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Ginger Strand

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 childhood.

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.

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