2002 by Dan Berkey
"This is it, the collective spirit, infusing every move forward with the powerful need to go. It lives in the baby’s face on the bus as its mother sleeps, in the face of the old man with his tattered reader’s digest slumped in his lap as he sleeps while the bus roars though America’s heartland budding beer nuts and divinity in his dreams. It lives in the driver’s wan eyes peering far ahead of the white-striped roads he scopes for the needs of his passengers, all seeking whatever, but for the moment, all sharing the same path."
It lives in the subway of New York, and it has its peculiar way with us, especially when we think we know. Know what?
It was early, before seven, and this was the last day of my knowing anything I thought I knew.
The subway car bustled with blue-collar workers. "Ancients," I thought, "The ones who come and go before and after everyone else, before the light, after the light.’
They have their own kind of language that’s unique, their own kind of manner. Their laughs are rich. Their banter is bright. They wear their humanity on their rolled up sleeves. They carry their hearts in their lunch buckets, glad to share amongst themselves. I’m at ease around them, though I rarely say anything. I smile when I can. They rarely smile back. I’m drawn to them, but I don’t go to them. Something won’t let me. I travel along side them, and for the most part that’s enough. Today that changed. Today I realized something about myself that brought me much closer to them and also much further away. Yes, I know that doesn’t make much sense, but I can’t be concerned with that right now. Go with me here.
I sat with my coffee on the F, mused on the workers and quietly reviewed some speeches I‘d recently learned for The Storm Theatre’s upcoming production of The Tempest. We’d just pulled out of the Jay Street Borough Hall Station, and I noticed him.
A slumped man sat across from me. he could’ve been forty or sixty. Metaphorically speaking he had that pulverized look of man spun daily for decades through the City- Cuisinart. He had a strangely familiar look about him, though I couldn’t say what that was, at first. There didn’t seem to be anything specific that I could point to and say, "yes, that’s like me…or that’s like anyone I knew." His head was down. I couldn’t see his face; it was in shadow. A thin, gray swath of hair mapped his blemished skull. You could tell he’d combed it at least once that day. He nodded drunkenly. His sagging cheeks flapped by the surge and sway of the train. A plastic bag with a rolled up piece of clothing dangled off his arm. He wore old gray slacks that were frayed at the cuffs and an old gray suit jacket. The grays didn’t match. I stared at him, hoping to catch a glimpse of his face, then became self-conscious and looked away, but only for a moment, and I was staring again. I felt a disquieting urge to turn away, accompanied by a weird anxiety crawling up my guts, not unlike faint nausea but there was something else there too. I tried to put the sickness out of mind and look away, but I could do neither. I’d become extremely self-conscious by my staring, but I ignored that. There was a far greater need in me to see this man’s face, a deep burning need. I just had to see it. Nausea, anxiety, self-consciousness, or no, I was going to do just that.
I became obsessed.
A group of workers got on at York. They muscled their way to the center of the car where I was sitting. Some of them stood right in front of me and temporarily blocked my view of the man. It made me angry, and I craned a bit to retain my view then gave up. "This is silly," I thought, "It’s too early, Dan, to get worked up, especially over something that doesn’t really matter."
But it did matter. How or why? I couldn’t say at the moment.
Some of the workers dispersed at Delancey, and my view of the man cleared for a moment. He was still slumped exactly as before, but now, something had changed, or something was new, or something I hadn’t seen before became clearer. He had more hair than I thought, or he’d quickly smoothed it over his skull while I wasn’t watching. The blemishes were no longer visible. A large group of Hispanic workers bustled on the train. My view was completely blocked. I thought to stand and gently nudge my way through this chatty group to get closer to the man, but then I realized, "how would I ever see his face?" I wasn’t going to be so crass as to lean down right in front of him. I’d have to get below his face, position myself almost in his lap and look up. That would be just too strange. So I stayed put, hoping the workers would get off soon or at least disperse in the car. Two more stops went by. At West Fourth most of these men got off. Others got on. My view was partially cleared. A man was slumped where the other had been. It was not the same man, and I became very sad. He was a younger man by about twenty years, at least. He had a full head of brown hair, combed similarly, yeah, but that’s nothing weird. His cheeks didn’t flap, and his face, like the one before, was obscured by shadow. "Funny," I thought, "both were slumpers." I quietly laughed to myself. Then the angst returned with a vengeance as did the nausea, which was much worse. Instead of turning away and putting my mind onto something else to quiet this rising sickness I stared even more intently. I guess I was just in a perusing mood. Then I noticed something really weird. This man had a bag. It looked like the same bag. "That’s crazy," I thought. What’s more, his clothes were almost identical, though not as tattered.
I then began to feel really ill, very light headed. "If this gets any worse I’ll have to vomit." Being in no mood to be so conspicuous, I held it in; "it’s not such a great way to get on with strangers," I thought, "vomiting on their morning commute." My stop was coming up. 23rd Street took forever, as did 34th. Seconds seemed like hours. I’d broken out in a chilly sweat, and I was shivering.
"Shit," I thought, "This feels like food poisoning, goddamit. I should’ve tossed that chicken sandwich with mayo I’d made the day earlier. You know better, Dan, old mayo, you dummy."
I choked down some vomit and looked up. My stop, 42nd Street, was coming up. I rose slowly and held a pole to steady my head and stomach as the train pulled in. "just a few more seconds," I thought, "then you can puke in a trashcan. Noone’ll mind that. They can walk away from that."
I looked over at the man who was still slumped. Past all better discretion I moved toward him, then suddenly stopped a few feet away. "Wait a minute, Dan, why this guy? He’s not even the same guy. Ok, they look a little alike, but so what? You know a lot of people resemble each other here. This is New York, you know, a few million or so. This is just a weird coincidence. Then why, goddamit, do you need to see his face? What is this stupid obession? Why can’t you let it go? Stop it. Get off the train. Go to work."
I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t stop. I had only seconds now. The train had come to a halt. It’s doors creaked open. With a reeling head, churning gut, shaking hands I bent low, but before I was all the way down he looked up. He looked right at me. His eyes met mine. He smiled sweetly.
"Open your eyes," he said very softly, "Open your eyes."
The nausea passed. My head cleared, hands stopped shaking. A surge of energy went through me. I stood up straight, looked down and bolted from the train. The man was gone. I ran the full length of the platform, eyes full of happy tears.
He was me.
And I knew then what
I’d never known.
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