I think I saw you on the subway once. I’m pretty sure I noticed you the very second I stepped on the E train at 34th Street.
I had a meeting right on 42nd. Just across from Bryant Park. It’s only a hop, skip and a punch for most people in this city, I know. But my feet hurt too much to walk it and my wallet hurt too much to cab it. Plus it was hot and I was wearing synthetic silk – which just makes me sweat more anyway.
Either way, I’m glad I scraped together 11 quarters and got on that train. Gelatinous and gooey as that underground air can be deep-seated in the early-September heat, so many things worked out perfectly imperfect that day. And if they hadn’t, I would’ve missed you.
If I would’ve remembered to iron my black pencil skirt the night before, I would’ve been able to wear my comfortable heels. Patent-leather and cloud-like in all their glory.
But I didn’t.
I chose to marathon (re)watch season 6 of How I Met Your Mother (because the one where Marshall’s dad dies gets me every time) and I let that black skirt hang wrinkled in my closet for another lonely night. I woke up the next morning, settled for the ugly twin and threw on the skirt’s navy counterpart. This, of course, meant I had to wear my brown wedges that pinch my pinky toes and rub my lower Achilles raw. Reason number one that the E train came out on top that day.
If I would’ve exercised even the slightest bit of self-control at Connecticut’s Tax-Free week the month before, I would’ve felt okay splurging on a taxi in place of a mere 15-minute walk.
But I didn’t.
Reason number two.
So I moseyed off the LIRR and pushed my way through the turnstiles to the E train. Crazy as it sounds; Penn Station has become one of my favorite places in the world. It’s literally one giant microbe of all sorts of whoknowswhat kind of germs, festering and churning 365, 24/7, but it’s constant, you know? There isn’t one time of day or night that that place is desolate.
It’s never a surprise when you step down into it– but you’re just kind of always shocked when you get there. I like that about it. Constantly constant, but always changing.
Either way, back to you.
I think what made me notice you right away was your full-on presence in the subway car. You were the only head in that murky yet shiny row of seats that wasn’t plugged in or tuned out. No headphones, no iPhone. No tip-tip-tapping away at some person on the other side of a one-bad-drop-and-it’s-shattered glass screen. You didn’t even have anything in your hands at all. You were just sitting there in some old tattered soccer t-shirt with this really pitiful and dejected look on your face.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it at first, honestly. I was half-concerned you were about to have some psychotic nervous breakdown in the middle of Wednesday morning rush hour and half-intrigued by your apparent lack of attachment to the outside world.
For a second, I caught myself imagining that you actually lived on the E train.
I pictured you keeping all your linens and clothes in the Emergency box built into the wall of the train. I pitied how it was kind of miserable that you’d have to hide your entire life in there until the very last passenger got off at night only to rush to put it all away again before the first one hopped back on in the morning. I considered how you probably have a PO Box somewhere in the Garment District, just for your bills and birthday cards. I wanted to ask you what the address was – so I could sign you up for a ValPak or something – but then I convinced myself that you probably didn’t even have one to begin with because the Subway is rent-free and Con Edison would never be able to charge one person for all of MTA’s electric use.
Either way, I snapped out of it pretty quickly. I sound crazy, I know.
I stared at you for a good bit. I tried to play it cool because, even though I grew up here, I’m really, really terrible at standing up on the subway. It’s probably a sign of some sort of emotional instability, but I just flat-out refuse to hold the handles. In some weird combination of pride and an intense fear of contacting MRSA or some other anti-biotic resistant bacteria – I just can’t bring myself to touch those metal poles. The fact that they are warm even in the dead-middle of a blistering snow storm further confirms the fact that they’re objectionably unsanitary.
I wobbled back and forth as I tried to direct my eyeballs in between shoulders and underneath forearms. I didn’t want to lose sight of you, for fear of you disappearing in the mix of suits and briefcases. I was utterly focused on you and intrigued by your elusory expression. I fought hard to keep you in my view.
So much so that before I knew it, we were already at 7th avenue. I suppose that’s where day-dreaming about the living-situation of a complete stranger will get you – two stops past your destination and (what turned out to be) 56 minutes late for your meeting. I didn’t get off though. I hadn’t figured you out yet.
As the car started to clear out I got a better look at you. It’s not so much that you changed – or even moved for that matter – but I got to see you at a few different angles. From straight on, you were indefinable. I couldn’t tell if you’d just been dumped or maybe you lost your job or found out someone you loved had cancer. But when I caught a glimpse of you from the side, your profile painted the silhouette of a person hung up on a crossroad so big, every pattern of their life was being altered.
The wrinkles that jutted out from your eyes stretched deep into your skin. They embedded your pores and rooted themselves immovable in the canopy stretched over your bones. I could tell you’d been thinking hard on something, but I couldn’t tell just what.
And then I realized, it didn’t matter.
You were stuck. There in that seat on an old delpaidated subway car, you were stuck. I could tell by the way that you sat there that something had you in its grips. I wasn’t sure if you were stuck on something, stuck in something or stuck with something – I just knew you were stuck. And either way, I wanted to unstick you.
When the train lurched to a stop at Lexington, I swear the universe aligned in such a way that the one diminishing bar on my cell phone allowed a text to come through and the disappointed words, “WHERE ARE U?” splattered angry across the screen. It was the first time in my entire life that I ever received a text from the purgatory that is the subway. I dodged in between the closing doors and jutted onto the platform. The second my feet crossed that yellow strip I looked back at the train as it started to pull away.
You sat there, still. But your eyes looked up.
In ended up taking a cab to the meeting. I thought about you right up until the moment my feet hit the pavement in front of Bryant Park. And then I kept thinking about you. The entire elevator ride up to the 11th floor. The entire meeting. And the entire train ride home. I even looked for you on the E train back to Penn – but of course, you weren’t there.
From time to time, I wonder what happened to you. You cross my mind in a totally casual and non-creepy kind of way and I wonder if you pull out a Murphy bed from the wall of the E train – or if you live in a walk-up somewhere in Korea Town. My mind, it meanders. I have no idea where you are. I keep thinking of you though – and I want to tell you this:
The first step is looking up. From the bottom of your pit, from the inside of whatever it is that traps you, KEEP. LOOKING. UP.
Like ripping of a Band-Aid, all it takes is one quick little glance and you’re unstuck. Because when you’ve truly hit rock-bottom – I mean the absolute lowest of the absolute lows – the only view you have is up.
Keep looking up.
Keep looking up.
Keep looking up.
Photo: Creative Commons