Subway Chronicles

by Matt Gallagher

F Train platform, early afternoon, Lower East Side, Manhattan

I see the train coming before I hear it, because light travels faster than sound.

Two suns fill up the black, light ricocheting off the tunnel walls faster than my eyes can move. I stare at the two suns as they approach the platform getting bigger and bigger until I see nothing else and think of nothing else. Then I hear something like distant thunder, but instead of crackling off, it keeps getting louder and closer and shakes the tracks underneath the platform. And then the train whooshes by me car after car after car, and the two suns are gone, and I close my eyes and tense up and hold my fists tight, because I think the wind will make me fly away. I don’t open my eyes until the brakes of the train hurt my ears, because then I know I haven’t flown away.

This part is even worse than the wind. The doors of the subway car go DING! and then people are everywhere, going this way and that way and then this way again, pushing me and pushing each other and no one says “excuse me” like Mom tells me polite people do in crowds. Some people say bad words, and they are the people who do the most bumping. I hate being touched by other people, especially strangers, so I tense up again and clench my fists again and dig my fingernails into my palms. My teacher at school, Amy, says it’s okay for people to touch like with hugs, because that’s how people say that they love each other or that they will miss each other, but these people aren’t trying to hug me and I don’t love them and I don’t think I’ll ever miss them.

I run really quick into the train and sit down next to an old lady. My heart is beating really fast and I’m breathing really slowly and loudly to calm down like Dad taught me to do when I get excited. The old lady smiles, which makes me smile, but she keeps trying to look at my eyes, which I don’t like, so I just stare at the ground in front of me.

“Are you okay?” she asks me.

I nod and keep staring at the ground in front of me.

“Are you sure?” she asks me.

I nod and keep staring at the ground in front of me.

“Who are you with?” she asks me.

“Stop asking me questions!” I shout. I didn’t mean to shout, but it came out that way, because the old lady wouldn’t leave me alone. She stops asking me questions and stops staring at me.

I start looking at the subway map across from me and remember I am downtown. I know where uptown is and where downtown is because I like to study the subway map because it is well-organized with all kinds of different colors and I am very good at memorizing maps of all kinds. My heart starts to slow down and I wipe sweat off of my face.

Two stops later, most of the people in this car get off, including the old lady. I swing my legs in front of me and hold my backpack in between them. My backpack is black and red and has a picture of Harry Potter on it. In my backpack is my iPod that ran out of batteries yesterday because I forgot to recharge it, my social studies and math books from school, and three X-Men comic books my brother Tommy let me borrow before he left, and I have read them, each one of them exactly seven times.

The train begins to shake and screech and bright lights flash in the window as we zoom through the black. Then the black is gone, and I see another train moving beside us for a few seconds and I try to see if I know anyone on that train, but I can’t see if I do because all of a sudden, that train snaps up like a mountain peak while we keep going straight through the tunnel valley. We’re alone in the dark again.
I pretend that Tommy was on that train, even though I know he’s away at college right now.

The only people left in this subway car now are me and a fat bald man on the other side. He’s probably the roundest person I’ve ever seen in my whole life, and he has the dirt-hair on his face, like Dad does when we go on summer vacation and he doesn’t have to go to work for two weeks. I don’t like the dirt-hair, because it feels like sandpaper. The fat bald man wears a big brown robe and white tennis shoes and a Burger King paper crown on top of his head, which I find interesting, because those are toys and only for kids to wear, not grown-ups. But this man is a grown-up.

“Hungry?” he asks me.

I nod my head because I am. He waves me over, asking me to sit next to him, which I do. Then he reaches into a big garbage bag that lies at his feet and hands me a Baby Ruth bar from it. I rip off the wrapper and start chewing on the whole candy bar, even though I don’t like nuts. I’m so hungry though, I don’t care about the nuts.

“My name is The Magi,” he says. “What’s yours?”

“I’m not supposed to tell my name to strangers,” I tell him, still chewing on the Baby Ruth. I can feel warmth coming off of the fat bald man’s body, and I like his smile, even though his teeth are ugly and yellow, because it is a big smile. His eyes, brown like the chocolate bar he gave me, keep moving and darting around all the time, but his face doesn’t move at all.

“We’re not strangers,” he tells me. “You know my name. We’re friends. We can be friends, right?”

I think about this for a minute and decide he’s right. “My name is Trevor,” I say. “And yes, we can be friends.” I watch the fat bald man’s eyes and wonder if maybe his crown isn’t a toy after all, because he looks at the rest of the subway car like he rules it. “Do you know where my brother Tommy is?” I ask him.

The fat bald man nods his head real fast, which causes the flabby skin under his throat to jiggle, reminding me of a turkey. “Sure do,” he tells me. “I know everyone down here. Even Tommy.”
“Can you take me to him?”

“Sure.” The big smile gets bigger. “But first you’re going have to help me with something.”

***

D Train, early morning, Coney Island, Brooklyn


I work for The Magi now. My job is to follow him and hold out a pillowcase for people to put money into while The Magi tells them about the Sun God, who is going to come back to our planet and kill all the bad people who don’t believe in him in a big fireball that shoots from his hands. It reminds me of some of the X-Men comic books I’ve read, but Fernando says it’s not like a comic book at all, because the Sun God is real, and I better believe in him, otherwise I’ll melt and die in the big fireball.

Fernando is the other boy who works for The Magi. He is two years and four months and two days older than me. He says he lived in Staten Island before he ran away to work for The Magi, four months before I got there. He is tall and skinny and wears a puffy blue jacket and has brown skin like the people that live nine houses down the street and he wants to be a basketball player when he grows up. He doesn’t talk very much and gives dirty looks a lot of times to people but he is nice to me and he likes me because he told me I am his friend.

I ask Fernando why he ran away from home. He tells me because his stepdad hit him in the face. Then he asks me why I ran away.

“Because I miss my brother since he went away to college because he would always protect me and he never got mad at me and he went away in the subway when he left so I came here to find him and go live with him and I went by myself to show Mom and Dad that I can do things by myself even though they think I can’t.”

Fernando thinks this is a stupid reason to run away, especially since I had a warm bedroom with covers and blankets. He asks me where my family lives and I tell him on Maple Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn but then we stop talking about it, because The Magi needs our help.

“Stop fucking around and get to work,” The Magi says. If we do good work and get a lot of money in the pillowcase The Magi gives me five dollars at the end of the day and Fernando seven dollars at the end of the day because Fernando is better at getting money than I am. This money is important for me because I need it to buy food and water because food and water is what makes people keep living. I have worked for The Magi for two days and have earned ten dollars and have only spent six dollars and seventy-four cents of it so far. Then after we eat we sleep on the train until we wake up and start all over.

This is The Magi’s favorite train and favorite time to work, because he says people in the morning going to work give more money than people in the evening leaving work, because they aren’t thinking clearly yet, and just want quiet. He tells me to be more like Fernando, who makes his eyes real big when he asks for money, so I try to do that to a man in a suit who has too much perfume on and smells like a girl.

“Get out of here, retard,” he tells me. “I won’t fall for that puppy dog shit.”

“I’m not a puppy dog,” I tell him. “I’m a boy and give us money or the Sun God will come back and kill you with a big fireball. And I’m not retarded. I have a very special syndrome.”

The man in a suit starts laughing at me and keeps laughing at me and then Fernando nudges at me and tells me to move on to the next person.

The rest of the day goes okay. An old man pats me on my head and says he’ll give me five dollars if The Magi stops talking. I nod and tell The Magi this. The Magi nods, stops talking, and then the old man gives me five dollars like he said. I fall and trip three times, one time into the train door, but The Magi and Fernando don’t yell at me for falling anymore, because now they know that I am clumsy and will always be clumsy and it’s just who I am. Mom used to tell me to laugh when I fall, because then other people will laugh with me and everything will be okay, but that has never worked, so I just tell people I fall a lot and nothing can change that.

At the end of the day I walk up to an older girl with pasty skin and spiky black hair in tight jeans holding hands with an even older boy with even pastier skin and even spikier black hair and even tighter jeans while The Magi speaks from the center of the car. I ask them, “Excuse me, I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but if you could spare a donation, your souls will be saved,” just as Fernando taught me to. The even older boy laughs at me, but the older girl stares at me, which I don’t like, so I stare at the ground in front of me.

“Doesn’t he look like that kid on that poster?” she whispers to the even older boy.

“Huh?” The even older boy asks. I look up and he’s touching his even spikier hair. The older girl looks at me again, so I look back at the ground again.

“The poster,” she says. “The one you laughed at back at the bodega, before we got on the subway.”

I look up again and the even older boy’s eyes look blank, like Tommy’s used to when he’d find me playing in his bedroom without asking him first, and then I feel The Magi’s hand on my shoulder, which I don’t like, because I don’t like being touched. I tense up and bite my lip, and then he stops touching my shoulder.

“Time to go to the next car,” he tells me.

“But these people haven’t given money to save themselves from the fireball yet,” I explain.

“Go. Now.” The Magi growls, like an animals growls. I walk toward the next subway car with my pillowcase of money and my backpack on my back, following Fernando. I turn around briefly and see the older girl with pasty skin and spiky black hair in tight jeans staring at me. I wish I had asked her if she knew where Tommy is or where the college is, because I don’t think The Magi cares about finding Tommy the same way that I do.

***

B Train, midnight, Harlem, Manhattan

“You can love New York City, oh yeah you can love her real nice, but she ain’t gonna love you back. No sir, she ain’t gonna love you back even when she gives it up to ya. She has seen and done too much with all them other Iceberg Slims to think you’re the one for her. New York City, she too fast for romance. Too cool to be sad. She’s a hard, hard pretty. You ain’t gonna do or say anything she ain’t seen before, from better, smoother cats than you, that’s for damn sure. That’s for damn sure. You want love son, better move someplace where the sun ain’t no stranger. You wanna good fuck? Oh yes, New York City can do that for you, over and over again, till you don’t remember how to get fucked any other way … “

The man with the chocolate skin and snow beard stops yelling and cackles and cackles and cackles. I can’t tell if he is talking to me because he’s looking at something on the wall and not at any of the other five people in this car, including The Magi and Fernando, who are asleep. I look at where he’s looking, but all I see is dull yellow panels. Then I wonder if he’s looking at the advertisement above the panels, which asks “GOT HEMORRHOIDS?” I don’t, but I do have a syndrome Mom says is very special, so maybe it’s the same thing, I don’t know.

I yawn, because I am very tired, because it is past my bedtime. Two-and-a-half hours past my bedtime actually, which is 150 minutes which is 9,000 seconds. I think about my bedroom and how warm I am there in my bed under my covers, and then feel a bad pain on the inside. Mom tells me this is the emotion SADNESS when I feel this bad pain, but it’s different than the pain that happens when I fall and get a bruise or bleed. I don’t like SADNESS because I don’t understand it. Amy tells me I’m good at understanding math problems but need to improve at understanding people. I think that’s why I don’t like SADNESS, because it’s a people problem, not a math problem.

My tummy feels weird, because all I had to eat today was a turkey sandwich and a bag of potato chips and three Cokes and one water. I bought this stuff at the big station underneath Times Square, which is now my favorite place to go for food, because I like the way the pickles on their sandwiches taste. Mom always says that if I drink more soda than water I won’t feel well, but I never believed her, but now I do.

If my iPod worked, I’d pull it out and put on my headphones and connect my headphones to my iPod and listen to the Mozart music. That’s what I do when I’m at home in my warm bedroom and it’s past my bedtime and I know I need to go to sleep. But I can’t do that, because my iPod doesn’t work and I’m not at home.

I wonder why The Magi hasn’t helped me find Tommy yet. Every time I ask him about it he tells me we’ll look tomorrow. Fernando says that tomorrow is The Magi’s favorite word. I think about leaving The Magi and Fernando and looking for Tommy by myself again but this makes me scared, which Amy taught me about because it is what happens when my skin is cold and prickly and I don’t know what to do.

The man with the chocolate skin and snow beard starts yelling again and humming and singing but I get so tired I fall asleep anyways, holding my backpack to my head like it’s a pillow.

***

6 Train platform, mid afternoon, Castle Hill, The Bronx

“Jesus,” Fernando says. “Not these guys. The Magi is going to freak out.”

Fernando and I stand on a platform waiting for the next train while The Magi goes to the bathroom in the station. We wait with a young mom and dad and baby girl who all have brown skin like Fernando’s, but when I asked him if that is his family, he tells me to shut up. That is why I haven’t talked for a few minutes when four men – they are brown too, but I don’t tell Fernando this, because I don’t want him to tell me to shut up again – join us on the platform to wait for the train. One of them has a violin, one of them has a guitar, and one of them has a trumpet, and all of them wear ponchos like rainbows and black sombreros. They are a mariachi band. I know all of this because three months and two weeks ago, Amy taught us about cultures of the world at school and one of them was the Mexican culture.

Fernando says he hopes the train comes before The Magi returns from the bathroom, but when he says that, I see The Magi walking over to us in his big brown robe, with his Burger King crown cocked back on his head. He waddles like a duck, if a duck wore white tennis shoes, and his face looks red and his eyebrows are twisted and he looks only at the mariachi band and nothing else.

“Oh no!” The Magi yells. The four men in ponchos like rainbows and black sombreros smile at one another, and the one with the trumpet turns and faces The Magi. “Not today! This is my train, you dirty wetbacks!”

“Be careful with your language, Senor Crazy,” the man with the trumpet responds. “Or do you not remember what happened last time?”

The Magi and the man with the trumpet continue yelling at one another. The other three men surround The Magi in a half-moon. The one with the guitar glares at The Magi, the one with the violin looks bored, and the one without any instrument keeps laughing and laughing really loudly. The family that may or may not be Fernando’s shuffles away from all of us, walking to the other side of the platform.

“What’s going on?” I ask Fernando.

“Stand here and be quiet,” he whispers back to me. “This is their territory, and The Magi knows it. Last time, they locked him in a storage closet and chased me for three blocks. It took me two hours to find my way back to the station and get him out of the closet.”

Two suns fill up the black tunnel. The Magi keeps yelling at the man with the trumpet and then pushes at him and slaps him in the face. The mariachi band, all four of them, drop their instruments and start hitting on The Magi. Fernando runs over and I follow him, because he knows what to do. Fernando grabs the man who used to have the guitar who is hitting The Magi with his fist and scratches his arm. The man who used to have the guitar groans and reaches for Fernando’s neck. I kick the man who used to have the guitar in the shin to help Fernando. The man who used to have the violin grabs my shoulder with one hand and grabs at my backpack with the other hand. I hear the distant thunder that doesn’t crackle off but keeps getting louder and closer and shakes the tracks underneath the platform. I narrow my eyes and bring my fingers to my palms into balls and start shaking and the man who used to have the violin is still grabbing my shoulder and backpack so my mind goes red and I punch him in the nose.

I am clumsy and I fall a lot, but I can punch really hard, one time I accidentally punched Dad during a game and he got a bloody nose. So when I punch the man who used to have the violin he steps backwards holding his eye, because that’s where I hit him.

The train whooshes by me car after car after car, and the two suns are gone, and I close my eyes and tense up and hold my fists tight, because I think the wind will make me fly away. I don’t open my eyes until the brakes of the train hurt my ears, because then I know I haven’t flown away.

“Run, Trevor!” Fernando screams at me. “Run!”

I see Fernando running down the platform, so I follow him, because he tells me to. I hear The Magi yelling “fucking spic bastards!” behind me, but when I glance behind me to look, I see the man who used to have the trumpet and the man who used to have the violin chasing after me and Fernando. The man who used to have the violin isn’t holding his eye – which is puffy now – but he looks really angry and he is looking straight at me.

The doors of the subway car go DING!

A pair of arms grab me from behind and hold down my shoulders and arms.

I yell and scream and yell as loud as I can.

Fernando turns around, runs towards me, and bites one of the arms holding me. The arms let go, and I fall to the ground. I see Fernando kick the man who used to have the violin in the privates. Then Fernando grabs me under the armpits, lifts me up, and pushes me into the subway car.

The doors of the subway car go DING!

I fall into the subway car and land on my knees. Then I stand up and look out of the window. The last thing I see before everything gets blurry because the train is going so fast is Fernando running away from the mariachi band, getting away, and it looks like he’s smiling, which is strange, because I’ve never seen him smile before.

When I can’t see anything out of the window anymore I sit down and stare at the ground, avoiding the stares of the other people in this subway car. My heart is beating really fast and I’m breathing really slowly and loudly to calm down like Dad taught me to do when I get excited.

I am alone again.

***

N Train, mid morning, Astoria, Queens

My black wristwatch tells me it is exactly 10:39 and seven seconds in the morning and everyone on this train has bags and suitcases and looks angry and no one smiles. I even leave my car and walk into the next one, which people aren’t supposed to do but they do it all the time, to try to find different people.

It’s all the same in here, too.

I sit down in a corner seat by myself because there’s a man on the far side of the car that doesn’t wear shoes or socks and has really long, sharp toenails that remind me of the knives in our kitchen I’m not allowed to touch.

The train rattles again and brakes sharply, coming to a complete stop. A lady with shopping bags holding the silver pole in the middle of the car almost falls over so she says a bad word. A voice from the intercom tells us that traffic in front of us made us stop, and apologizes for the short delay. The man at the other end of the car without shoes screams suddenly, and I think he sounds like a fire truck, so I laugh. Everyone else ignores him, and keeps reading their books or listening to their music or staring at the ground in front of them, so then I do that, too.

I know now that I’m never going to be able to find Tommy and live with him or even find my way back home to live with Mom and Dad again because I never can do anything by myself, even when I try my hardest.

***

4 Train platform, late afternoon, Grand Central Station, Manhattan

I get out of the subway car with my backpack and walk from the platform into the station staring at the ground. People bump into me and around me and then into each other. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere except for me, because I don’t have anyplace to go.

This station smells bad. Like hot garbage. I walk by a Japanese lady playing music on a keyboard asking for money. I don’t give her any because I don’t have any money left to give her.

I walk by a lady yelling at a man. She says he owes her three child support payments and that she hates him and that he’s a deadbeat and the worst father ever. Then she starts crying and hitting him in the chest. He grabs her shoulders and shakes her and slaps her and tells her to shut up. Her crying gets louder.

I keep walking by them and so does everyone else in the station.

I stop in a corner because it is warm because it is next to a grate that blows hot air out of it. A dirty man wearing rags sleeps face-first on the grate. I don’t think he has any teeth and drool covers his chin. I stand over the grate and next to the dirty man and he doesn’t move and I feel the chill in my bones go away and I feel better because it is better to be warm than to be cold.

“Trevor?”

I turn and look at the lady who said my name. She wears a dark blue sweater vest and dark blue trousers and a cap with the letters MTA on it. MTA stands for Metropolitan Transportation Authority. I know this because last year, at school, we had career day, which means some of the parents come in and talk to us about their jobs, and Brittany P’s dad works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority as an engineer, and he called it the MTA.

“Your name is Trevor, right?” the lady who works for the MTA asks me.

I nod my head. Then I notice a piece of paper she’s holding that has my photograph on it. I point at it. “That’s me,” I say. “That paper has a photograph of me on it.”

She pats me on the shoulder. I tense up and she quickly lets go. “It is,” she says. “It is you. Your parents are looking for you and miss you very much.”

“Oh,” I say. I wonder if my bedroom still looks the same. “Is my brother looking for me? Does he miss me very much, too?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Oh.”

“Let’s go find them,” the lady who works for the MTA says. She grabs my hand, but holds it softly, so I don’t mind.

“Okay,” I tell her. I’m glad on the inside because she said “them” which means Mom and Dad and Tommy, which means I found him, after all. And I did it by myself.

We walk away from the grate and the hot air and the dirty man wearing rags. I turn around and look at him one last time. He’s still asleep with drool covering his chin.

~~~~~~

Author Bio
Matt Gallagher joined the U.S. Army in 2005 and received a commission in the armored cavalry… More >

Comments

  1. Excellent.

  2. Great story! Rife with all the sights and smells and sounds of the Big Apple subway.Z( I imagine it’s akin to Boston’s in that repsect) And emotion. Like a modern day Oliver Twist. Liked that chapters/segments were named for train stations & times. Loved it!

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