Avenue N subway stop, Brooklyn, NY: my original "home station."
A new Subway eatery has opened near us; Mary and I stopped there for dinner after our walk. I looked upon sepia-toned walls reprinting old photographs of New York City interspersed with portions of its subway map: a sprawling, knotted tapestry compared to the much simpler lines of Boston's "T".
I haven't found my stop yet....
Journal excerpt, February 1, 2000
Yesterday, from inside our subway car, Mary and I watched a flock of geese rising and dipping in a wavering line over the Charles River. They disappeared momentarily; we caught them a few moments later skimming over, almost touching the ice and snow. Today it is gulls, and the river’s solidity has thinned into island globules.
There is a pond near where we work. Sometimes, in its pattern of freeze and thaw, it forms a nucleus and a halo of cracks. The cracks fill; the design, darker-colored, stands out from the thin ice almost in relief. I look at it and see a gigantic nerve cell with snaky dendrites.
We are drawn like flowers to the light. Side by side, hunched over our books as our train roars underground, our heads pop up when we emerge onto the elevated tracks. At first we are still enclosed: by tightly-clustered brick buildings, then by the station’s wood slats. Then, on the bridge, our vista opens up and we comb the meandering river for waterfowl. Our eyes change their focus for distance. Today, when it is sunny, the sudden light hits us as we emerge from the tunnel, and we gaze longingly out the window until the train descends, once more, into its cave.
I must have been two or three the first time my mother held me to her and climbed onto the platform of the Brooklyn IRT (Independent Rapid Transit). The trains were coal-black, might have been iron. They shrieked, and I shrieked with them, at first terrified, then fascinated. Inside, the seats alternated between red softness (leather?) and a scratchy, unpleasant yellow wicker, often splintered. Soft seat, wicker back, or vice-versa. The subway windows could be opened, then -- doing so, or leaning against them, deposited on me a fine line of soot, but sometimes it was worth it for the tunnel breeze.
The poles were ceramic, like the mosaic tiles of New York’s subway station designs (now being revived). When I was old enough and tall enough to be a straphanger, I did not hold onto actual straps (those were before my time), but onto a closed ceramic loop attached to the high horizontal pole, with some kind of bearings so that it could swing freely. During rush hour my hand would be crammed with several others around that loop. The ceramic (later, steel) was cold to the touch, often refreshingly so in that sardine-pressed crowd.
Most of my Brooklyn ride was elevated. It still is, when I go back there. From my home station I could see the Manhattan skyline to one side, the Verrazzano Bridge to the other. The tracks dipped; the oncoming trains from either direction undulated their way toward the station like lumbering, segmented beasts.
I started riding them solo when I was 12 -- and then daily, to get to high school. School began early, at 8AM. During the oil crisis in the early 70s and the suspension of Daylight Savings Time, I gazed out the window at one sunrise after the next, at crescent moons just after New, recording in my journal the sky’s myriad colors. I learned to balance my notebook on the palm of one hand while writing with the other, my forearm serving as a shock absorber. Often I’d disembark at an intermediate platform to meet a friend so that we could travel to school together. We practiced the art of standing without holding onto anything: feet planted widely apart diagonally to the train’s trajectory, knees slightly bent, our torsos moving loosely above our hips.
I dream often of subways. Sometimes those of my home town, sometimes the Boston trains. Sometimes a hybrid of the two, or something else altogether. Traveling dreams, dreams of movement. I try to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B, because the maps change. Sometimes I am in an enormous underground station, smoky with soot, showing several platforms and several levels of platforms, and the tracks are made of wood. Sometimes a dream-train will take me to a high pinnacle, off the beaten path, and I’ll wonder how I got there. Sometimes the cats are with me, and I worry about them getting lost in all the hubbub. Last night I dreamt I was buying railway tickets for Mary and me -- only, we could not buy them outright but had to bid on them. By the time I procured them the train had already left, and we were faced with a 24-hour wait in a depot distant from home.
I try to remember the subway systems I’ve been on: New York MTA, Boston MBTA, Washington DC Metro, San Francisco BART, Chicago, Sydney, St. Petersburg (when it was Leningrad). The Russian subways doubled as bomb shelters. When I stepped inside a car, its doors closed first, followed by thick black slabs sliding on tracks until one saw nothing but darkness. My relief was palpable when we arrived at the next station, where the black slabs moved aside to show civilization before the doors actually opened again.
In the 70s, the NYC subway showed sights long since discontinued. More than once as I traveled to school I saw a man openly masturbating. In those days I could walk easily from one car to the next, sliding heavy doors on their tracks. I would quietly get up and move on, feeling the exhilarating gush of tunnel air as I stood momentarily outside, on two small steel platforms joined to each other. Once, a woman, seemingly oblivious to her audience, strode proudly and topless from car to car to car. To me the men were threatening but the woman was magnificent.
"Mr. Clean-up Man, I feel for you ... but without us writers you've nothing to clean. No work, no money."Last June, when Mary and I attended my high school reunion, our late-night return to our hotel was in a festive subway car populated by several generations of folks sporting fishing rods and tackle. (We were not far from Coney Island.) They sang to a radio playing Spanish ballads. During the day I was pointing out the pastel-painted Greek keys and Corinthian moldings that for me define Brooklyn’s rooftop architecture. From the elevated tracks they were below our line of sight. Much of the paint is cracking and peeling now, but some is being restored. Intricate designs set in the bricks. They don’t make ‘em like that any more. Not for folks who travel by subway.
— Graffiti found on the F train in Brooklyn, October 1973 (recorded in my high school journal)
She Leaves No Footprints
She is gifted in straddling the tracks.
Back foot at the front, front at the back
of jostled cars, she rides them
like drifting continents and her legs are
pulsing out from the third rail.
The halves of her body
grind, one against the other,
and her mind
feels her as a pair of lovers
intent at getting under one flesh.
She pushes the walls,
the windows latched
and catching glint of chains.
At once holding this train together
and pushing it apart
she hones her Samson's hair
into a fine wedge,
surviving her great quakes
by sheer feat of strength.
She is dancing
at superhuman speed,
a dance of burrowing, of
carving veins into the fleshy earth.
Her face strobes with bent lantern light
and phosphorescent rock. She dances
metallic and more metallic
clattering between stops
stopping between breaths
wheezing and combustible,
lubricants in the pools
of her eyes.
In another moment she will derail.
In another moment
the crack under her feet will meld
into a cohesive, unsplit brain.
Stable as bedrock the platform
holds her leglocked, aching for a rumble
before the underground breeze
pushes her from the clutch of solid ground
and she hops into the next slamming gate.
Published in We're Working On It!, New York, NY: Seven Poets Anthology Collective, 1984.