The Subway Station
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
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
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
I screamed then, like no child of this earth has
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.