The Evolution of a Straphanger

My first ride on a New York City subway train! I ask Grandfather if we’re so far underground to where we might reach China and he says no. I think I’ll tell everyone in school about the little coin with the hole in the middle and the group of boys break-dancing on the runway and the two guys I saw jump the spinny-gate and dive on the train right before the doors closed.

My first ride on a New York City subway train? It was the only one that didn’t make me sick to my stomach. My daily descent is but a reminder that Hell does exist. I know this because I pass it on the escalator each morning and then delve deeper and deeper underground, to the festering bowels within the city’s rectum. A place where one can marvel at the bloated sewer rats and the stench of diesel fumes and stagnant water trapped under twenty feet of cement and the sour-milk breath of morning commuters as they huff and puff over your shoulder.

A man in a dusty jacket holds a cup in front of me and jingles the coins inside. I tug at Grandfather’s sleeve and he tugs back; pretends not to notice me. I don’t have any spare change, so I dig in my pocket and pull out a stick of gum–only a little chewed. I plop it in the cup.

A man in a dusty jacket holds a cup in front of me and jingles the coins inside. As if that’s supposed to entice me to turn out my pockets and buy him a new cup. When I don’t respond to the jangling, he reaches out with two tar-covered fingers and tugs on my sleeve. I pretend not to notice him. He moves on to the next sucker in line.

The lights flicker and the train screeches to a halt. Of all the trains in all the tunnels in the whole city I get to be on one that stalls out in the middle of its route. Yippee!

The lights flicker and the train screeches to a halt. Here we go. Of all the trains in all the tunnels in the whole city, I get on the one that stalls in the middle of its route. Every time. Yippee.

It’s dark. I close my eyes and think about the streets above–of all the performers, in their sparkling gowns, practicing their Broadway lines; of the bankers on Wall Street flipping hand signs and stacking coins from ground to ceiling; of the foul-mouthed cab drivers honking horns and carting tourists up and down Fifth Avenue. Then a hand wraps around mine and I know it’s Grandfather’s before the lights flicker again.

A tangle of bodies, in scratchy wool coats and corduroy pants, brushes past in the darkness. I don’t need to close my eyes to imagine the dangers. A distinct possibility exists that I’ll be slashed by the switchblade hidden in the combat boot of the war veteran sitting next to me, or that the bushy-bearded gentleman who stared at me for a moment too long as I entered the train could swipe the wallet from my back pocket, or that the old lady who leans on her walker near the doorway could sneeze and unleash the next exotic disease on mankind. Then a hand wraps around mine and all I can hope before the lights flicker again is that it does not belong to said old lady.

A lot will change when I walk through the subway doors and up the escalator and out to the street. The glass towers will stretch up from the concrete to the heavens and I’ll hear the hot dog vendors calling for business and I’ll stand with the crowds of shoppers in front of storefront windows. And I’ll be staring forward and not back.

A lot has changed since I walked through the subway doors with Grandfather, so many years ago. For one, the glass towers don’t stretch up to the heavens like they used to, and the hot dog vendors? They annoy the hell out of me. And every time I find myself huddled before a crowded storefront with a mass of bewildered shoppers, I’m like a longhorn being lead to slaughter. It is entrapment over enlightenment, and I’m more jaded than ever.

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