“‘Beat Worry. Defeat Doubt. Just Win!’ – Dr. Creflo Dollar”
I hope this is the last time I’ll ever wake up from a significant amount of sleep in the subway — an amount which is roughly equal to a nap for anyone else. My jaw is even sore from yawning. Somewhat recharged from another morning rest on the G, I’m down at Church Avenue where the bathroom is unfortunately locked. I head into the city, hoping that Port Authority’s facilities may still be open. After however many hours I’ve spent fighting the train, I’m on the final stretch. Today will be a day for new ideas, new metaphors and new insights — right after I wake up.
In the city, I learn that it is in fact only 7:20, but at least they have some canned coffee drinks. Chugging one is the only way I can stomach eating another granola bar, but the drink tastes like it’s expired. The business-suited masses are already on the rise and an unnerving alarm is blaring in Times Square, so after my pit stop I catch an Uptown A and vow to stay as far away from the city today as possible. The train’s power is more concentrated here and I need to explore more of the outer lines.
Up at 207 Street, my plan to escape the train’s confines has backfired. If anything, we’re even more at its mercy near the end of the line. Unless you live here — and odds are you don’t — there’s no other way of getting back. As if further proving its point, the train sucks away every last bit of energy I have, making me nearly immobile from the top of the city to almost the Rockaways. I can’t write, feel terrible and lose all track of time. Finally, I stumble off at Broad Channel to get out of the air conditioning and soak up some sun. The high-walled, white washed platform is somehow just as miserable, but at least it’s a break from the endless movement. This coffee is already tearing its way through my stomach.
After finally reaching Myrtle-Wyckoff for a bathroom break, I take the M out into Queens and succumb to sleep once again. Only when we reach the end of the line, where sun and trees warm my brain, do I actually start to wake up for the first time today. The bad coffee has made me incredibly thirsty and my notebook pages are shockingly blank, but at least I’m four hours closer to the end. As my clarity returns, I realize how ridiculous this imagined battle with the train has been. In 12 hours I will be leaving this subway system and returning to a life that is still very real.
“Hoarse as a hooker”
After some Midtown wandering and unsuccessful interview attempts with everyone from florists to Andean pan flutists, I start to get frustrated. Out of everyone I’ve talked to, the majority of them either aren’t allowed to, don’t understand what I’m asking or just have no interest. A good reporter is supposed to break through these barriers, but at this point I’m lucky to be awake let alone gunning for a Pulitzer. In the Record Mart concourse, I try for an old man in suspenders playing the musical saw, but he too is resistant.
“You gotta be quick ‘cause I’m trying to make money,” he says.
I promise I’m in no rush and wait patiently through a few more songs, one of which is “Imagine,” until he suddenly pulls me over. Moses Josiah started playing in 1947, at the age of 17, in Guyana when he read an article about how musical saws worked. He borrowed his father’s saw, played a few scales, and the rest is history. Now he plays all over the place, often down here. When I ask how he likes it, his response is the same as everyone else’s: “Some days are better than others.”
Nearby, two men are preaching God’s word so I keep the streak going and head over for a chat. Donnie and Gregory are much calmer than Shawn and his hellfire, which is refreshing. They’ve seen God cure people of HIV, help people walk again, the works, so all they want to do is spread the word. They go to hospitals, homeless shelters, jails and of course the subway. God even told them about this specific spot.
“All we have to do is be a trumpeter,” says Donnie.
It sounds like a pretty good gig really, despite the hardships of never knowing if your work is being acknowledged. Once again, I come back to the idea that publications aren’t so different, trying to get their message out to the masses day after day, month after month. The difference is that most publications limit themselves to one class of people. God most certainly does not — nor does the subway.
Ladies arguing about new phones, babies, etc. The beat goes on.”
I’m up in the Bronx again to check out some end of line stations. Both the 5 and the 2 start looking much the same as their western counterpart the 1, so I soon lose interest. At this point I must have ridden almost every line — searching every damn station for bathrooms along the way — and it’s starting to feel like old news. Up here the kids seem a little more rambunctious; some of the people a little louder, the stations a little more rundown, but none of it feels like it means anything. I’m still searching for that last piece of truth to take me with me at the end of the night.
Feeling pretty tired again, I wander down the 14th Street tunnel to take a loop into Brooklyn, when I see a guy at the end who I’ve noticed at least half a dozen times before since living here. Sitting on the floor, bundled in a variety of sweatshirts, corduroy and knit products with a big bushy beard, is Donald Green — the poet for hire. His small sign advertises having been published in the New York Times and I immediately know that we have to talk. Propping up the sign is a crate full of trash, scotch tape, markers and pieces of a manuscript.
Out of everyone I’ve met so far he is easily the friendliest, almost desperately so, and we talk for close to an hour. Donald speaks in a very theatrical tone, as if he’s composing verbal music with every breath. He did indeed have a poem published in the Times, it was about the Millennium. While it appears that he may indeed live down here, he claims to keep a “writing residence” up by Columbia where he works on what will someday be his masterpiece: To Turn and Love. He’s been working on it for years, and has even received interest from a big university press, but last year a large portion was stolen at a café and he’s never quite recovered. It currently exists in a pile in his crate, available in portions for $5 and $10. I buy one, a multi-colored stapled together affair, upon hearing this. He doesn’t seem to feel slighted, it’s all just been a series of poetically bad luck.
More than anyone else, I feel comfortable telling Donald about what I’ve been doing, and he completely understands. Within minutes, he’s even rattled off a series of plays and art pieces which may help me. He too is fond of the subway, but plans to leave it soon. When I press him on what it might all mean — this never-ending maze of muggy tunnels and rumbling tracks that we both temporarily call home — he has no answer, but he does have some advice: “Whatever you want from it, you allow yourself to believe that you have.”
The ensuing hours riding around Brooklyn and into the city again feel laborious, but I can’t stop thinking about what Donald said. Even with the lack of light, fresh food, remotely comfortable surfaces to sit on or even just the option to be free of these clothes for a while, it somehow doesn’t feel as bad. Another 10 hours in here might make me officially deranged, but for now I’ve beat the train’s mind games and the fog is slowly lifting. I want to find clarity, and according to Donald maybe I can trick myself into thinking I already have it. My next friend would say otherwise.
I meet David, a Grenadan representative of Family Radio, in Union Square. I can tell he enjoys the audience, like many of them have, and is genuinely concerned for my wellbeing when the Rapture comes next year. While I’d heard of such apocalyptic predictions, I didn’t realize one was slated for 2011 and couldn’t help but find it a little ridiculous. When pressed for facts, David knew all Harold Camping’s math, but it still felt hollow. Knowing the outcome will most certainly be disappointing, I almost feel sorry for him. My only comfort is that David’s beliefs seemed to hold deeper meaning than just numbers. More than anything else he believes that the heart of man is “spirit dead” and we need a new one. Looking at the state of our society sometimes, I almost agree.
“But I don’t want to sound like I’m preaching, that too is a danger. I only want to open people’s minds.”
Knowing that I only have four hours left should be comforting, but suddenly I almost don’t want to leave. Looking back into the sleep-deprived haze, I wonder if it will be enough. Once my tailbone resumes aching and I think about how grimy I must be, I realize that this is just one last pull from my old nemesis the train. I will be leaving, epiphany or not.
Making my way through the Port Authority once again, I see Shawn at his table stocking the literature. A young, bearded man is blankly handing out tracts nearby, while Shawn chatters away with someone in a business suit. The man has an interesting look with red hair, blue pinstripes and a tie covered in stock quotes (held in place by a horse tie clip), carrying a silver briefcase. When I tell them about David’s Rapture date, Shawn immediately derides it as “bullshit” and his friend, Robert, offers to show me something much more real. Setting his briefcase on the table, he pulls out laminated photos of what’s supposed to be a Chinese man eating fetuses and another of skinned dogs hanging up.
“The things that I’ve seen, I’m so blessed,” he says with a smile, handing me his card.
Still unclear of what I’m supposed to be taking from this, I move on. Temporarily thrown by this display of barbarity, real or not, I slip back into a brief state of delirium. “Sockeye Jim,” or whatever that Burl Ives song is, plays on loop as I ride the escalator. Later, I’m pretty sure I make up an entire conversation between two young girls about golf. As much as I want to think this is all the city’s doing, I know it’s just as much my own. The city and the train aren’t sentient beings, they’re just manifestations of our own craziness.
Looking for ways to kill time, I ride up to Columbia once more. On the Downtown track I notice an art piece, “The Rail Rider’s Throne” which I’d forgotten about. A stark metal affair, it’s only marginally more comfortable than a bench, but it still lifts my spirits. For a moment, I go with Donald’s words of wisdom and pretend that I am indeed the king of the rails. Over these past couple days I’ve braved the manmade elements as well and the depths of my own mind. Even if this article never goes anywhere, I’ll always know that I followed through.
“Young kids = don’t even know”
It’s all an exercise in willpower now; only a matter of hours. I keep staring at people’s watches, hoping the hour hand will jump. They stare back, maybe at my penmanship, maybe at the state of me. With every passing minute a sense of the outside world comes creeping back. Could I have done more? Was I safe? What will people say? Will Katie be waiting for me at my house? At this point, all I can do is let it happen.
Down at Whitehall Street a pack of construction workers are walking along the tracks, poking around with flashlights. My fellow passengers are worried. A couple Middle Eastern kids snacking on Doritos and slurping on a Subway cup go over to question them.
“Yeah it’s coming, brother,” the worker replies.
Further down, a pack of men in business suits look worried too, as do two hipster-types with their bikes. The train comes soon enough and everyone is happy, but riding Uptown with them I’m happiest of all. Finally I understand.
The train isn’t just a means of physical transportation. It’s an emotional one too. Sure, it causes its fair share of stress, but it also channels it. When we’re all down here together we get to see that other people, all kinds of other people, are dealing with life just like us. In the confines of our own daily realities problems can take on epic proportions, but in the train they’re just one in a crowd. These brief shared moments, and the decompression they offer, help keep the city running.
With roughly an hour to go, I camp out on a bench in Union Square for the duration. Nearby, a kid with a bat T-shirt and bell bottoms is setting up to play guitar for a whole array of people passing through the area. Between sleeping, I fill pages and pages of notes. I dream about David Brent from the British Office starting a clothing business in the World Trade Center station; I consider giving someone my final granola bars and I periodically get up to check the clock. I’ll hit 50 hours at 11:30, and it’s almost 11:00.
To celebrate, I go look for my friend Sayed at his newsstand, but he’s not there. It’s almost as if he was never there at all. I buy a Payday anyway. My real payday will be a good shit and a shower. So very soon.
“I wonder if I have a cavity. Also, I wonder if I’ll cry.”
Back on my own train, heading toward my own apartment, the excitement finally feels real. I don’t know any of the people around me but their presence is oddly comforting. The candy bar really isn’t that good, my teeth hurt and I can clearly smell myself, but none of it matters. I’ve almost got this thing beat. As an old homeless man in a long jacket and wrinkly tie comes down the car, he seems to sense it. He comments on my left-handedness and goes on to tell me about the benefits of the left brain.
“You’re pretty smart, aren’t you?” he says.
I shrug it off.
“Yes, you are.”
Not one to question complimentary homeless men, I go thank him and offer a granola bar. With only minutes left I feel incredibly jacked, very much awake. Maybe it’s the candy bar. When we reach 96th Street, I’m almost too hyper to notice. For the next 15 minutes, I’m a prisoner in my own neighborhood. At least it’s better than being a prisoner of the entire train system. The station’s heat is almost comforting now as I dig my keys out and realize I’m about to become a normal person again.
During these past couple days I powered my brain down to only the most basic impulses and let the city’s energy fill the space. While it may have taken me some dark places, my characterizations of it have been unfair. After all, we created the city and its subway to serve us. Any personalities we give them, any feelings they may cause, are entirely our own. We build them up to be something greater to take the burden of expectation off ourselves, and after grappling with the force of that collective burden for the last 50 hours, I can understand why. This city was built on just as many fantastic successes as horrific failures, but no one wants to be responsible for the latter. Guiding it in the right direction isn’t something we can figure out in a day, or even a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we can stop trying.
Approximately 50 hours after I swiped in, I push my left hip through the turnstile, return to society and go do just that.