At first, the New York City subway system was a mystery to me, but in no time at all I was riding around in trains just as jaded as everyone else.
Occasionally a woman would pass through my train asking for food. A bottle of water. An apple. She always confessed that she had not eaten all day, yet I never saw her sick. She had a certain spryness I found at odds with her predicament. Even her sweat suit was in good working condition, far from what I would call impoverished. Every third or fourth day, there she would be.
In the beginning, I would give her things from my lunch. I would give her the apple she seemed to be looking for, even though I was hungry for apples, too. Honeycrisps. A marvelous name for the perfect variety. Firm crunchy fruit as white as a blank page and overbrimming with bright, tangy juice. It was never mealy or dry. The Honeycrisp was a reference point. It’s what you imagined when you thought of an apple. I would sometimes place those beautiful apples into her outstretched hand.
By the way, I already told this whole story to a colleague who called it poignant, but said he had zero idea what season it was.
By then it was spring and there was a strong sense of the earth coming back to life. The can collectors had switched over to short pants and their asses were sticking out and openly critiqued by large children in passing strollers. The birds were shaking out their feathers in the naked trees and the worms, I could only assume, were grooving in the damp ground. And what about the sun, Stevie? Right. The clouds were incinerated by the sun and its light warmed my skin in great unfiltered shafts. But was there a breeze? A chill? No, I don’t think so.
I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly. Could apples change this woman’s station in life? One day would I be putting my apples on the conveyer at C-Town only to find her working the register, holding up the bag to see the code on the little sticker? Would she notice me and break down in tears of gratitude? You don’t think about those things when you’re doing a good deed. It’s just impulsive. If I gave a beggar an apple while on holiday in another city, say, the beggarly city of Portland, I’d forget about it in an hour. But this particular beggar wasn’t in Portland. She was in my city. And she seemed to have a special preference for my train line.
You didn’t give things to people like that and think they wouldn’t remember your face. That was another lesson I had learned. When she saw me, she’d angle straight over. If I didn’t make eye-contact she would grow roots and belt out her pitiful song. Tell me something, Stevie, at close range, did she smell all right? As a matter of fact, she did not. The homeless smell, and forgive me if this sounds blunt, is a wild animal smell. It really is. Let us not forget that we are all animals. We are. But when you removed our shelter and our job and our cash and our community, we regressed into a state of animalism. Here was a solitary animal. A scavenger. After a while that was how I began to see her.
Sometimes I would polish my apple on my shirt sleeve so that she got a good look at it and replace it inside my bag. What? It was my apple and I could do with it as I pleased. And spare me the lecture about etiquette and ethics because those were the filthiest trains you ever saw and with no etiquette to speak of. People played their music without headphones. They swore. Fought. Farted. They sucked on vapes and blew clouds of cherry cola smoke as thick as half and half. They ate oatmeal. Greek salads. Danish. Lo Mein. God’s precious little lambs bunched in close, traveling along on a train.
Sometimes the train took forty minutes, but sometimes it only took thirty. It was hard to explain these variances. I suppose it all came down to extra seconds collected or lost at the stations. How many people needed to board or detrain, etc. Sometimes people would block the doors so that their buddies could catch up and not miss the Rangers game. Any number of things could delay or streamline the commute. Still, I could not deny the weightier sense of a great wheel turning behind it all.
That sense was confirmed a short time later. My GM, Karl, had arrived earlier to work than expected. I was doing a menu reprint when his parka brushed through the door behind me.
“You’re early,” I beamed, always vaguely repelled by his presence.
He nodded vigorously and let the parka (it had one of those faux fur hoods) drop off his shoulders. He hung it on the back of the door and whirled around. “Yeah,” he panted, and there was a trace of laughter in it, “I know!” He was in unusually high spirits. “The Train Gods were with me!”
“What?” My hands clenched the arms of my chair.
“Ah,” he said, swatting the air, “you know what I mean.”
I did. I absolutely did. In that moment, it felt like my bloodstream had been replaced with Dom Pérignon. If something so esoteric could be confirmed by somebody in such high-standing as Karl (or anyone, really), then there had to be something to it, right? At the very least, it couldn’t not mean something. My smile persisted through the day and it was all I could do to keep from giggling. Even when Rory, my bartender, said I looked like Ted Bundy, my smile never flagged, in fact, I think it broadened. I don’t remember a lot from that day. I moved around the floor in a fog of euphoria. A Yelp review came in by way of a tourist from Galway who referred to me as “a gem, an absolute star.”
Karl took me out for drinks to celebrate my review and to discuss, once again, the positive direction in which he felt we were heading as a group. We drank our way through most of a bottle of Green Spot and ate an entire pizza with black olives and onions. It was a late night. Feeling tired and uninhibited, I shelled out for an Uber back to Queens.
I had my hobbies–cooking, walking, Game of Warriors–but no real beliefs to speak of. After Karl’s affirmation of the invisible wheel, I was changed. I wouldn’t use the term born-again to describe what I was experiencing. I didn’t care for the zany connotations, and this wasn’t anything like that. This was more like a gorgeous renovation to my simple existence.
What I encountered at my station Wednesday morning should not have surprised me the way that it did: Station closed for enhancements. We apologize for any inconvenience. The old me would have cursed aloud, stamped his foot, but the wheel turned as it did for a reason, and I saw this all too clearly for what it was: Retribution.
Drunk and lazy, I had aborted my normal routine and spent lavishly on a private car home from the Lower East Side. A silly convenience. Now the Train Gods would inconvenience me two-fold.
The next station was a ten-minute walk. Out of the whitewashed sky fell a soft rain. It registered on my face as more of a mist than real, actual drops. It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t great. Still, I gave thanks that it wasn’t pouring. Since I was already late, I decided to swing by To-Go Express. It was a coffee shop that offered an array of authentic Greek coffees and specialties. On my weekends I would sometimes order a crêpe filled with strawberries and bananas and chocolate sauce. Today I ordered a standard Greek frappé with NoyNoy milk and nothing to eat.
“Something else?” asked the cute Greek girl. She had a ponytail pulled out the back of a red ball cap. She was extremely well developed for someone so petite.
“Yes, may I have a small cup of steamed NoyNoy milk?”
She frowned. Her arms closed around her considerable chest.
“I like to add it to my frappé when it gets low,” I lied.
Without a word she turned to the machine and frothed the milk.
When she passed it across the counter I asked, “How much?”
“It’s fine,” she said.
“That’s generous,” I said.
She covered her chest and walked away.
It was still misting outside. I made it to the next station and when I rose onto the elevated platform I could see the train cresting a small rise in the distance. There were only a few souls scattered around. I guessed it would be a smooth commute. As the train rumbled into the station, I darted to a row of benches and placed the still-warm NoyNoy milk beneath it.
“Thank you,” I whispered, and darted on board.
The train sheathed down below the East River. I heard the door at the top of the car clatter open and a man dressed for December slunk toward us. He held onto one of the support bars and began his statement of purpose. “Ladies and gentlemen, sorry to interrupt your day…”
No, he wasn’t. These people didn’t care about anyone but themselves. They were scam artists. That probably wasn’t even real blood on his collar. That was probably Heinz 57.
“…I am HIV positive and need help affording my medications. Anything you can spare–a dime, a nickel, a dollar–will make a difference. Thank you and God bless.”
And even if it wasn’t ketchup, what had he done to deserve it? Was he sticking filthy needles in the crook of his arm? Between his toes? Or was he just a garden variety drunk who sometimes paid for sex? He brought this upon himself, so what in God’s name did he do?
When he came by, I made a big show of gathering in my belongings and held my breath, scared to death of his infectious spittle. When he looked at me, I stared back at him with two out-of-order eyes. Move along, sir. If you’d kindly move along, please.
Track work completed by the end of the week, and shortly thereafter I crossed paths with the apple lady. This time the sight of her made me angry. How could I have been so naïve? Frankly, I felt had, and that wasn’t a happy feeling.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been on this train since yesterday looking for help. I have not eaten all day…”
“Bullshit,” I coughed.
This won me a chuckle or two from my fellow commuters. A coruscation of glee danced in the eyes of those around me. I’d had it with this woman. I knew that she would never stop doing this or improve her station in life, but maybe if I made it difficult for her she’d pack up and take her tired act to the A-train. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I only worried that my words would have no effect. Could someone like she truly be shamed or humiliated beyond the general ignominy of her existence?
When she exited the train, I exited, too. This was Karl’s late day and I knew that I could trust Rory to handle any issues until I arrived. Restaurant management was such a thankless job and therefore it was always in demand. You could move to any city in the country at a moment’s notice and have a MICROS card within a couple of hours. A halfway decent resume got you keys, passwords, and the combination to the safe. You could quit and start as much as you liked. It wasn’t the type of job you chose, but that chose you. For me, however, it was just right.
She waddled out of the car and headed down the platform. You could understand the increasing anger I felt as her waddle, that cutesy little hitch in her step, ironed itself out now that she was off duty. Sunlight shafted down the stairways leading to street level. What went on up there bore little semblance to the world down here. The same rules did not apply. Nobody who was sane lingered below ground for longer than it took their train to rapture them away. While those with jobs and appointments filtered out into the springtime sun, I was hardly surprised when the apple lady did not. She passed through the station to the Brooklyn bound R-line, a nimble little bird but completely hopeless. I could feel my pulse hammering away in my hands. In her presence I felt strong. I felt a strength come over me that I had not known since my arrival in this city. My hairline had prickled with sweat, and there was a hum, like the hum of a train in the station of my brain.
On the R-line platform, she reached inside her pocket and withdrew an iPhone 8. Something she was looking at made her shiver with amusement. Maybe a cat video. Or a good Cosby joke. It didn’t matter. When I saw that tiny gesture of enjoyment, of someone like her having a grand old time on a thousand-dollar machine, a model superior to my own, I lost all sense. Those phones were supposed to be special, special items, but every kid working in McDonald’s owned one. Deadbeat poets and writers owned them. Nuns. Nothing was sacred. Nothing special. It was the incoming drone, the benediction of the train that freed me from this thinking. I saw the eyelets of light stuck back in the tunnel. It hurdled out of the dark like an animal half-starved for meat. The timing of it all. If this wasn’t a sign.
My presence took her by surprise. She looked up at me and grinned, but with zero recognition.
“Hiya,” she chirped. “Do you by chance have a quarter?”
Rory helped me with liquor inventory that night. A lot of the managers I’d worked with in the past dreaded the weekly count. Once again, I was different. I enjoyed the therapy of it. The way it rid me of thoughts. Rory, a career bartender, seemed to enjoy it, too. He was a quiet and regal person. He never complained about money or moaned about being tired, something I couldn’t say for the rest of my staff, or any staff I’d ever had the pleasure (not!) of managing. My hands grazed the bottles that glowed like treasure in the hold of a pirate’s ship. Armagnac. Souza. Cynar. Pimm’s. It was absolutely fascinating how many varieties of liquors there were to slake the innumerable array of human thirsts.
While counting, I sipped a glass of Yellow Spot. I usually drank Green Spot when I was buying because it was cheaper, but since I wasn’t, I partook from the older cask. Karl wouldn’t be thrilled if he knew, but Karl had left for the night, probably buying lap dances at the Russian strip club that seemed to be his passion. Who was I to judge? We were all guilty of something. Anyway, he’d be in my tail lights soon enough. This city was beginning to grate on me and I sensed that I’d be gone in the way a marine animal senses a sea change. There were other cities up the coast. I was already thinking about Providence in Rhode Island. A place with mailboxes and real green spaces. I’d heard good things about Providence.
Periodically, my counting was disrupted by the piercing shrill of the hostess, Poppi, as she greeted or bid farewell to the guests. “Thank you so much for coming! Have a great rest of your night, folks!”
Have a great rest of your night, folks. Was it even English? That voice. The way she said it made me want to wrap a T-shirt around her head and knot it off. Of course I couldn’t criticize her. She wouldn’t understand. Plus Karl was always raving about her gusto and the good effort she put forth. I took a pull of Yellow Spot. Then another.
In Chinatown, I sat for a Szechuan dinner. I knew that I would miss the terrific food here. More specifically, I would miss the ability to eat terrific food terrifically late in the evening. I slurped up the chili noodles that numbed my mouth and raised sweat on my brow. This food. You suffered for it. It destroyed and rebuilt you all in the same spoonful.
For a night cap I made my way to Attaboy, where the bartender, Dan Flock, greeted me like family and served up Sazeracs until the edges of the room buckled and broke. I will say that I was tempted, very much, to call a car, but even in my soggy state thought better of it. Why stir the pot? I sucked it up and headed underground.
There was no hangover the following morning. Maybe the bellyful of Szechuan had buffered the heavy flow of whiskey. Both of my hands were sore, but all and all, I felt good.
Right as I entered the platform, the train was easing to a stop, as if for my convenience, and I had to smile as its doors slid wide to receive me. I read the New York Post. It was such a well curated paper with headlines that grabbed you by the lapels and hoisted you into the air. I didn’t know if it was available outside of the state but I hoped that it was.
There was a story about a young woman who’d been mugged in the Canal Street underpass. Another incident in what reportedly was an uptick in city muggings and miscreation. The woman, an NYU student, had been listening to music and hadn’t heard the attacker approach. She’d fallen on the platform, fracturing her wrist, and her wallet and AirPods were stolen. I turned the page, slowly shaking my head. The Train Gods, I thought, were definitely not with her.
At Queensboro Plaza the conductor came on to announce that the train would be running express to Whitehall Street. At least half of the passengers complained loudly, while the others nodded in quiet assent. I was among the latter. That’s just the way it went. The wheel turned in ways that brought pleasure to some and suffering to others. I considered what I might do with the extra time I’d been gifted. Maybe take a little walk along the promenade that looked out on the Hudson. Think about Providence. It was the perfect day for that and my spirits were high due to my unusual good fortune.
When I left the train, I reached inside my shoulder bag and withdrew a Ferrero Roche chocolate truffle. I was feeling like a chocolate, but right before it passed my lips I paused, thinking better of it. I’d been granted time. Time before the monotony of work. And time was one of the most precious gifts that one could receive. I placed the truffle, melting as it was, at the foot of the platform’s steel truss. Close enough so that the chocolate kissed the metal. “I see you,” I whispered, “I see what you do, and I thank you.”
As I licked the chocolate from my fingers, I was surprised to see other small offerings scattered about: a piece of banana, a Starburst, half a cup of coffee. A light wave of jealousy hit me high in the chest where jealousy does but didn’t stick. Those were afterthoughts. Juvenile and artlessly cast. Mine was decidedly the most deliberate. Pride passed behind my eyes as I moved on to street level.
On the ride home that night there was a kid playing music on a Bluetooth speaker. The song, sorry, the track that was playing, might as well have been in Farsi. It was one of those mumble rappers covered in tattoos of fire, liquor and diamonds. The ones who piloted luxury sedans like weapons of mass destruction and never went to jury duty and ate truffle fries seven days a week. Some kids had zero structure at home and those fatuous rappers were who they looked up to. This particular kid, sorry, this lost soul with no manners or self-awareness to speak of, was living proof of that. Distant at first, I heard it more clearly. My own private soundtrack. The tunneling drone of a pristine train. My hands began to perspire.
Trap rap hissed and popped, hissed and popped. I saw the worried eyes of an old woman. The courage finally arrived to take a stand. The train was crowded and it wasn’t generally my style to take matters into my own hands in such a public way, but I felt a oneness with these strangers around me, an unspoken agreement that this kid was absolutely…
“Hey Champ, want to turn that down?”
The tunneling in my brain dialed off. I turned to see the owner of the voice. It belonged to a man seated directly across from the boy DJ. He had a large gut and wore a navy tweed cap. I pegged him for a boomer, a serious looking person who had definitely been around the block a time or two.
“Talking to me, Gramps?” the boy mumbled.
“That’s right I am.”
“Why don’t you get off your ass and make me, Gramps.”
“Come over here and say that.”
Without hesitation, the boy went over.
“Make me,” he said. Grabbing onto the ceiling bar, he pulled his legs up into his chest and blasted the boomer in the face with both soles of his shoes. The man’s head connected with the plastic seat and broke it. His head fell forward and his whole body went flaccid.
“Get at me!” the kid yelled at the ceiling, one hand pounding his chest. “Get at me!”
Trap rap hissed and popped, hissed and popped.
“You’re an idiot,” said a girl reading Hunger Games.
“Get at me!” he yelled at her. “Get. At. Me.”
His arms were heavily banded with muscle and his chest beneath the baggy shirt appeared chiseled. A lot of kids these days spent hours in the gym. They needed to be strong, sorry, they needed to be jacked enough to protect themselves against critics of their crass behavior.
When the reality hit me that I probably wouldn’t be able to overtake this child-monster, a switch was thrown and my aggression changed to an overwhelming sense of shock. Shock entered my jaw and dropped it open. Everyone around me wore the same look. We were equally and thoroughly appalled by what we had seen.
So what did we do?
Well, we resumed looking at our phones like the civilized people we were. Our faces of disbelief gradually evened out and our eyes went lost in the gloom of our devices.
I stared at my phone, the iPhone 8. People were stuffing headphones into their ears in preparation for complete detachment, and that reminded me of something tucked inside my jacket. I withdrew my new AirPods and polished them on my pants.
To see me sitting there you would have pegged me for a lifelong New Yorker, with those out-of-order eyes that stared through walls and with ears that heard everything but were deaf to it all. Was I having misgivings about leaving what was widely considered the best city on earth? Yes, of course. Be crazy not to. Indeed, it was ironic to be parting ways just as I was grasping what it took to find this town even the slightest bit tolerable.