This summer, I lived at the very northern end of the 1 train, in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, place names I’d unpack one by one like parts of matroyshka doll whenever anyone asked. Obviously, getting anywhere and back was a little bit of a pain but it was really fine, very feasible, and especially once my roommate and I figured out the quick changes, the express trains, and the fastest bus routes, the commute became a challenge, an adventure, a training in swiftness and staying cool.
But for a midwesterner, public transit was as unfamiliar as the rest of New York, and I had my share of small traumas and little crises, compounded by a total lack of personal space and privacy, moments I had to share with strangers and people I knew; moments that bothered me; moments that scared me; moments that angered me. The three most indelible are recorded below.
One day as I rushed along the passageway to the elevator in the 168 street station, switching from the A to the C, wearing my noise canceling headphones at around two or so in the afternoon, I brushed past a man in front of me, jostling his bag. I entered the elevator, in which was already standing a tall black guy about my age, and turned around to face the front just as a clearly insane man with no front teeth and a shoulder bag entered. His belly pressed his dirty blue shirt out, his hair was greying, and he was shouting. My headphones block extra noise, but not crazed yelling, and I soon could make out what he was saying, which was: “I will FUCK you, I will FUCK you, yes you, I will STICK MY DICK in you, I will FUCK you, FUCK you, FUCK you, I will STICK MY DICK in your hole,” over and over again, mixed with some inaudible but seemingly more elaborate threats. I realized, suddenly, that he was the man I had jostled in my hurry; that this had angered him; and, third, that it was me he was yelling at.
It was not, exactly, terrifying. The man was making no aggressive moves towards me and it was obvious he was out of his mind. If I had been alone in the elevator I probably would have freaked out, but the other man was about my age, looked strong and sane, and—I could see—was alert to the dangers of this situation. Maybe I’m giving too much credit to a stranger, but I felt safe with him there, knowing that he would be on my side should the man make a move towards me, or attack me, or do something profane. The elevator, mercifully, stopped; my claustrophobic gut twisted more than usual as I waited for the doors to open, and then I stood back to let the men off, so that I could see which way my harasser was going and walk the opposite way.
The black guy walked away, shooting me a look that fell somewhere between concern and wry well-wishing. The other man, on the other side of the elevator from where I was continued his mantra, but in a lower tone, now, waiting for me to move just as I was waiting for him. I decided it was worse for me to be alone in an elevator with a man spewing sexual threats than on a platform, so I left the elevator, terrified I was being pursued. I arrived on the uptown side and sat down on a bench right next to a fit young white man. Across the tracks, I saw the crazy man going to the downtown trains. He was still yelling, and I could hear—even with my headphones, even across two tracks—the word “FUCK” hurtling around the station.
I felt embarrassed. It seemed like everyone was looking at me, and I wanted to apologize, to them and to this man. If I hadn’t been in such a rush to wait for the train I wouldn’t have attracted unwanted attention; placed myself in possible danger; triggered this attack of Tourette’s or schizophrenia or general buzzing insanity, whatever it was; addled this clearly unwell man to the point of becoming a public nuisance, a wandering spout of profanity, and fear for all present. I think, in the end, it was my fault.
The second worst moment I had on the subway was during a week and half that my roommate was gone and so I spent my days in perpetual alone-ness, doing a lot of reading and writing and walking around. I saw friends sometimes, but rarely. One day, in the Times Square train station, around evening, I was waiting and sweating after a day of writing in a cool coffee shop, feeling deeply cerebral, viewing everything from a few thousand miles away, when I sighted, wiggling down the tracks, the largest rat I have ever seen and I instantly snapped back out of myself and into the cogs of the city.
Coated with the dark grime that covers the tracks, the rat scurried from food bit to food bit, and I was horrified, and apparently visibly repulsed, because a man next to me turned and said “I saw one this big yesterday,” and gestured with his hands. I responded instantly, without fear or hesitation, and had my first real New York complaining conversation. We bonded—as New Yorkers do, I guess—about what goes wrong here, what it was like to live in a city where there are more rats than people, where it is dirty and you must deal with it even though sometimes it is awful. Then I got on the train and felt happy. It was around 207th street that I realized my happiness was not because I had successfully spoken New Yorker for the first time, but because that was the first human interaction I’d had all day, beyond “Grande iced coffee with soy milk, please,” which didn’t count.
It was then that I felt like the heat sticking my skin to my shirt how hard it was to be alone in this city, truly alone, surrounded by people in all stages of their lives, little kids and teenagers and adults all living their lives better than I was seemingly doing, because they had other people, and they looked happy to be with them. I had spent about a week mostly alone, consumed by my own thoughts, underwhelmed by my very loose internship and hating the idea of internships in general, furious at the idea of it leading me to a career that I didn’t want if all it meant was being alone all the time. It was only then that I realized how much I only wanted companionship because I knew I would walk home alone, return to a dark, stuffy, silent apartment and turn the A.C. on, and it would shudder to life as I created some type of cold dinner; jumping when the man above me creaked, and then I would get on Facebook chat and wonder if past classmates would respond if I messaged them. I realized that if I was going to spend my life writing and reading, like I wanted to, I might not see very much of other people, and that I might not be able—or happy—to live like that.
The days would be fine: the days would be fine because they were sunshiney and I felt free and full, and I would see around me everywhere people living lives like mine. But when it got dark and the people next to me on the subway texted their girlfriends and boyfriends and wives and husbands and moms and dads as soon as the train surfaced about what time they’d get off the train and whether or not they could pick up milk on their way home, my throat would get thick and I would stare at my reflection in the window to see how long I could stand the idea of that being all I had.
But my roommate returned, and if the loneliness didn’t disappear, it eased, felt smoother: writing got more rewarding, the subway less terrifying. One morning, my friend and I were going to meet another friend for brunch and had entered the subway at Houston-Bleecker. We stood on the middle platform, waiting for a Saturday morning train that seemed to be as sleepy as we were, and across the platform I saw four or five EMTs gathered around a napping man. For one moment, I was nervous, heart-startled, waiting for the buzz that would tell me an Emergency was occurring, but there was none, which I found strange. The EMTs seemed almost relaxed. I nudged my friend, pointed, gestured to ask her what was happening as I realized the only time EMTs and policemen would be gathered around a napping man and not taking any kind of medical action would be if there were none to take; would be if this man sitting with his head back napping on the wooden benches in the soured light of the subway station was not in fact napping; would be if he were dead.
I felt chilled and queasy at the same time and wondered if I might throw up like people in books do when they see their first dead body, and I said—Capella—I said—I think he’s dead, and noticed that other people standing further down the platform all also looking horrified and silent and still. I am not from New York, and it was reassuring and sickening that these New Yorkers were as shocked as we were. And Capella and I looked at each other, unable to speak, unable to think, really: we were late for brunch, but we didn’t care, because we were looking at a dead man. At that moment a girl about our age with a suitcase and pretty curled brown hair came up to us and asked in a soft British accent how to get to Penn Station and I answered her as well and as cheerfully as I could, Capella really not quite able to speak, and I heard myself admit laughing ignorance, and felt myself smiling, even I looked at the men in their blue uniforms stand relaxed, presenting calmness as they dealt with this corpse.
We wondered who he was and how he got there and if he had a family and she asked us what was going on and we said we think that man is dead and she was silent and we stepped away from her even though she was clearly, like me, from out of town, alone, confused, but there was a dead man across the platform and small talk seemed impossible.
Another man on the station yelled across, “He dead?” and received no answer. He didn’t press, almost as if he had known he wouldn’t get one. That was answer enough. A cop opened the man’s wallet, and Capella and I decided he must be homeless, because people with homes and families don’t just die on the subway, they couldn’t just die on the subway, coming back from work on a Friday night, but we knew even the homeless have or had families, and again we ran out of ways to reassure each other. We stopped talking, looked in silence at his body that seemed simply asleep, resting, mouth gaping open, feet firm to the floor. An EMT shook out a white sheet and it billowed up, catching some of that hot stale air which lay over the man motionless, like one terrific exhale, and then the silver train slid in to the station as the blanket settled over his body, blocking it from view before it could settle on his form.
It was so cinematic I got chills, but it was not a movie: we saw the aftermath, the normal plodding of what happens to dead bodies when they’re found on the subway, which is actually really just nothing: you die on the subway and you stay there until someone figures out what to do with you. We boarded the train, my friend and I and this traveling girl, and the other people down the platform, and the man who had asked if he was dead, and the girl tried to speak to us to again, so I smiled and I wanted to be kind but more than that I wanted to see what happened to see what Death looked like from forty miles an hour, gaze on it as I hurtled away, and so stood against the window and saw his covered body, sheet tented upwards around his head and spreading out to the floor, like some white shadow collecting. To my right in the train was a Poetry in Motion poster, a poem by Jeffrey Yang, that read:
West of rest is sleep
where waters meet
and out, rising up
to the stars, peace.
My eyes were wet. Capella looked sick. We saw two empty seats and sat down in them and were not nice to that girl who had spoken to us, because we were late for brunch and a man was dead, and somehow the stark humid reality of dying before 11 a.m. on a Saturday on a subway bench only to be stared at by a train full of living people getting away from you as fast as they could had snaked our humanity clean and I couldn’t find anything small and light enough within me to offer to a stranger. It was too much to ask me to leave both this death behind, to accept and understand what I had seen, on a Saturday morning, and also attend to a conversation with someone else as lost and as alone as I. Life had to continue as usual, it had to go on, like it had after the man screamed at me he wanted to fuck me and after I realized what it was like to be alone, I had to avoid eye contact in the train and stare at feet, and I had to pretend to be okay with being in this body every day in this city which is not always easy in the heat and the meanness and the hurry of millions of other bodies not caring about you, not even noticing you, and even in your death for only an instant. No: everything had to go as usual, everything had to be fine, and when we emerged from the subway and told our tale to the friend we were meeting, I was already laughing.