Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I scanned the stern faces of the people on the train. A busty Hispanic woman with a baby stroller, big hoop earrings and glittery letters across her chest. A business type, older, white, reading his meticulously folded Times. A family of sweating tourists, thin mom, fat dad; surly, Goth daughter in tow. A matronly black woman stood near me. When I met her wary eyes I saw in a flash that I was on the uptown 2, not the downtown. I got off at the next stop.

I didn't know where I was, but it didn't matter. All I had to do was either go under the tracks or over them to get to the train that went the other way. A splintery wall encroached into the middle of the platform, bearing obscure chalk symbols and warning signs, blocking the station name from view. I peered into a crack between the plywood sheets to find an arrangement of mysterious machinery – what looked like a motorized wheelbarrow, a box with tubes emerging from the top, a giant spool of cable – in the gray, dusty dark along the familiar wall.

I walked into the passageway that led to exits and connecting trains. A man played the didgeridoo at the near end while the dry rattle of a bucket drum echoed down the tile walls from farther down. Their accidental music, mournful and urgent, played to the involuntary audience in the middle.

I climbed some stairs. I descended some, too. I wanted to believe that if I melted into the stream of cheerless, purposeful travelers, then I, too, would have somewhere to go. We moved across mezzanines, down a ramp, through nondescript connecting chambers where Sheetrock and cinder blocks lay unattended in the shadows. The density of the crowd around me remained constant but the specific people seemed to evaporate at every turn, to be replaced by slightly different men and women wearing slightly different clothes.

I stopped at a candy stand and scrutinized it for a minute, reorienting myself in its happy, multicolored map. Blues and greens for mint and reds for cinnamon or berry; yellows, browns and oranges for chocolate. The Indian man behind the counter stared out impassively, resolutely still. I selected a metallic-blue pack of gum. Wintermint. On the front it said JUST BRUSHED CLEAN FEELING below the brand and MORE FABULOUS CLEAN FEELING! above it.

"Dollar twenty-five," said the man.

I only had a single dollar bill in my wallet and some change in my pocket. I managed to make the sum with a dime, a nickel and ten pennies.

"No penny, no penny!"

"It's all I have."

"No penny, no penny, no penny!" he insisted.

I defiantly placed my money on the change tray. He beheld it with disgust.

"Take, take!" he said, with a dismissive, backhanded wave. "Take penny!" He picked up a penny and replaced it on my side of the tray with an emphatic snap.

I swept the ten pennies into my palm under the candyman's sour gaze. And then I walked away, feeling the heat of his disapproval on my neck.

In a daze, I rejoined a stream of passengers heading down some stairs. Just then a train rumbled into the station and I was swept up by the sudden, frenzied rush. By the time I got down to the platform there were people jostling all around me, straining toward the open doors. The crowd parted grudgingly for the exiting passengers and then poured into the train.

Stand clear of the closing doors!

"Which way is this going?" I asked a woman whose shoulder was pressed into my chest.

"Uptown," she said.

I turned and elbowed my way out quickly, aggressively, muttering apologies all the way. Just as the doors were closing, I braced myself between them, holding them open for another fraction of a second with my forearms. I emerged onto the platform as they snapped shut behind me. As the train began to roll away, its squealing wheels played the first three notes of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story": There's a place.

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

I exited at the other end of the platform this time, determined to find another train or at the very least some turnstiles and a set of stairs into the light of day. But this path was more labyrinthine than the first. I kept moving forward, climbing all the stairs I saw and entering each passageway, hoping to stumble upon an unambiguous sign: Exit, Downtown, Transfer. But soon I felt I was going around in circles; everything looked the same: disarray, rubble, suspended repairs and reconstruction. An hour passed, maybe, or maybe two, or five – it was hard to tell in the cloistered unreality underground.

I came upon a fork. A safety orange arrow, painted on a plywood board, pointed to the right. I stood and contemplated it as shadowy figures passed on either side of me and turned unhesitatingly down the prescribed path.

"There are two ways you can go! Two!"

I looked around, petrified. A homeless woman sat by the wall to my left, her earthly belongings packed into garbage bags piled in a heap beside her.

"Uh, excuse me, which way should I go?"

"You wanna be a slave?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You wanna be free or you wanna be a slave?"

"Uh, I... I wanna be free."

"Look at the color of my skin," she said. "My people were slaves."

I nodded patiently. She pointed a curled, arthritic finger at me.

"But you is a slave to money."

"Yeah. I know. I'm sorry. But do you know how to get out of here?"

"'Sgonna be your downfall, yes it is," she continued obliviously, nodding to herself, her voice gaining a gospel lilt. "Praise Jesus, thass right. Thass the truth now, ain't it. Uh-huh."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just want to get out of here. Out of this station. Do you know which way to go?"

"Aw honey, you gots to decide fo' yaself now!" She erupted into a mad cackle that quickly deteriorated into an emphysemic cough. When it abated she spoke again, clapping to some unheard rhythm.

"Freedom or slave, baby, freedom or slave. Gots to make a choice now."

"I choose freedom," I said, hoping this would spur more concrete direction.

She stopped clapping and looked straight into my eyes. "Why then the only way out is in, honey. The only way up is down." She pointed to the floor.

"Thank you, ma'am," I said uncertainly.

I walked left, disobeying the sign, hoping this was the counterintuitive trick the woman was proposing, the one to solve the riddle. The narrow path, walled by gypsum and lit by construction lamps, meandered unpromisingly. But I was determined to see its end. At least this was different. This was something new.

I came upon an opening to a public space, people walking past in both directions. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe this is the way out. I came out to find the old homeless woman to my right this time. A jolt of dread shot through me. I'd emerged from where I'd entered.

The woman looked at me and smiled. "You didn't hear what I done told you, now," she admonished. "I ain't talkin' about no left or right! No right or wrong." Her eyes widened and she pursed her lips, watching me bear the impact of her words. "I'm talkin' about up or down. You wanna be free? You gots to go down, baby." Again, she pointed downward. "Way on down, now."


"Thass right. Get on down, now. Get."

I nodded solemnly and walked past her, retracing my original steps. My heart pounded and my head burned for what I was about to do. I descended some stairs, and then more stairs, and found myself back on the platform for the uptown 2. I walked to the front and crept gingerly along the edge. I examined the space between the rails, the bed of damp dirt and debris: cigarette butts and coffee cups, a plastic fork with missing tines. A double-A battery, a fragment of a pencil and a lollipop. A fat rat scurried under the third rail. A sign said: Do not enter or cross tracks. I peered into the tunnel. A red light burned bright in the blackness; farther in, there was a green one, too. Though I didn't want to enter, there was nowhere else to go.