Author’s Note: Found on an old hard drive.
Jelani John & Elizabeth Louie
My ice cream was melting. Standing in front of Weil Medical College of Cornell University, I calmly turned my ice cream round and round, licking the errant gobs of pistachio that threatened to spill onto my fingers. My transition lenses darkened quickly in the sunlight, but I was still relatively cool, blasts of air conditioning escaping the heat-sink as people passed through the glass doors. Down to the last inch or so of the cone, I stepped out of the shade.
Screeching as the station approaches, the subway moves to a halt. The doors open, and a muffled voice is heard overhead, announcing the train, direction and next stop. I can never fully hear the words the person is saying, but I don’t need to, having traveled this route countless times before. It’s crowded, and I find myself grasping the cold metal bar along with five other people, our bodies far enough from the pole so that others can get a grip. Six hands of strangers stacked one on top of the other, occasionally touching another as the subway slowed and quickened its pace.
The sun hit me, but the wind didn’t, and even through darkened lenses the glare off the metal bits on cars and buildings hurt my eyes. I’d left from the 70th street exit and I pondered taking the bus as I reached 68th. But it had been a long day of sitting and programming, so I welcomed the chance to stretch my legs. I nodded at Amit, the coffee vendor, who was just closing up shop for the day. He waved back and finished lowering the silver shutters on his ‘roach coach’ as my father calls them. Amit makes me coffee in the morning and occasionally gives me a free bagel, plain. In return I tell him a joke, when I remember. Sometimes he laughs, but he’s always in a hurry in the mornings.
The next stop approaches and I let go of the bar prematurely, straightening the bag on my shoulder. The train lurches and then halts, the doors opening a second later. I push my way through the crowd and the people trying to get on. The hot air on the platform hits my face and I can feel my shirt sticking to my skin as I weave through the crowds. I clutch my bag out of habit as I slip and cut in front of people, knowing that they would be glaring at me had I bothered to look back. I run up a stairway to more concrete hallways and can hear a subway in the distance. I finally reach the stairwell to the platform of the 4, 5, and 6 and see the train at the top. I take two steps at a time and run to the doorway, only to have it close in front of me. The people inside the train glance up at me through the windows and as the train pulled away from the platform, I couldn’t help but think they were smirking.
I could feel it in my body. I was about to start sweating. The sun was working me over and while not uncomfortable, my skin was getting hot. I could feel the waves of hot-cold traveling over my body, and the bridge of my nose under my glasses was starting to get slippery. I tried to control it, keeping in the shade, doing mental exercises to delay it, but in the end it’s always a losing battle.
On the hard ground, there are painted markings designating where the doors will open. They’re always a few feet off, and I learned to judge where the door would stop. So I stand a few feet to the right of the markings, and straddled the red paint that stretched the whole platform. The red words “Keep behind the line” were faded and accordingly, I disregarded it, as many others did.
A shame, there was a cute new girl working at the flower shop as I reached 1st Ave. Wiping my brow with the blue rag I carried around for the summer season, I was unprepared for this. I did stare for a bit as I waited for the light to change, but I was not geared up to make first impressions. Continuing on, my attention was diverted by the homeless lady what sits on the bench in the park. Today she was honking at the pigeons. Not loudly, mind you, but in a conversational tone. I don’t envy the homeless in the summer time. They’ve got nothing to do with all of their clothes but wear them.
Minutes, seeming like hours, passed before a light appeared down the tunnel. People began to crowd towards the tracks as the train whisked by and then applied its breaks, the familiar screeching in the air. I wait impatiently as people straggle off and then push myself into the train. It was near full to begin with. I watch as the doors tried to close, and then stopped halfway. A voice comes from inside the subway, “Don’t hold the doors!” as the voice over the speaker told people remaining on the platform that another train was directly behind them. The doors finally close and I look out the window to those awaiting the next train with a sense of victory. As the train lurches forward, I take a step back before regaining my balance. I glance around, hoping no one saw. I am directly in front of the door and there is no bar to hang onto. As the train begins its uneven journey through the dark tunnels, I silently pray that I won’t fall into the person next to me.
Going on down to 2nd Ave, I stopped for a minute to tie my shoe, but really to listen to the band of Talent Unlimited HS. The music floats up through the ventilation grates of their basement. Today they were practicing the Ninth again. Some poor clarinet was butchering an arpeggio, so I walked on. I had high hopes. With unlimited talent, they would eventually finesse the Beethoven.
Two stops pass, and each time, I step to the side, letting people get on. I eventually am pushed towards the center of the car and I grab onto the bar overhead. The scrolling digital sign to my right notified me of the next stop: 68th and Hunter. When the train arrives at the station, I follow a crowd out to the platform. Everyone seemed to get off here, and I briskly made my way to the stairway, which was in front of me. I had long ago figured out where each subway car stops at the platform, to minimize my walking distance and to shorten the travel time.
The block between 2nd and 3rd Ave. is boring, housing complexes on both sides, but the sidewalk is another story. $500 fine for not picking up after your dog, but the scrape stains are still visible, and it took all of my concentration to quickstep around the maze of vanished dog droppings.
I hurry up the stairs, a few dozen people walking with me and through the turnstile. I step onto another stairway, up marble steps and away from the rumbling subway. The sunlight increases gradually, as does the noise of traffic.
Across the intersection and beginning to wish I had taken the bus after all. City blocks are long and tedious even downhill. It was too late now, I had already reached Lexington and I could feel the train rumbling in under me. I tapped my pockets against pickers and pulled a book out of my bag. Flipping to find the page, I nearly collided with a young asian girl, but she deftly dodged my clumsy motions. She flipped her hair and adjusted her bag as she moved off.
The sun beats down on me as I stop momentarily to gather my bearings, narrowly missing a collision with another warm body. I turn to glance at him, seeing his face in a book and quickly dismiss him from my mind. I adjust my bag again.
Page found, Bag secure at my
I prepared to side, I begin
enter the subway. walking down the street.
Today I met my murderer. It was a tall black man in a small white skirt. An asian girl in a workman’s blouse. Two time till monday and then I shall see what the world brings. Its unfortunate circumstance that leads us two this point, two opposing conflicts facing the side of the field, back to back with pistols in our hand and when we turn around, the end is near.
Shadows off the sidewalk, intermingling, forming shapes, a mold from the hands of sunlight. Two beings, one shadow, two persons melded into an undefinable shape on the hard concrete, worn down by the passings of strangers.
A stone shape crumbles into gargoyle droppings. Dust stinging the eyes of passerby. A migratory pigeon circles overhead and 5th avenue hats tremble in fear. A breeze gasped by on the heatwaves, fanning the face of the few.
Unconsciousness in the mundane. The dance through the rigidness of life. A second glance and visions, otherwise ignored, are embedded into minds. The pant of tiredness, of longing, of loneliness and the crowd moves on.
One thousand shadows meet one thousand streets. One thousand footsteps to one single beat. And then there were one. Plus one equals two. First there was I then we then you.
A roar of voices and of thoughts. A conversation unsaid. A brief moment of contact and then a pull. A pull away or a pull towards, but nevertheless an unavoidable force and the undeniable question.