It was five stops from 59th to Queens.
The doors opened, and I stepped in, the air thick. An ochre hue settled on everything and everyone, carrying a stench that infiltrated our noses. This cart was crowded. The lucky ones had lunged towards a seat and avoided the eyes of those forced to cling to the pole. The doors shut, subduing everyone to a silence.
The old man in front of me had his eyes closed, his body gently swaying, the train rocking him back and forth. He was bent a little forward, as though something was pulling on his neck, dragging him towards his feet. It was pulling and pulling, wrapping around his head, gripping his collar tighter and tighter. He was fighting it with all that he had left. He wasn’t sleepy; he was tired. His face was etched with weariness - the eternal kind. The wrinkles on his face were like cuts, an elegant scraping knifed by his life, his job, his family, this city, and his pain. It was a record.
He succumbed, finally, and his head fell forward. Any further would have severed it. The shock of the snap jolted him awake. He frowned, embarrassed by his surrender to exhaustion. The train slowed to a stop and he got off. I watched him hurry away.
In his place was a lady and her little boy who had stepped in just as the doors closed. The boy ran to the very end of the cart and slapped his palms on the two seats left open, glaring at anyone who dared to come close. His mom followed, and the two sat together cheerfully, grateful for the rest. The boy leaned on his mother’s arms, and looked about him, his eyes settling on the strange woman before him.
Her head was shaved, every inch of her ears pierced, her nails a deep black. She didn't let the fragility of her body, however, reveal vulnerability. She was skinny – too skinny. Her cheekbones too sharp, her wrists too bony. Her wrists were also an elegant scraping. She knifed as well, an artist of her own kind.
The boy stared at her wrists and then stared at her. She stared back. The boy, too frightened to keep looking, looked at his mom instead. The girl raised her eyes to the mom. The mom smiled, and the artist, who was preparing for vehemence, was taken aback. She swallowed her surprise and let a small smile through.
As the stops went by, the quiet mutters of the passengers slowly went from English to Spanish. The accents grew heavier, the voices a bit stronger. We got off at 111th Street, and walked around a small neighborhood. We made it to the Queens Night Market, which radiated a liveliness that couldn’t be found in Manhattan. Vendors were sweating under the heat, which hung on everyone's shoulders. They were put to work. Long lines for food covered the entire area, and the nearby field was filled with people lying across picnic blankets.
People were smiling here, genuine smiles, and I realized that this market was more than just a place to eat; it was an escape from exhaustion, an opportunity for repose.
A youth group was setting up in the middle of the field. The lead girl, who looked about my age, began to sing. And when she sang she let go, her voice a person of its own. In her softness, we heard a scream. When she belted, we felt her bullets.
Everyone was silent. She had suffocated us with her voice. When she ended, the field erupted in applause, and she smiled sheepishly.
The night went on. Queens was alive; it had escaped the eternal exhaustion, at least for a few hours.
Editors: Nicole O., Nadine R., Marie H.
Image Source: Unsplash, Hanyang Zhang.