a short story by Hannah Chen
I watch him, noticing his droopy eyelids and his white, frail beard dangling from his chin. Don’t look at him for so long, I scold myself. It’s rude. Still, as the New York City subway train screeches a mellow tune, I stare at him. He looks like a ghost, someone I’ve never really beheld before, a person who has nowhere to go but is still on a train going somewhere.
As the train travels through a maze of darkness, splashes of graffiti kiss the walls, with words of hate written on every inch of the space I can see. The man takes out a small plastic bag filled with white powder from inside his pocket. To many of the other passengers, he’s another stranger, someone who would normally be shunned and ignored, but now, we can't help but keep our attention on him.
With shrunken muscles and dark veins lying beneath paper-thin, ashen skin, he sits in the last subway car of the B Train, barely taking up a singular seat. An empty Coca Cola bottle has decided to sit next to the man, his only company. Everyone else has sat somewhere else. Far enough to keep distant, but close enough to watch.
The driver presses down on the breaks, causing a screech that stings our ears. Sneakers and boots and flats slam down onto the grey floor as people stumble upon the pulsing force of the train, composing a cascading rhythm. As a platform slides into view, a light enters through the shaky glass windows as the train reaches its stop. 7th Avenue.
People scurry in like hungry mice, searching for empty seats. Us strangers are scattered around the subway car, crafting a cluster of distinguishable people: a man with gelled back hair and a well ironed suit; a guitarist who desperately asks for money while everyone shyly says “no thank you”; a Latina woman with large headphones on, loud enough for me to listen to Dinah Washington across from her; and many others, of course, on their phones and sweating in the midst of the sticky, thick air.
The man shifts in his seat, his dark nylon jacket rubbing against his back with worn, ripped grey pants covering enough of his bony legs. Inside the clear plastic bag, white powder is filled almost to the brim, along with what looks like a red coffee straw. The man brings it up to his right nostril and sniffs. My eyebrows raise. Whoever is in the train sits in silence, listening to the man’s breathing while we hold our own breaths, our eyes holding him in our gazes, interested. I wonder if each of us, strangers, are feeling the same way: pitiful, curious, judgmental, fascinated.
The acknowledgment given to him is nothing but assessing glances. Let them stare, his actions say, continuing to inhale the drugs through the straw. Then he switches to the left nostril and repeats.
Inhale. Sniff. Breathe. Inhale. Sniff. Breathe. He wrinkles his nose as if it has tickled him.
His shoulders relax.
“This stop is 59th Street on Columbus Circle,” the MTA train operator mumbles into the microphone. People begin to leave their seats, and I remain watching the accumulation of blurry figures become people as the train slows, the number 59 engraved with tiles on square columns across the platform.
After the man finishes, he takes out a small orange prescription bottle and pops the cap open, with white powder in that plastic container, too. The man pours the remains from the bag into the bottle, spilling some out as he does so. It tumbles from the edge of the rim to his shirt and finally ends up littered on the floor. He sighs, wrinkles forming between his grey eyebrows as he wasted the amount for tonight.
The train’s jolting stop makes people falter in their step, forcing unwanted pushes into the hands of each other, creating small, undesired connections. Again, people rush off the platform, and I stand up to get ready to finally breathe a little bit of fresh air. I guess it’s time to part. The man stays seated and a couple of people glance his way, including me. But still, none of us venture any further. Only our eyes will act.
- Hannah Chen
Cover photo source: Benz Thanachart https://petapixel.com/2012/11/06/photographer-snaps-surprised-reactions-after-words-shouting-on-subway-trains/