Nowhere and No Place
I stepped on the train with nowhere to go. I suppose that's not entirely true: there were plenty of places for me to go. Anywhere in the city, in fact. Two hours to kill is just the right amount of time for aimless wandering of that sort – there's time to travel in any direction but not enough that one loses his sense of purpose. There remains that drive to complete the rambling with time to spare for getting back to the office. So in that sense, sure, there were loads upon loads of places that I could imagine myself winding up at. But, more generally (and frankly) speaking, there was nowhere for me to go. And so I stepped onto the train just as it lurched forward and the door slammed shut behind me.
To be quite honest, I don't know exactly how I stumbled upon such an abundance of time. I know in the kind of morbid philosophies of university scholars and coffeehouse academics that such an abundance is, by definition, impossible, but I couldn't help feeling that I had all this time at my fingertips, time to spend and nothing with a price-tag. I wanted to bottle it up, save it for another day, but of course, nothing can ever be that convenient. I just got a call from the office as I was leaving for work, saying not to show up until 10:00. Odd enough, but not to the point that I felt inclined to question it. People get nervous when you start asking too many questions – they feel like you're after something. I'm more satisfied keeping to myself, taking what's given to me and not aiming after more. You hang on to what you get that way.
My mind slid from my vocational toilings to more general abstracts as I approached the station. Not anything as over-arching as life and death, good and evil, anything like that – I'm not really that deep a person. But they weren't the concrete VAT return preparations and comprehensive management reports of a normal day, or at least, of my normal day.
I can't say exactly what I was thinking when my mind settled down for these abrupt instants. Just as it wasn't questioning those grand life ideals, it also wasn't exactly a self-interrogation either. I remember briefly forgetting who I was, though none of these thoughts were on any sort of conscious level, more the subliminal wonderings of a man with time to think and nothing to think about. Blank, void, vacant, my head was not fully attached to my body. About five million ride a part of the New York City subway system on any given weekday, nearly 130 million in a month, almost one and a half billion in a year; I just wanted to blend into that number, escape into the digits. Never before have I experienced such an intense feeling.
I wanted to become a number. Nothing more, nothing less. For that instant, for that stretch of two hours, I wanted to be no one. Not an accountant, not a husband, not even human: a number. And so I stepped on to the subway.
As I settled into the car, leaning slightly against a window, I could not remember how I had gotten on the train. There would have been the daily routine, sure: climbing down the stairs that lead to the station, going through the station booth, swiping the ticket, walking to the platform. The waiting at the platform. Probably checking the watch once or twice. But I had no recent memory, no evidence of how I had come to stand in this specific spot. What had happened to me? Had I seen anyone I knew? I was bound to; I've been coming to this same spot for the last ten years, and even if I've never met some of the people, seeing them every single day has made me feel a sort of bond with them. I almost feel like I know some of them, like they could each be some long-forgotten distant relative who you only see on holidays at your great-aunt's house. Sure, I'd seen some of them. But why could I not remember it? What had I been thinking about? I smiled to myself at my mind's elusiveness and gave a slight shake of the head, earning a sideways look from the elderly woman beside me. I looked the other direction, slouching into the wall and turning my back toward the woman with a shrug of the shoulders.
The subways have a reputation for all this crime and graffiti. I can't comment either way on that. Some lines have it better, some worse. This particular one was no exception. The material on the seats was coming up, and the cotton inside was poking out. The ceiling light shade had been broken, and so the uncovered bulb seared the eyes. But it wasn't awful.
What really got to me were the newspapers. There must have been nearly a hundred people in that car, and every single one of them was reading a newspaper. The various pages rustled at each turn, and the readers would look up angrily. One hundred people on that car and not a word spoken, no glances exchanged, no contact. One hundred people, and I was completely alone. The newspapers rustled again. A man – a bit older than myself, a bit larger, a bit balder – looked up from his copy of the Times and locked eyes with me. He immediately returned his gaze to the paper waiting on his lap below. The seams of his suit stretched as he breathed in deeply, and he exhaled long and loud. He was reading the sports section, I think. I didn't pay much attention.
I looked ahead, and we entered a tunnel. Contrary to the system's name, much of the tracks actually run above ground. Those below have always been my least favorites. Something about the crushing darkness, the dingy brick walls laid out on all sides, as far as the eye could hope to see, the stale air slithering in the cracks in the car windows. The occasional groan of a train braking further ahead snakes in, just as beads of condensation, gathering on the windows, slink and slide their way down towards my outstretched arm. The light, peaking down from the ceiling, bounces at each bump in the tracks, and, drifting behind each person standing in the aisle, the shadows dance, long and slow.
A light at the end of the tunnel. It's dull at first, not even a light really. I've never subscribed to those who place some sort of ulterior importance on such moments, ascribing to these brief moments of daylight haloed by darkness a feeling of absolute joy, an impression of hope, an epiphany. The light grows slightly brighter. For me, it's never been about any of that. Only a light at the end of a tunnel, a feat that's repeated exactly six times for me on any given day. Six lights at the end of the tunnel, each no different than the last. Six lights, and each more routine than the one before. I've never given much thought to them.
We passed into the open air, and a woman behind me exhaled little by little, wisps of air floating out her flaring nostrils. I turned enough that I could see the profile of her face in my peripheral vision. She didn't have a newspaper, and her hair curled around her ears in a way that I've always found attractive. She seemed a bit older than me – fifty, maybe – but not entirely out of my age range. Of course, she on the whole was not overly stunning. A forehead creased in wrinkles, her torso slackened, sagging a bit toward her draped legs. But attractive nonetheless – her eyes shone with the radiance of someone who must have been beautiful in her youth. I turned enough that I could see her more fully. Yes, she had gorgeous eyes, a piercing blue. I could feel them without even making contact. Even as her entire body slid downward so exceptionally slowly, her nose remained casually up-turned, a fond memory of what once was. I would have given anything at that moment to have been transported back twenty, thirty years, to have seen this woman at the peak of her form. I could imagine her then. Dazzling. Not even human, literally glowing in the soft night air of the evening. She throws off a lurid beam. The woman bowed her head away from me, and the vision was gone. I turned back to the other end of the train.
Buildings rushed by the windows, blurring together, a hazy vision of the early morning cityscape. Walls smudged together, windows long, drawn-out smears that dirtied the already dark bricks and stones that made up the rough exteriors. We continued on through this coarse fog, hurtling ahead, to what I did not know.
The train exudes a sort of roughness, a violence that can't be communicated with words or truly gripped by the human mind. Everything is powerful on the train, strong, dynamic, every movement, every blare of the station's name and every clatter of metal wheels skipping across metal tracks. Everything about the train crashes over you, sends you hurtling down. I noticed it the day I first rode one, and I still sense it every time I see one. It's a feeling you don't lose. It stays with you at all times, always. These other people around me, they didn't notice it. They kept looking at their watches, rustling their newspapers. They didn't pay any attention to it, that unshakeable sense of hostility that hits upon entrance. But it was there, somewhere inside them. They may have been blind to it, they may not have been able to show it, but it was within them. That is one feeling you just can't get rid of, no matter how many trains you ride, no matter how long you live in this city. Just like the trains, it's always there.
The train grinded to a halt, and the man beside me, young and well dressed, rose from his seat and walked out into the light. The car is dim, gloomy, compared to the glimmering station outside. I collapsed into the bench, leaning back as far as the stiff chair-back will allow. My eyes closed for just a moment, the light flickering on and off. I was a little further back than usual, toward the center of the car, a little further back than I generally would like – it's always a hassle, pushing and shoving through the masses caked in there, to thrust yourself out into the open. But I wasn't on a time limit; I didn't even know what station I was getting off at. I settled back into the chair.
The boy in front of me turned around, straddling his seat and facing the reverse direction, staring right at me. Little kids are awkward like that: they don't realize how uncomfortable that staring is. He kept looking at me, even as I turned away. I could feel his eyes burrowing into me, investigating my side, just looking. No, it wasn't so much a burrow; that's the wrong word. There was nothing offensive in his look, nothing insistent, nothing belligerent. His eyes nestled into me, nuzzled into me, pulled right up next to me and leaned, tipping just off-balance, into my waiting side. I turned back to face him, and we locked eyes.
He wasn't very old: six or seven maybe. His hair was mussed, spiked, disordered, and there was something spilt on his shirt. Liquid, but thick, thicker than water. Milk, maybe. He was a small boy, smaller than he should have been at that age, his wrist hardly bigger than my thumb. But there was something special about his eyes, something developed and mature, something that betrayed far more than he could possibly have been aware of. Dark, black, coal black, perfectly centered in these big round receptacles. Slightly angled up, the outer corners faintly relaxed, giving him a perpetually bewildered look. But the eyes wouldn't have it. No, this boy was no more bewildered than anyone on that train, whether or not he knew it. The boy looked away, suddenly, looked up at the man sitting next to him who must have been his father. The man looked down and wrapped his thick arm around the boy's fragile neck, squeezed lightly. The boy's head nuzzled into the wide shoulder, settling just beneath the collarbone. I never once thought to question what such a boy was doing on a train on a Tuesday morning; it just made sense.
The two got off at the next station. Not a word exchanged, not even a moment of eye contact; they just got off, quietly, assuredly, like it was the only thing to do. Nine steps to the door – thirteen for the boy – and out they went. I watched them for a moment, trailing up the ramp, until the train lurched forward again. By then they were just ghosts of hazy sunlight.
The train hurtled down the tunnel. I looked out the window, concentrating on the arched brick walls. Each of those bricks must've been decades old, probably older than I am. Years and years of dirt, mold, and history, history caked on those bricks. The story of the city, eight million stories all packed again and again in an endless archive, buried beneath the sprawling urbanity above. An archive untouched for years, to be untouched for years, drowning beyond the reach of even this aspiring historian. They rushed past, and I couldn't even pick out a single individual brick as we passed by.
It's funny how much of your life is taken up by the train. All those hours, days, years consumed by the netherworld of the subway system. All those precious seconds, frittered away without a second thought, every single day. It's all so common, monotonous; we do it all the time. All that time. Step on the train, step off the train. Repeat. We're always going somewhere, we're everywhere, we're nowhere. We're on the train. Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, South Ferry station, 125th, fade in, fade out. The rustling newspapers, the flickering light, the whistle of the wind of a cool November dawn. The wail of the brakes, tearing off in one direction then dashing back again. Young woman, old man, little girl, baby boy, faceless, unknown figures staring back with blurred eyes. Standing up in the aisle, sit down, stand up, hop on, hop off, and work, work, work. Three minutes till the next station.
I stepped off the train, still with nowhere to go.