Their First Ride
I taught them to put coins into the violinist’s case open on the tunnel floor. I taught them to put coins into the drummer’s empty mayonnaise bucket – into the flautist’s black sack. The violinist played facing the wall, a New York mystery. Maybe he was just tuning up. Maybe it was something worse, tragic, or even worse. He heard the clink of dimes and nodded a thank you over his shoulder. But the little blonde girl did not see him nod. She was already walking away, shoulders hunched. She is my niece, just off the plane from Arizona.
On the A train from JFK, I had told my older sister, “We’re in Brooklyn now.” The girl’s face lit up. Her name is Brooklyn. I said to her, “You can get whatever you want here for free,” and she grinned and hunched up her shoulders, shy.
I had taken them up to the front car to show them the innards of the city: three blond kids, one at a time. It was their first time on the subway, and they took to it right away. At first they sat, eating pretzels and cheez’n crackers with me. I had been famished, with no more than a buck something in quarters and dimes by the time I met them at the airport. They called me “uncle” so easily I was not shy asking them for some of their food. They were not at all surprised that a grown man would want to share their snacks. After a bit they were swinging on the poles the way a half-empty car makes one want to do.
“I’m Tarzan,” said Kellen, the oldest. I asked him if he would really want to wear fur undies on the subway.
I took them up one by one to the front, six trips past the same riders. Even I was excited to pull open the heavy doors and step across the gap, rails screeching below. When the door opened, in rushed stale air, the breath of hell. Maddie, the littlest, wanted me to lift her across. But the other two were game, and jumped. They even tried pushing open the next door themselves, letting go my hand and straining, rails screaming tortured below. At the very front I put their noses to the window.
“See that yellow light? See it turn green? That’s a signal,” I said. I pointed out the graffiti on the walls. They saw lighted platforms come up out of medieval dimness. “Its fun, huh?”
“Uh-huh,” each one agreed. I told Kellen how workers and commuters were killed on the tracks. I told them when we were under the East River. I wanted fear to touch them, a little: isn’t this how they will remember? When Kellen and I crossed the gap the screaming was all around. We were slowing down near a station. Even I was shaken. The two cars we straddled bucked hard. He’ll remember.
While waiting at Howard’s Beach I had told them about the big rats and Maddie, nose to the glass in front, asked me again: “Where’s the rats?” I told her they were scared of the train. They were hiding. I had to hold her up to see out. A young guy already there moved aside for us. He smiled at her. She is a cartoon character, a doll with eyes that look up, somehow proportioned to tug people’s face into a smile. What it is about her face I cannot put a finger on.
The kids wanted to see a rat. I sure wanted to show them one. It was 10:45 on the Time’s Square 2/3 platform. The 15 minutes there waiting we didn’t spy a one. The tracks were too clean. But they were ready for anything, spring-set for anything. They bounded up the steps next to me to see two men pounding deafeningly on plastic buckets. Going back to the platform they veered confidently off the wrong way. They grabbed up dead Metro cards, and told each other how many they had. They thought nothing of contamination. They were infectious.
For the last time their mom and I stirred them from their swaying, rocking ride. They shouldered their assigned bags. “The next stop is one hundred and tenth street,” came the Ken-doll voice of the recorded announcement. In the long tunnel under the park the kids had finally started to droop. Even kids on their first rides will sooner or later give in and be lulled.
Not long from now and they won’t hug me unless they are told. But they will remember riding the A train. My name will be stuck to the memory. Not much longer and Britney Spears will have given way to some edgier version of the same entertainment product they will want to own, or be, and we will realize we don’t know each other. But the memory will have dried to our skin like a shiny old dragonfly wing that won’t shake off, after a rain.