“Let’s go slumming,” said Powers-of-pearl. “Let’s give an earthman his wish for a day. We haven’t played that game in ages.”
“How do we pick him?” Firepride asked indulgently. “Phone book?”
“Intensity’s more fun. But no more nomads, I got so bored putting connoisseur features on synthetic camels!”
Peter Stone put on his hat and started for the station. Every third step he inhaled and told himself: “It isn’t that bad.” Peter had a good job, a good wife, and commuting was wearing him down to a twitch. Sooty teeth-rattling train, Penn Station’s steaming caverns, a soggy lurching bus, lunch down in sun-seared, exhaust-ventilated streets and the ride home ... as the hated maroon dot of his train appeared, a convulsion of revulsion shook him.
“I wish it weren’t that bad!” he thought with every fiber. And Powers-of-pearl, suffused with the glow of challenge, laughed.
Peter Stone, fighting at the newsstand, noted with annoyance that a crew of maintenance men swarmed about the train. “Broke down again,” he thought bitterly. Halfway down his car two men ran a vacuum cleaner over the tired plush. Keeping pace behind them, two others aimed wide-mouth silver hoses upwards, spreading thick sheets of foam on the ceiling. It wasn’t until Peter Stone unfolded his newspaper that he noticed how quiet had spread with that foam. Next, his ears registered with surprise the purr of freshly-oiled machinery, and his eyes the sight of a tree, for once without its double window screen of hair-oil and dried grime droplets.
When he boarded his bus, a maintenance man was just hanging a sign over the gagged fare box:
Due to Tax Readjustment, Urban Transportation Free.
The driver, liberated from change-making and police duties, smiled a greeting at him. No crush in the bus, perhaps because there seemed so many about. The silver one coming towards him had a big green and white sign: DOWN FIFTH TO 33rd. WEST ON 33rd TO SEVENTH. PENN STATION LAST STOP. It was the first readable bus sign he remembered seeing.
Whenever the light turned red, he found, squads of maintenance men darted about the stopped cars and trucks, slapping silver cylinders over each exhaust pipe. He could hear snatches of explanations: “City ordinance,” “Free service.” As soon as a cylinder was in place, smoke and noise stopped coming out of the exhaust.
When his hat sailed gaily towards the hook, Peter Stone realized that, incredibly, he wasn’t tired. Work flowed through his fingers, his secretary smiled, his boss looked in once and whistled. At noon only the thought of paraffined carton coffee restrained him from staying in.
“Coming right up, Seventeen!” said the new silver grille next to the elevator button. Cheered, he clove the mindless rush downstairs and pushed inside a luncheonette where maintenance men were finishing the removal of every second stool and the re-upholstery of the remainder with foam cushions. A smiling waitress brought him a menu and a pencil. Opposite each item was a small circle, and a line at the top explained: THIS IS YOUR MENUCHECK. PLEASE MARK WANTED ITEMS, DROP MENUCHECK IN SLOT.
Served incredibly fast, Peter Stone ate in blissful peace. On his way out he saw that the cashier’s cage had been replaced with three silver cabinets with hoppers for Menuchecks and money, recessed cups for change and a turnstile each. When he walked through he found that he still had forty minutes of his lunch hour left.
Forty minutes! He could walk to a bookshop, or the park ... walk, through exhaust fumes and the belches of airconditioner waste? But silver mesh covered the noisome vents. A cautious sniff assured him it worked.