What Happens Happens in a Moment
Four million people ride
the subway every day. They carry all sorts of things: stereo components,
cats in cages, fish wrapped in newsprint, floral arrangements for weddings
or new jobs or funerals, plants, AZT, backpacks, coffee, Teletubbies,
coffee cans, newspapers, snakes, umbrellas, oxygen, sandwiches. They
push past each other, sometimes they mumble excuse me, sometimes not.
They leave things behind: newspapers, sandwich wrappers, chicken bones,
fingernail clippings, spilled sodas, mittens, baby socks, magazine reply
cards, pennies, boggers, lint, hair, sugar packets, tuberculosis, gum.
The 1/9 local and the 2/3
express trains run parallel to 96th street. Then they split. The 1/9
train goes to Washington Heights, and the 2/3 goes to Lenox Terminal
or the Bronx. Sometimes both trains pull into 96th street at the same
time. The people get off the 1/9 train. They get off the 2/3 train.
Most leave the station. They go up the stairs at the back of the station
or up the stairs at the front of the station. They walk past the token
booth at the front or the other token booth and murals at the back and
climb to the street. If it's winter it is dark. If it's summer the sun
is still lingering and the day is filled with possibility. Some of them
go the deli. They buy pesto, crackers, cigarettes, milk, eggplants,
cheese whiz, kiwi fruits, exquisite bars of imported bittersweet chocolate.
They go home to new lovers and forget to cook dinner because they are
so eager to have sex. Others make dinner alone. Still others go out.
They eat tom kha kai, hot dogs, knishes, tamales from trucks, Burmese
curries, steaks, noodle soups, fried seafood, spatchcock, oversized
plates of pasta, tempeh, or breakfast foods for dinner. Some go to a
bar and talk to strangers. Some watch tv. Some just drink. Then they
go home to their children, their geckos, their lovers, their wives,
their refrigerators that still have a funny smell in them, their television
evangelists, their unsorted mail from Wisconsin, their mildewed shower
curtains, their dying and vengeful parents, their unfinished books of
criticism, their coats with the third button missing, their wailing,
their self-doubt, their Town and Country Magazine, their cravings for
the chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream roll they haven't seen since
In the station, there are
still people on the trains. All of the white people have gotten off
the 2/3 train. Some have left the station. Some have changed to the
1/9 train. Each train rings its bell. The conductors say "Stand
clear of the closing doors." The doors close. The brakes disengage
with a hiss. The trains start forward together. They tug themselves,
side by side, into the dark tunnel.
The people on the 1/9 train
are going to Columbia University, Washington Heights, Inwood. They are
white and Asian and everything else. The people on the 2/3 train are
black and Hispanic. They are going to Harlem and the Bronx. The people
on the 1/9 train and the 2/3 train can see each other. They look out
the windows of their trains. To the people on each train, the other
train glows through the darkness of the tunnel. It glows like a cabin
lit by a kerosene lamp on the frontier prairie in winter. It glows like
the only store open at night in a small New England town. It glows like
E.T.'s heart. It glows like church windows in an engraving by Currier
and Ives, like a diner in Hopper.
Then, as the people in each
train watch the people in the other, the 2/3 train begins to go down.
The 2/3 line must cross under the 1/9 line to head east into Harlem,
so the people on the 1/9 train watch it disappear beneath them. The
1/9 train continues north, steadfast. It will go to 103rd street, 110th
street, 116th street, 125th street, 137th street. People will get off
at each stop. A few might get on. The train will continue north, letting
people off to get their videos, their dry cleaning, their tampons, their
resoled shoes, the ice cream they will feel guilty for eating. They
will forget that the 2/3 train was beside them for a moment. It won't
matter. It doesn't matter. It only matters for one brief instant, about
8 seconds long, when the people on the 1/9 train watch as the others
slowly sink from view.
Ginger Strand is a writer
who lives in New York City. She has published fiction and nonfiction
in Descant, The Allegheny Review, Poets and Writers, American
Literary History and The Village Voice, among others. She
is currently working on a collection of short stories.