I know this because I was in New York’s Penn Station the other night, talking on the phone to my wife. There was an unexpected hangup as Kathy and I were saying goodbye, so I was sending her a text to explain. (This is not the miracle. This is just me setting the scene.) I’ve got my phone in my hand, my earbuds are still in my ears from the conversation, my backpack is around one shoulder. It’s a warm night; warmer inside the station than outside. My thumb is telling Kathy to say hi to our ferret, Charlie.
Behind me, as I text, I hear a buzzing. “Excuse me, sir.” Bzzzzzz. “Excuse me, sir?” Buzzzzzz. I don’t know what this is, but I do know I’m out of the way, tucked into the side of the hallway, leaning against the wall. There are a bunch of late-night commuters walking past, so I assume the voice is talking to someone else. I look behind me anyway, because you never know.
It’s a guy riding one of Penn Station’s floor-polishing zambonis, basically the size of a golf cart, moving slowly toward me.
I startle. I realize he is talking to me, and he needs me to get out of the way. He’s hugging the wall, same as I am. I reach down to pick up the bottle of water and the banana at my feet. There is literally a banana peel at my feet, but it is wrapped around a banana, so I don’t immediately clue in to the type of situation I’m in. I am still holding my phone in my hand, its earbuds connected to my head. My backpack, loaded down with a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, a bag of dice, a crime novel, a notebook, and a half-dozen comic books, is slung over one shoulder. It is full of the pressed pulp of dead trees; it isn’t light.
I’ve got one hand free to grab the banana and the water bottle. The backpack is keeping me off-balance, but I manage to lean over and pick up both items with my left hand, like some sort of boardwalk claw-machine miracle. This is a feat any schoolkid could do. I feel like an acrobat.
As I start to stand upright. bringing the banana and bottle up from the floor, my glasses slide down my nose and off of my head. Warm night; sweaty bald man.
The polishing zamboni maintains its approach.
I have my phone in my right hand. I have my backpack over my shoulder. There is a banana and a water bottle in my other hand. I am off balance. I am bending over again. I am on one foot. There is a zamboni bearing down on me.
I try to slip my phone into my shirt pocket to free my hand. The pocket is unhelpfully horizontal, rather than at its normal vertical orientation, because I have bent over at the waist. I am balancing on one foot. I don’t remember putting my other foot up, but I am on one foot. I think it’s to counterbalance the backpack, pulling me to the right. Toward the zamboni. The inexorable zamboni. I think about my crime novel. Cause of death: Inexorable zamboni.
The guy driving, dreadlocked and smiling, says, “Take your time, take your time, man.” He’s chill, but he’s not stopping. And my glasses are on the tiles he’s about to polish.
Somehow, bent forward and on one leg like an impossible backpacked flamingo, I manage to slide my phone into my horizontal shirt pocket. With my now-free hand, I bat at my glasses, my fingers suddenly unwilling to grip. The glasses move a few inches, still in the zamboni path. I teeter from the effort, a middle-aged example of Newton’s third law. Swat glasses, wobble: an equal and opposite reaction. The weight of my backpack sends me listing to the right. I flap my arms like a cartoon duck that realizes he can’t fly. I spiral toward the floor, Swan Lake–style.
A second swat sends my glasses out of the path of the zamboni and toward the center of the corridor, where people are rushing to catch their trains. I jettison my cargo: Backpack, banana, bottle all gone. I spring after my glasses among all the high heels and sandals. Did my upraised flamingo foot ever touch the ground, or was it a one-legged spiraling leap? Grainy Penn Station security camera footage will have to tell the tale.
Afterward, it’s all anticlimax. My glasses back on my head, the backpack around my shoulder, the bottle and banana tucked within. Phone miraculously still in my pocket.
“Take it easy, man,” the zamboni guy says. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
I wake up in the morning and wonder why I’m sore.