Riding The Train:
It is raining and cold when I get to the Train Station. There is an orange sign that says “Green.” This station feels dirty. The train is dirtier. As we pull out of the station, there is an immediate thundering overhead. The subterranean nature of the experience roars in my ears.
I look down the long empty train. The hand holds hang like nooses. There are two men sitting a long way from each other. Their necks are bent, eyes straight ahead, looking somewhere near their feet. They look like they are on death row. I have joined them. We have nothing to bond us but our despair. It is a one-way train. I am snaking into darkness with the damned.
At the next stop, teenagers get on - tight jeans, puffy coats - pull out their phones, put their thumbs to work, easy focus on the screens on their phones. They seem hard-wired to the experience, thin white plastic cords discretely draping from their ears, like a tribal accessory.
The roaring above is too much. I get out at Downtown Station. I remember I didn’t make a plan, didn’t buy a map, don’t have an umbrella. I walk. I look for a drug store for something to write on. The sky gets darker. I go down a side street. On both sides the building go up, up, cutting the light. The architecture feels conspiratorial, like an Arthur Miller graphic novel.
I go back into the subway, decide to ride to the end of the line with my new writing pad. Again, I am deeply aware of the descent. One stair case. Two stair cases. It gets dirtier. The dirt is greasy, almost slippery. The air tastes lethal, mechanical.
From the second staircase, I can see the crowds standing in the gloom, waiting for the train. It looks like they are on their way to concentration camps.
I realize people do this everyday – voluntarily. I think what it would take to steel to this every day.
I can’t find a place in myself that could do this. There would have to be people at every stop, reaching in, pulling me out of the roaring snake, dusting me off and giving me a high-five. There would have to be live video feed from the arctic with a large yardstick marking the inch that didn’t disappear because I got on the train that morning instead of taking my car. There would have to be people from the humane society with live polar bear cubs that you could hold and cuddle and feed with a bottle while you are waiting for a train – some connection to the outside world. Not the subterranean grave with the roar of despair overhead.
As I make my way to the Orange line, there is suddenly the sound of sad, Spanish music. I think it must be coming from a loudspeaker, but it is so precise and unadulterated, it can’t be coming through a speaker. I see a man standing with his denim leg up on a bench, holding his guitar with it’s neck toward the sky. The musician has his head cocked as if is he listening to a secret from its curved body. I feel so grateful for the music and the auditory interruption of the mechanical scream of the trains. He seems divinely sent, the beauty and fluidity of the music so incongruent with the atmosphere, it almost brings me to tears.
The train opens. I step in. It is crowded now. It’s shoulder to shoulder, wet, humid. Despite the crowd, it is the feeling of the trains rumbling above that is crushing.
I squeeze into a seat. There is no way to pull out a pad to write or a book to read, or do anything that involves violating the space outside of the immediate boundaries of your shoulders.
At the next stop, two women get on. Both look like they stepped off a page from the Macy’s catalog, fashionable coats, French berets, steele-blond hair descending, flawless skin. One sits next to me. One stands in front of me. They talk with easy intimacy. They speak Russian. I can’t understand a word but it seems they know each other well from the pace of the conversation, the lazy spaces between the questions and answers. And I wonder how I know what I know about people or if it’s all just projection.
One woman has a black, quilted coat with a belt cinched tight at the waist. The buckle is silver. It says “Pink.” I think back to “Green” on Orange. Despite becoming part of this mass of humanity and despite the fact that I have never felt so inconsequential in my life, my egocentrism still tells me that events are being choreographed for my entertainment.
I find myself reaching for a convenient way to put this experience in context. I say, well, this is a valuable experience in that I will really appreciate living where I do and enjoying the lifestyle that I do. And immediately the thought feels inspired by church ladies, clucking their tongues at the unfortunates in Africa. And I feel like I am leaving my fellow man in the dust, or in this case, in the grime of the subway.
A small boy comes on with his father. He is oblivious to the code of silence. He keeps standing up on the seat. His father say “please sit down, the train is going to go now.” He sits down. He is reciting the conversation he had with his dad about this trip. “A lot of people are on the train, right Dad?” “And they all have to go somewhere, right dad?” He stands up again, faces out the window. “Go train go.” He says. “Please sit down,” the father says. The boys sits down. The mechanical voice comes over the loudspeaker and asks people to pull their head in. The boy stands again, bounces, yells out the window, “go train go.” “Please sit down,” his father says. The break in the tension is almost palpable. It has the same effect on me that the guitar music had. His high voice almost like music. We finally pull forward. I can still hear the small boy chatter. His enthusiasm is like a wrinkle in the starched fabric of the collective silence. He could be in Disneyland.
I note that I have never met a claustrophobic toddler, can’t remember meeting one with personal space issues.
But I am not a toddler. I am a neurotic adult. I bolt at the next stop. I am finding a train back – up – and out, into the fresh air.
I try to feel mythological in my return trip, like I have just traveled to Hades – to go mano y mano with the God of the underworld. But I don’t feel heroic. I just feel like an escape artist. I anticipate my resurrection, out of the darkness, into the light of day.
The return trip is relaxed, the intensity is lifted by the promise of the known and predictable. I am simply observing now.
There is a guy with a stocking cap about ten feet away. He catches my eye because he is looking at people like me. Our eyes meet. I pretend that it didn’t happen, keep scanning the crowd or stare straight ahead, letting my eyes glaze over. We stop at Ruggles Street, more people get off. There is a noticeable iota of breathing room. I meet the guy’s eyes again. I decide it happened accidentally, fidget with something I don’t need in my purse, adjust its shoulder strap, loosen my scarf. A young woman gets on with glow-in-the dark white pants and a matching white hat. The pants are transparent. I can see a dimple in the fat on her but. It is too much visual information, too close. I avert my eyes. My gaze passes the gaze of the man in the stocking cap like two people crossing the street. I am on to him. He is working for Nancy - another cultural spy. We will glance at each other as we leave the train, our heads will nod imperceptively, like two FBI agents.
Tomorrow I will rise several thousand feet into the sky. When I do touch down, it will be 5280 feet above sea level. That may be as low as I ever want to go again.
Thinking out the Window
Have you ever thought and thought until you begin to think you have thunk yourself silly? When I’m not talking, I’m thinking…always especially when I ride the bus. I sit watching the sad woman sulk in her seat across from me, and the homeless man mumble pieces of words and I wonder what would happen if everyone’s thoughts just came popping out of their heads in full animated sentences. Would it fill the bus? As I sit on my two-o-clock bus headed down town I start to think as the road passes below me. I have way too many complex thoughts to fit in a small place such as ones head. So as I begin to think out the window, letting selected thoughts flow into the warm afternoon air. My thoughts begin to fly, some up some down, one hits the pavement maybe to be found by some hobo who has lost any rational ones of his own. It’s like a gift. Or maybe the old woman inching across the road will be swept away by the thought about my juicy summer romance, and instead of going home to her microwave dinner and two hours of “The Price is Right” she will be inspired to go and find a scandalous one of her own. Now that I think about it, it’s selfish not to share all these amazing thoughts with my city. I have far to many anyway. I may not be able to see or touch them, but I feel as it slams concentrated feelings into my soul that are forever changing me… and now there is no way I could think about having thought myself silly.
By: Chelsea Davies-Lechner