City Boy by Leonard Michaels, 1969
The magic trick:
Broadening the scope of the character and story by including the narrator’s interactions with the ticket taker and elevator operator
“City Boy” packs a ton of ideas, emotions, and contradictions into a small space. The storyline involving Phillip, the narrator, and his girlfriend would be amusing and interesting enough on its own. Michaels, never one to settle for the surface of things, deftly adds a wrinkle to the story by including interactions between Phillip and, first, Ludwig the elevator operator, and, then, a ticket taker in the subway. Very quickly, the story is about social class, social insecurity, and the anger, guilt, and jealousy that bubble out of such themes. It’s not unlike Philip Roth’s “Goodbye Columbus,” though it accomplishes such ideas in far fewer words. And that’s quite a trick on Michaels’s part.
I crouched as if to dash through the turnstile. He crouched, too. It proved he would come after me. I shrugged, turned back toward the steps. The city was infinite. There were many other subways. But why had he become so angry? Did he think I was a bigot? Maybe I was running around naked to get him upset. His anger was incomprehensible otherwise. It made me feel like a bigot. First a burglar, then a bigot. I needed a cigarette. I could hardly breathe. Air was too good for me. At the top of the steps, staring down, stood Veronica. She had my clothes.