“Doesn’t bode well for the city,” Jessie said.
“No, it doesn’t,” Jill said.
“Well, it’ll eventually all be over, one way or the other,” Jessie said. “People are starving, up here. Unless somebody comes to rescue our butts, we are all done for. We’ve got some nets up on the tops of buildings. Catch big birds in them. Eat their asses,” he smiled grimly. “But, it isn’t enough food for everyone. I didn’t think that I’d reach the point where I wished for more giant birds, but I’m starting to.”
Lope leaned forward in his seat to peer ahead over the steering wheel. “Is that another gate up there?”
“Yeah,” Jessie said. “That’s our northern border. 145th St.” There were people at this gate, too. They turned around from looking out to look at us. They put their hands to their foreheads like visors, to better see through the headlight glare. It looked like the whole bunch of them were giving a sloppy salute. Of course, some of them had guns.
Lope rolled to a stop and Jessie stepped out. The gate guards immediately relaxed. Jessie turned back to the car, bent down and stuck his head in. “I wish you all luck. I don’t know what you’ll find in Washington Heights, but I hope it’s better than what you’ve left behind.” He turned his head to Lope. “Taxi man, you will be on a deadline. I don’t know if this is just a fare for you or if you plan to come back through Harlem.”
Lope look startled. “It’s just a fare. I don’t have anywhere to go in Washington Heights.”
Jessie nodded. “OK, then. I’ll wait an hour here for you to escort you back through Harlem. I’m heading back to 125th St. in an hour, and you won’t be able to get back through this gate. The rest of Harlem is also gated, more or less. The places that are gated less, guards shoot first, ask questions later. The outlying roads are blocked by the cars of people who tried to leave the city. This is it, for you, this gate.”
“OK,” Lope said. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
Jessie stuck his head in the back window and kissed Moira. I crushed Moira to get a kiss, too. Jessie then turned and waved at the guards. “Open the gate,” he called. “They are headed for Washington Heights.”