Magpie, definition, Cambridge Dictionary: 1) a bird with black and white feathers and a long tail, 2) someone who likes to collect many different objects, or use many different styles
“You know,” said a non-paranoid journalist friend at dinner the other night, “they’re going to be able to scan retinas in crowds, like marches or protests, from way, way up in the air. The technology is beyond.” It was not at all far-fetched, she said, that the NSA, or whoever, would be able to look into anyone’s eyes from nearly anywhere, like giants with bionic vision, and identify people from their retinas, which are more individual than fingerprints. She speculated that body-covering, surveillance-proof cloaks would be the new status item for the rich.
What would they see, those far-sighted giants with their bionic eyes like Cyclops’s eyes? The Magpie has a bird’s-eye view, but it doesn’t extend to seeing into retinas from up in the clouds. Here it is early spring. In the parks, the tops of trees are tender green and the buds on the branches are brushy, half-furled. The puppies in the park treat their leashes like ties flung over their shoulders; their fur is irresistibly silky. Spring seems to be puppy season. At the end of every puppy’s leash is a person smiling and wandering, going where the puppy wants to go. The world seems to be waving hello. There are babies, and daffodils, and tulips, all waving. The fat raccoons climb down from the trees at night and plunder the trash cans, tails waving in the trash. The giant might see all of this, and also be able to see where the raccoons live and where they go when they trundle away into the dark.
Could the giant look all the way down into the subway? Could the giant see the parade of people asking for money? There is, for instance, the small white woman with the purple-tinged wen on her face that she says is a Stage Two cancer. She speaks in a strange singsong— itisgettingbiggerfast —and her pitch is that Sloan Kettering will remove it if she can raise enough money. There is Ivan, a young, compact, swarthy man with a mustache, a big backpack, and a cardboard sign. He says his house burned down. There is the tall, young African American man who recites his poetry about growing up on mean streets and being harassed by cops. There is a woman who looks a little like Kathy Bates with many plastic bags of recyclables strapped and bundled onto a little cart. She looks around her warily. There is an older, round, white man with a big raised purple growth on his wrist that he says is a Stage Two cancer. There are kids selling candy bars. There is the man who gives a little card to everyone in the subway car explaining that he is a deaf-mute. There is an older man with one hand that appears to be immobile, curling toward his chest. Sometimes, there are so many people asking for money coming through a single car that they nearly run into one another. Last week, I saw one waiting at the end of the car to make his entrance after the one ahead of him had finished.
This spring, there seem to be fewer and fewer subway car performers—the kids flipping down the aisle and around the poles, the doo-wop guys making their way from car to car, the men in sombreros with guitars singing “La Bamba.” The people coming through the car have no fancy acts. If you were a giant and you could peer into their retinas, what would you see? Since retinas are so unique, would you see each person’s particular history? Where they were born, how they got here? More to the point, would you be able to bear it? Since I’m not a giant, but just my ordinary self in ordinary time, I can’t, often. Sometimes I avoid their gazes.
This is the problem with being a Magpie and prone to noticing: You notice all of it. What sort of cloak would shield me from these gazes I sometimes can’t return and from my feeling that when I can’t, I have failed in a deep way? Can the giant see that, that flicker away from the gaze of the sufferer, and can the giant understand what it means?
If I were a giant, I would grab up all the creepy satellites or whatever it is they’ve got up there and fling them far out into the universe where they could live out their days spying on stray asteroids. So would you, I’m sure. But the problem, it seems to me, isn’t what happens way up in the air, from which perspective everything looks like a point, even a superidentified point, on a vast map. The problem is all these moments on the ground, face to face. Is the aerial bionic vision thing so that we can see more, or so that we can avoid seeing much at all?
Outside, the birds chirp. I notice it so much more this spring, and there is a slight desperation in my noticing. Those sounds don’t drown out the others—“Ladies and gentlemen, excuse me for the interruption, I just want something to eat.”—not a bit of it. Every day, the train rolls on, heavy with all these passengers.