I can tell when a train is approaching. The track, the third rail that electrifies the cars, starts to click and move in its mounting. It makes that heavy, metal-on-metal clink that weight bars in the fly-machine at the gym make between reps. Then comes the wind out of the tunnel, ruffling my dress and blowing the hair off my face. On the dog days, when the heat and humidity of summer is pressurized and compacted in the subway, that little breeze of an approaching octet is enough to provide a moment’s respite from the stifle.
Then comes the yellow light, bouncing off the walls and flowing, liquid, along the tracks like golden molasses, a honeyed bow wake, ushering the rats, like dolphins, with short legs and long tails. The rodents are the color of brake dust, as are the tracks, the ties and the detrital black water that seeps and stagnates in all the concrete depressions. Is it evolution that cloaks them or brake dust that coats them? After all, they have no predators here in the subterrain, aside from the trains themselves.
After the clinking and the wind and the light and the rats, comes the train itself. If it’s a letter train, like the A, the L or the J, the engineer and the signals are both on the right. If it’s a number train, like the 1, the 7 or the 4/5, the signals are on the left. When the lines were originally built, they were not owned by the city of New York. They were built by private companies, two separate ones. And though the rails are a standard gauge, the “trucks” or the bodies of the cars themselves are different widths. The letter trains are wider. Which means that the number trains can run on the lettered lines, but not vice versa. A D train on a 3 track would scrape against the platform edge. The signals are also a different configuration.
That means engineers today, though they work for a single company, as part of a single union, do not cross-certify. They grow into number drivers or letter drivers, but not both. And most, once they’re in, never leave. They retire after 30 years and go on to other careers. Every route they work, they have to bid into, based upon seniority, and it’s ten years or more before they have their pick of routes and days and hours and holidays. I know them only in quick flashes of faces as they zoom into the stop, in the wake of the wind and the rodents.
I step to the edge of the platform and push my way into the car, taking a seat if there is one, or strap hanging if there’s not. We all settle in to spend a little time together, or a lot of time together depending upon the length of the ride, the speed of the train, and whether or not there’s construction along the line. Each trip is the same but different. It’s a tweet-length production of the theater of the living with an endless roll call of extras and a few starlets or stars.
Invariably, someone puts on a show. It could be an actual performance, like the Dancing for Dollars kids who swing from the poles better than any Vegas stripper. Or the trio of Mariachis from Washington Heights, rocking and swaying with the bouncing train in cowboy hats and ostrich boots. It could be the black girl from Chicago, with a voice to rival Ella herself, or the gaggle of Asian kids beat-boxing and can stomping like before Broadway made it a “legitimate” art form. As often, it’s a street theater, or below-street theater, of a grittier, edgier format.
Some dude passed out, sitting in a seat but completely folded in half, as if attempting to truly kiss his ass goodbye. A drunk girl, stumbling home at 5 AM, perched atop some five inch spikes, wobbling toward the door and wobbling out of her blouse. The proselytizers and the beggars. The gangsters wearing baseball caps, Cubs if they’re Crips, Angels if they’re Bloods, even their shoelaces color-coordinated. In fidelity, after all, a gang member is virtually unparalleled.
Then there are the other gangsters. There are Hassids in their traditional Russian overcoats and big fur hats, ridiculous enough on a winter day, but offensive in July, when the stench accompanies them on the train. There are monks in orange robes, thrusting their hands and their calling cards at me. There are the Midwestern tourists in extra large jeans and dirty tennis shoes, marveling at me and my spiked hair like I’m the latest Times Square sideshow and getting in my way at the exit turnstile.
Our time is brief, riding together, one car out of eight, full of folks, a parenthetical aside, in the sentence of our day.