The Subway Station
Chananya Weissman
Tales of the Unanticipated, June 2001
Also appears in Journeys Into Limbo

The Subway Station

There used to be a subway station at 91st Street on the Upper West Side. A few years ago it was abandoned, left dark, desolate, and unused.  The station is still there, though, and if you look closely while taking the subway you can just glimpse it as it flashes by.  Granted, it's not exactly a tourist attraction, but those who used it and still remember it watch it go by with a touch of sentimental affection.

     I know I do.  I used to live there.

     Not when the station was in use, mind you.  Back then I resided in Times Square, made my summer home in Central Park, and occasionally stayed at a Best Western Street Corner.  When I heard about the retirement of the 91st Street station, though, I made the big decision and chose to move.  I won't tell you how I managed to get into and out of my new home.  Suffice it to say that we bums are not without our talents.

     (Allow me to interject at this point with a personal aside.  I surely appear to you more literate and mentally sound than the average street-rug.  That's because I'm smarter than the average street-rug, and never should have become one myself.  But the circumstances that led to my downfall are of no relevance to this story and none of your business, so don't ask.)

     Anyhow, my new home did have its shortcomings.  First, there was the matter of loud trains pounding their way through the place every few minutes, twenty-four hours a day, making the old station anything but prime real estate.  The presence of graffiti on almost every square inch of wall kind of tarnished the aesthetic appeal.  And the smell.  Whoa. Garbage dump plus dead body, with a hint of dirty laundry.

     But beggars can't be choosers, as they say, and beggar I certainly was.  I enjoyed the solitude, being able to call someplace home, my home, and knowing that I wasn't sharing it with anyone else.  Oh yes, occasionally someone else would wander there, but no one ever had the fortitude to stay there long enough to become acclimated to the darkness, the stench, and all the other amenities of my abandoned subway station.

     There were plenty of rats, too.  Rats and . . . other living things that scurried around.  So I purchased a cheap lamp and some discount batteries.  That pretty much kept the rats away from me.  Sometimes they stayed right at the fringes of the illumination, where light and dark seemed to have a thin boundary, and just stared at me.  And some of those rats were big as cantaloupes, I swear.  I don't know what they found in the city subway that was so nutritious, but I don't like to think about it.

     Believe it or not, I actually settled in.  There were no cops around, flexing their nightsticks like some superior form of life.  No other street-rugs, who posed more of a threat to me, their peer and competitor, than to the general public.  No disgusted pedestrians who would step around me like something a dog left behind.  I was alone in my subway station, I was safe.  I don't know exactly how long I lived there, but the 91st Street station was truly the best kept secret in New York.

     Well, one night (or day; one never could tell) I was stretched out, reading a back issue of some pulp, when I heard yet another train in the distance.  Or at least I thought I did, since the approaching sound was very faint.  A few seconds later the sound was still wispy, but definitely closer.  I looked up expecting to see a train shoot by, but there was nothing.  The sound receded, and soon vanished entirely.

    Then I noticed the rats.  Or lack of them.  A moment ago there had been a horde of the rodents, all over the place, but now they were gone. I put down the old magazine and turned the lamp this way and that.  But there was not a rat to be seen, anywhere, in the whole station!  You'd think I'd be pleased, but it was very disquieting.  Rats, especially the New York City variety, are not known for their timidity.  And the entire station had cleared out, like those Westerns when the outlaw enters the bar.  The piano stops playing, the poker game is terminated, and the bartender finds some glasses to wipe under the counter.  Everyone knows something is going to happen, and they don't want to be a part of it when it does.  That was the feeling I got with the rats packing out.

    But then a hideous rodent stuck its head out from the darkness, and all was well.  A moment later I heard a train approaching, and crawled out onto the platform to verify.  This time a train did rush by, shaking the ground just slightly and circulating the stagnant air of the stark underground.

    Perhaps the worst thing about being a bum was losing my dignity.  Every man, I think, has a special piece of pride within him, that no matter what happens, he can still feel good about himself.  Well I lost that pride, many years ago, when I finally realized that my residing on a park bench was not a temporary setback.  That day I was forced to admit to myself that I was no longer a man, but a stinking piece of filth that littered the street.  That I could not sit next to someone in a park and have a pleasant conversation with them.  I lost all self-respect that day, all shame, and gave up any hope of things ever changing.  There was no fight left within me; I wanted my situation to change, but lacked the energy to make it happen.

     After living in the 91st Street station a few weeks, I completely gave up hope.  For the first time, I was actually comfortable.  I was a homeless man with a home, and the inward distaste that first came with being homeless was gone.  Looking back, I think that that was the utter lowest a person can reach - when it just doesn't bother you anymore.

     I don't know how long I lived there.  It could have been anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.  But I do know that strange things started to happen.  Every so often I would I hear a train approaching, or think I did, but none would pass.  At first I rationalized, saying that the sound must be coming from a nearby track.  But sometimes the ground would shake slightly, as though a train were indeed passing, yet nothing was there.  I was forced to question my hearing, not to mention my very sanity, but was convinced that these episodes were not burps of imagination.

     I let it be.  So what if I couldn't place the source of a sound from time to time?  So what if rats were scared off by this mysterious anomaly? Was I to complain?  This was no cause for alarm, and certainly no basis for me to flee my secure dwelling like some frightened rodent.

    I began to sleep more hours every day, or so it felt, and ventured to the surface only to get food.  That seemed like the only thing that still mattered to me - doing the bare minimum to stay alive.  I have few memories of my stay in the 91st Street station that aren't of eating, sleeping, or watching trains go by.  I even gave up the homeless man's trademark income, collecting discarded soda cans for their deposit.  My lamp stopped working, and I never got around to seeing what the problem was.  My last line of defense against the rats was gone, but I didn't even care.  They crawled on me while I slept, and sometimes even when not, but I only made feeble motions to scare them off.  And the darkness was an impenetrable creature that occupied the whole world around me.  For all I knew, I could have been turning into a rat myself.  For all the rats knew, I could have been dead.

     My tale of hope and inspiration gets better, ladies and gentlemen.  I was lying on the platform one night (it was always night), playing Freeze Tag with the rats, portrait of a breathing corpse.  My stomach growled weakly, but my hearty half-course meal had been finished long ago.  A rat slithered its way across my chest, apparently mistaking me for a sofa (it was an honest mistake).  With reflexes I didn't know I still possessed, I grabbed the thing by the tail and hauled it toward the tracks.  I listened attentively for a snap, crackle, and pop, but was left hanging.  What I did hear, however, was a train in the distance.  Coming closer.

    Well, little buddy, I mused, one way or another you're getting a squishing.  Lately, ever since my lamp stopped functioning, I'd taken to watching the trains go by.  It prevented my eyes from decaying, or atrophying, or whatever happens when they constantly endure long periods of total disuse.  The approaching sound reached the intensity that has interrupted countless conversations, and I scrambled to get a good look. But there was no train, either in front of me or in the distance.

     Half irritated and half scared, I stood up and walked closer to the edge of the platform, hoping my judgment of its distance from me was accurate.  I still saw nothing but pure blackness.  Just as I was turning around, an unexpected wind from a passing train knocked me off my feet.  I felt the locomotive whiz by inches from me, and turned quickly to catch a look.  I still saw nothing.  But I knew I hadn't imagined the pounding roar of the train, and the force of its passing was definitely real.

     Just as the sound was receding, I glimpsed a flashing light and the tail end of the last car.  Then it disappeared from view, and the subway was silent once again.

     Now, I don't know about you, but I normally see trains well into the distance, coming and going.  And this time I had definite physical proof that a train had passed: the powerful rush of air as it went by.  Though I didn't actually see the train until the end, there was little doubt in my mind that it had been there.

     I considered abandoning the 91st Street station and seeing if my park bench was still vacant.  Not only was my peace of mind at stake, but perhaps even my safety.  (When you look at the world through a beaten man's eyes, anything can be frightening.  The unexplained is downright terrifying.)  It would have been very easy for me to leave; it's not as if I needed a U-Haul.  But I chose to stay, and the reason was shocking when I could finally admit it to myself.  Though every nerve in my body itched to desert the station, as the rest of the world had done long ago, I simply lacked the willpower to do it.  The very act of searching for food had become an almost intolerable chore.  Playing Musical Park Benches in favor of a permanent dwelling required more energy than I still possessed. Even when the permanent dwelling scared me.

     For a few days everything was fine.  There were no more "phantom" trains, and I began to breathe a little easier.  Even the rats seemed to relax, scampering around with freshness and vigor.  The city subways came and went, and I watched them with satisfaction.  Any thought of abandoning the station was banished.

     I lay on the platform one night, humming some old tune to myself, when an impossible thing happened.  The lights in the 91st  Street station suddenly powered on, all at once.  The rats went reeling, and so did I, covering my eyes against the blinding brightness.  I finally recovered enough to squint, and I anxiously turned this way and that, searching for an explanation.  The rats had scattered, but I was frozen by this phenomenon.  Never before had I gotten such a clear view of the deserted station, and I took a moment to study my surroundings.  It suddenly seemed to get very cold, even though the place had been stifling a minute ago.  I pulled my rags tightly around me and huddled myself against the ground.

    Then I heard the train.  The familiar rumble came from far off, but was getting closer.  It was slowing down, too, presumably for the stop on 96th  Street.  But when the train finally came into view, it was clear from the rate of deceleration that it wasn't stopping at 96th  Street.  It was stopping here.

     I might have moaned, or even screamed.  All I remember was staring hypnotically at the slowing train, wishing the smack of a nightstick would wake me from my dream.  But nothing of the sort happened, and I remained on the well-lit platform of 91st Street, watching a train come in.  A moment later it stopped dead, and we seemed to stare at each other, waiting for someone to make the next move.

     Then the doors opened, and I heard a voice over the speaker.  "91st Street, 91st Street," it announced.  I peered into the train from my spot on the platform, and saw a few empty seats, and someone with a large newspaper in front of his face.

     "91st Street," the voice said again, and someone stepped off the train.  He began walking toward me, and I instinctively got up and stepped back.  He was dressed in a standard uniform, but I couldn't seem to focus on his face.  It was like staring at the sun.  I narrowed my eyes, and saw black lips begin speaking to me.

     "William Amos Morris," it declared, and I jumped.  It had been a long time since someone called me by my real name.  "Your train is here. Please step aboard."

     My knees were shaking.  "I . . . I don't have a ticket," I blurted. It was perhaps the stupidest thing I could have said under the circumstances.

     The man with the black lips seemed mildly irritated.  He reached out and handed me a yellow train ticket.  Never mind that the subway used tokens.  "Now come aboard."

     I finally managed to round up my wits.  "This can't be happening. The 91st Street station doesn't exist anymore.  This train doesn't exist. I must be dreaming, or crazy, or--"

     "William Amos Morris!  You test my patience.  All things in this world serve a purpose.  They have a function, a reason for being here. Some justification for occupying the place in the world that they do.  But when that purpose no longer exists, they are replaced by something else. Or they simply cease to function, one of the two.  They still exist, but as a shell of their former self.  When a person dies his body does not disappear.  When a house burns down the ashes remain.  All matter eventually becomes something else when its time has come.

     "This train station is in a state of disuse, a remnant of what it once was and could have been.  And so are you.  It's time for you to board the train.  Follow me."

     I wanted to run, but my legs were not under my control.  I was rapidly nearing the train, and I was powerless to change course.  The open doors were looming a few feet away, and I knew that wherever this train was headed, it was a one-way ride.  There were others on the train, but I couldn't get a clear look at them.  Then the person by the door put down his paper, and I was suddenly staring into the face of a corpse.  It had no eyes, but dark, endless holes.  Its lips pulled back into a grin, exposing midnight-black teeth, and an abyss beyond.

    I screamed then, like no child of this earth has screamed before.

    This isn't what I am, cried my mind. I'm not like this.  I don't deserve to ride this train with these passengers.

     And suddenly I felt life in my legs.  I didn't wait to verify, but turned and fled, expecting the train to leap off the tracks and chase me. I didn't stop running until the toxic air of New York City filled my lungs, and I nearly crashed into a pedestrian, who hurried away with a pained expression.

     My bags and rags were left behind.  But I wasn't going back for them.

    Today I have a job in a burger joint.  Nothing glamorous, but it pays the rent.  That's right, I said rent.  I've begun the agonizing and frustrating process of starting life over.  The money (or lack thereof) doesn't matter so much; it's getting myself straightened out as a human being.  I'm not an old man, and there still may be hope for me.

     I still have the yellow train ticket.  It's a strong reminder of what almost befell me, of how low I'd really sunk.  It also provides extra motivation when I really need it.  Maybe it's wishful thinking, but sometimes the black letters seem to fade just a bit.  On other days, the words seem to jump off the paper.

     Sometimes my job, not to mention my life, gets to me.  My legs hurt from standing all day, or the boss goes out of his way to remind me how worthless he thinks I am.  I throw my hat down in frustration and prepare to do something rash.  But whenever my resolve takes a blow, and I lose the desire to struggle, I place the train ticket in my palm and read its simple words.

     "One fare.  Good any time."