22. Eyes Clear As Bells

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34 train lines serve 468 stations. On a weekday, well over 5,000,000 people ride the 842 miles of track. That adds up to over 1.64 billion rides a year. New York City’s subway system is one of the very largest on the planet Earth. And on one of those days, in one of those stations, you wait for one of those trains.

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It is sweltering and humid and the air is still and heavy. Your shirt clings to your back. At the end of the platform, a man is clearly suffering from severe alcohol poisoning, trying to puke but nothing’s coming out. On the bench next to you, a woman is teaching her daughter numbers up to five but the little girl keeps forgetting that 4 comes after 3. The platform is scattered, sometimes crammed, with people of various skin colors, wearing various sorts of clothing, and speaking a vast number of languages. To your right, an old man is playing an African instrument you’ve never seen before. His melodies are birds, chirping and flitting over the dark expanse of tracks in the hot stink of underground.

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Other things that belong underground: moles, roots, rats, wells, dead bodies, coal mines, lava, oil, the absence of light and labyrinthine catacombs.

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You feel the hot wind come up out of the tunnel, then you hear the squeal and thunder and then you see the headlights of the train. The doors whoosh open and a robot voice says, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please,” and, “Please Mind the Gap.” The gap is usually only an inch or two wide between the platform and the train but that’s right where your iPhone goes when you drop it.

Seriously! It goes straight through! It’s as if you threw a quarter from across the bar and it went cleanly into the jukebox slot. It’s like a horrible miracle! When the train passes, there’s your phone, down there in the grime of the track, still lit up…

You stand there, looking down at that beautiful, vital instrument of modern life, trying to figure out how long it would take to jump down on the track, grab the phone and hoist yourself back up. Keep in mind, 50 or more people get killed by the subway annually. So the question is this: Do you feel lucky?

Having a somewhat suburban heart, you do the safe thing and tell the station attendant. After 25 reluctant minutes, two subway workers show up and you point to your iPhone down in the abyss. One stands in the tunnel entrance, watching for trains, and the other uses a pair of long suction cup tongs to clamp onto your iPhone and hoist them back to the world of the living. Don’t admit that you were tempted to jump down or you’ll get THE lecture.

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“Bro. Bro. You see them red and white stripes on the other wall there? Them’s the blood and the bones. That’s what we call em. When you see them stripes it means the driver can’t stop the train even if he wants to. You’re fuckin’ dead bro. No joke. Aint that right Manny!? Yeah, that’s right. Your ass is just dead. And they don’t make no phone in the world worth that!”

You are shamed. He hands you your phone.

Not two minutes later, a Thai dude drops a half full plastic bottle of Vitamin Water on the tracks, nimbly leaps down, grabs it, and leaps back up like a gazelle. No problem.

Then the train comes. The doors open with a whoosh and the robot voice says, “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please.”

You are now riding with 5,000,000 other people. And it’s not like the freeway. You’re sitting next to EVERYONE. An incredibly well-dressed couple discusses ideas for the cover of Billboard Magazine. An insane homeless man lets chunks of feces fall freely from a pant leg. Kids break-dance for money in the car, doing full flips in the aisle. A mariachi band. A man shouts Bible verses. A cellist playing Bach. A Hassidic Jew leans over the Talmud. A baby is crying. An astonishingly beautiful person looks up at you. Your body is traveling under the East River.

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You cup your hands to your face and look out the window into the black depths between stations, those twisting, abandoned veins beneath the city of cities. Sometimes you see graffiti out there and wonder how a human got out into that nowhere to paint their symbols. You see what look like doors down there, archways, lost stations.  Each glimpse is a question.

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Somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan, you look out into that shadowy ether and see an enormous cavern. There is a long, candle lit table surrounded by people dressed in the fashions of a bygone age. They are raising a toast but to what, God only knows. As you pass in a sudden flash, you see, clear as a bell, one of this number turn in his seat to see you. You can still see his eyes, his eyes shining in the darkness!

About psychopompkaleidoscope

Is a mortal who will not live forever.
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