The Subway Station
by Chananya Weissman
There used to be a subway station at 91st Street
on the Upper West Side. A few years ago it was abandoned, left dark, desolate,
and unused. The station is still there, though, and if you look closely
while taking the subway you can just glimpse it as it flashes by.
Granted, it's not exactly a tourist attraction, but those who used it and
still remember it watch it go by with a touch of sentimental affection.
I know I do. I used to live there.
Not when the station was in use, mind you.
Back then I resided in Times Square, made my summer home in Central Park,
and occasionally stayed at a Best Western Street Corner. When I heard
about the retirement of the 91st Street station, though, I made the big
decision and chose to move. I won't tell you how I managed to get
into and out of my new home. Suffice it to say that we bums are not
without our talents.
(Allow me to interject at this point with
a personal aside. I surely appear to you more literate and mentally
sound than the average street-rug. That's because I'm smarter than
the average street-rug, and never should have become one myself.
But the circumstances that led to my downfall are of no relevance to this
story and none of your business, so don't ask.)
Anyhow, my new home did have its shortcomings.
First, there was the matter of loud trains pounding their way through the
place every few minutes, twenty-four hours a day, making the old station
anything but prime real estate. The presence of graffiti on almost
every square inch of wall kind of tarnished the aesthetic appeal.
And the smell. Whoa. Garbage dump plus dead body, with a hint of
But beggars can't be choosers, as they say,
and beggar I certainly was. I enjoyed the solitude, being able to
call someplace home, my home, and knowing that I wasn't sharing it with
anyone else. Oh yes, occasionally someone else would wander there,
but no one ever had the fortitude to stay there long enough to become acclimated
to the darkness, the stench, and all the other amenities of my abandoned
There were plenty of rats, too. Rats
and . . . other living things that scurried around. So I purchased
a cheap lamp and some discount batteries. That pretty much kept the
rats away from me. Sometimes they stayed right at the fringes of
the illumination, where light and dark seemed to have a thin boundary,
and just stared at me. And some of those rats were big as
cantaloupes, I swear. I don't know what they found in the city subway
that was so nutritious, but I don't like to think about it.
Believe it or not, I actually settled in.
There were no cops around, flexing their nightsticks like some superior
form of life. No other street-rugs, who posed more of a threat to
me, their peer and competitor, than to the general public. No disgusted
pedestrians who would step around me like something a dog left behind.
I was alone in my subway station, I was safe. I don't know
exactly how long I lived there, but the 91st Street station was truly
the best kept secret in New York.
Well, one night (or day; one never could tell)
I was stretched out, reading a back issue of some pulp, when I heard yet
another train in the distance. Or at least I thought I did, since
the approaching sound was very faint. A few seconds later the sound
was still wispy, but definitely closer. I looked up expecting to
see a train shoot by, but there was nothing. The sound receded, and
soon vanished entirely.
Then I noticed the rats. Or lack of them.
A moment ago there had been a horde of the rodents, all over the place,
but now they were gone. I put down the old magazine and turned the lamp
this way and that. But there was not a rat to be seen, anywhere,
in the whole station! You'd think I'd be pleased, but it was very
disquieting. Rats, especially the New York City variety, are not
known for their timidity. And the entire station had cleared out,
like those Westerns when the outlaw enters the bar. The piano stops
playing, the poker game is terminated, and the bartender finds some glasses
to wipe under the counter. Everyone knows something is going to happen,
and they don't want to be a part of it when it does. That was the
feeling I got with the rats packing out.
But then a hideous rodent stuck its head out from
the darkness, and all was well. A moment later I heard a train approaching,
and crawled out onto the platform to verify. This time a train did
rush by, shaking the ground just slightly and circulating the stagnant
air of the stark underground.
Perhaps the worst thing about being a bum was losing
my dignity. Every man, I think, has a special piece of pride within
him, that no matter what happens, he can still feel good about himself.
Well I lost that pride, many years ago, when I finally realized that my
residing on a park bench was not a temporary setback. That day I
was forced to admit to myself that I was no longer a man, but a stinking
piece of filth that littered the street. That I could not sit next
to someone in a park and have a pleasant conversation with them.
I lost all self-respect that day, all shame, and gave up any hope of things
ever changing. There was no fight left within me; I wanted my situation
to change, but lacked the energy to make it happen.
After living in the 91st Street station a
few weeks, I completely gave up hope. For the first time, I was actually
comfortable. I was a homeless man with a home, and the inward distaste
that first came with being homeless was gone. Looking back, I think
that that was the utter lowest a person can reach - when it just doesn't
bother you anymore.
I don't know how long I lived there.
It could have been anywhere from a few months to a couple of years.
But I do know that strange things started to happen. Every so often
I would I hear a train approaching, or think I did, but none would pass.
At first I rationalized, saying that the sound must be coming from a nearby
track. But sometimes the ground would shake slightly, as though a
train were indeed passing, yet nothing was there. I was forced
to question my hearing, not to mention my very sanity, but was convinced
that these episodes were not burps of imagination.
I let it be. So what if I couldn't place
the source of a sound from time to time? So what if rats were scared
off by this mysterious anomaly? Was I to complain? This was no cause
for alarm, and certainly no basis for me to flee my secure dwelling like
some frightened rodent.
I began to sleep more hours every day, or so it
felt, and ventured to the surface only to get food. That seemed like
the only thing that still mattered to me - doing the bare minimum to stay
alive. I have few memories of my stay in the 91st Street station
that aren't of eating, sleeping, or watching trains go by. I even
gave up the homeless man's trademark income, collecting discarded soda
cans for their deposit. My lamp stopped working, and I never got
around to seeing what the problem was. My last line of defense against
the rats was gone, but I didn't even care. They crawled on me while
I slept, and sometimes even when not, but I only made feeble motions to
scare them off. And the darkness was an impenetrable creature that
occupied the whole world around me. For all I knew, I could have
been turning into a rat myself. For all the rats knew, I could have
My tale of hope and inspiration gets better,
ladies and gentlemen. I was lying on the platform one night (it was
always night), playing Freeze Tag with the rats, portrait of a breathing
corpse. My stomach growled weakly, but my hearty half-course meal
had been finished long ago. A rat slithered its way across my chest,
apparently mistaking me for a sofa (it was an honest mistake). With
reflexes I didn't know I still possessed, I grabbed the thing by the tail
and hauled it toward the tracks. I listened attentively for a snap,
crackle, and pop, but was left hanging. What I did hear, however,
was a train in the distance. Coming closer.
Well, little buddy, I mused, one way or
another you're getting a squishing. Lately, ever since my lamp
stopped functioning, I'd taken to watching the trains go by. It prevented
my eyes from decaying, or atrophying, or whatever happens when they constantly
endure long periods of total disuse. The approaching sound reached
the intensity that has interrupted countless conversations, and I scrambled
to get a good look. But there was no train, either in front of me or in
Half irritated and half scared, I stood up
and walked closer to the edge of the platform, hoping my judgment of its
distance from me was accurate. I still saw nothing but pure blackness.
Just as I was turning around, an unexpected wind from a passing train knocked
me off my feet. I felt the locomotive whiz by inches from me, and
turned quickly to catch a look. I still saw nothing. But I
knew I hadn't imagined the pounding roar of the train, and the force of
its passing was definitely real.
Just as the sound was receding, I glimpsed
a flashing light and the tail end of the last car. Then it disappeared
from view, and the subway was silent once again.
Now, I don't know about you, but I normally
see trains well into the distance, coming and going. And this time
I had definite physical proof that a train had passed: the powerful rush
of air as it went by. Though I didn't actually see the train until
the end, there was little doubt in my mind that it had been there.
I considered abandoning the 91st Street station
and seeing if my park bench was still vacant. Not only was my peace
of mind at stake, but perhaps even my safety. (When you look at the
world through a beaten man's eyes, anything can be frightening. The
unexplained is downright terrifying.) It would have been very easy
for me to leave; it's not as if I needed a U-Haul. But I chose to
stay, and the reason was shocking when I could finally admit it to myself.
Though every nerve in my body itched to desert the station, as the rest
of the world had done long ago, I simply lacked the willpower to do it.
The very act of searching for food had become an almost intolerable chore.
Playing Musical Park Benches in favor of a permanent dwelling required
more energy than I still possessed. Even when the permanent dwelling scared
For a few days everything was fine.
There were no more "phantom" trains, and I began to breathe a little easier.
Even the rats seemed to relax, scampering around with freshness and vigor.
The city subways came and went, and I watched them with satisfaction.
Any thought of abandoning the station was banished.
I lay on the platform one night, humming some
old tune to myself, when an impossible thing happened. The lights
in the 91st Street station suddenly powered on, all at once.
The rats went reeling, and so did I, covering my eyes against the blinding
brightness. I finally recovered enough to squint, and I anxiously
turned this way and that, searching for an explanation. The rats
had scattered, but I was frozen by this phenomenon. Never before
had I gotten such a clear view of the deserted station, and I took a moment
to study my surroundings. It suddenly seemed to get very cold, even
though the place had been stifling a minute ago. I pulled my rags
tightly around me and huddled myself against the ground.
Then I heard the train. The familiar rumble
came from far off, but was getting closer. It was slowing down, too,
presumably for the stop on 96th Street. But when the train
finally came into view, it was clear from the rate of deceleration that
it wasn't stopping at 96th Street. It was stopping here.
I might have moaned, or even screamed.
All I remember was staring hypnotically at the slowing train, wishing the
smack of a nightstick would wake me from my dream. But nothing of
the sort happened, and I remained on the well-lit platform of 91st Street,
watching a train come in. A moment later it stopped dead, and we
seemed to stare at each other, waiting for someone to make the next move.
Then the doors opened, and I heard a voice
over the speaker. "91st Street, 91st Street," it announced.
I peered into the train from my spot on the platform, and saw a few empty
seats, and someone with a large newspaper in front of his face.
"91st Street," the voice said again, and someone
stepped off the train. He began walking toward me, and I instinctively
got up and stepped back. He was dressed in a standard uniform, but
I couldn't seem to focus on his face. It was like staring at the
sun. I narrowed my eyes, and saw black lips begin speaking to me.
"William Amos Morris," it declared, and I
jumped. It had been a long time since someone called me by
my real name. "Your train is here. Please step aboard."
My knees were shaking. "I . . . I don't
have a ticket," I blurted. It was perhaps the stupidest thing I could have
said under the circumstances.
The man with the black lips seemed mildly
irritated. He reached out and handed me a yellow train ticket.
Never mind that the subway used tokens. "Now come aboard."
I finally managed to round up my wits.
"This can't be happening. The 91st Street station doesn't exist anymore.
This train doesn't exist. I must be dreaming, or crazy, or--"
"William Amos Morris! You test
my patience. All things in this world serve a purpose. They
have a function, a reason for being here. Some justification for occupying
the place in the world that they do. But when that purpose no longer
exists, they are replaced by something else. Or they simply cease to function,
one of the two. They still exist, but as a shell of their former
self. When a person dies his body does not disappear. When
a house burns down the ashes remain. All matter eventually becomes
something else when its time has come.
"This train station is in a state of disuse,
a remnant of what it once was and could have been. And so are you.
It's time for you to board the train. Follow me."
I wanted to run, but my legs were not under
my control. I was rapidly nearing the train, and I was powerless
to change course. The open doors were looming a few feet away, and
I knew that wherever this train was headed, it was a one-way ride.
There were others on the train, but I couldn't get a clear look at them.
Then the person by the door put down his paper, and I was suddenly staring
into the face of a corpse. It had no eyes, but dark, endless holes.
Its lips pulled back into a grin, exposing midnight-black teeth, and an
I screamed then, like no child of this earth has
This isn't what I am, cried my mind. I'm
not like this. I don't deserve to ride this train with these passengers.
And suddenly I felt life in my legs.
I didn't wait to verify, but turned and fled, expecting the train to leap
off the tracks and chase me. I didn't stop running until the toxic air
of New York City filled my lungs, and I nearly crashed into a pedestrian,
who hurried away with a pained expression.
My bags and rags were left behind. But
I wasn't going back for them.
Today I have a job in a burger joint. Nothing
glamorous, but it pays the rent. That's right, I said rent.
I've begun the agonizing and frustrating process of starting life over.
The money (or lack thereof) doesn't matter so much; it's getting myself
straightened out as a human being. I'm not an old man, and there
still may be hope for me.
I still have the yellow train ticket.
It's a strong reminder of what almost befell me, of how low I'd really
sunk. It also provides extra motivation when I really need it.
Maybe it's wishful thinking, but sometimes the black letters seem to fade
just a bit. On other days, the words seem to jump off the paper.
Sometimes my job, not to mention my life,
gets to me. My legs hurt from standing all day, or the boss goes
out of his way to remind me how worthless he thinks I am. I throw
my hat down in frustration and prepare to do something rash. But
whenever my resolve takes a blow, and I lose the desire to struggle, I
place the train ticket in my palm and read its simple words.
"One fare. Good any time."