Walking the platform, the guilt and the decisions came. One from the other. He was used to that, but not the power with which the decision and the guilt struck him to the concrete
, gasping, in shame and in rage and in understanding.
A man's life? A missed train. Is there a decision here? There is. Couched in the soft hardness of the New York experience, the dilemma's very existence conjures an illumination of the shallow pretenses of the soul.
Witness the scene. A platform. New York City's Grand Central Station. The number 6 line, downtown. Two-forty-five a.m. on a Friday night. he returns from a night of mild drinking and major socializing on the West Side; returns to the south and down to his bed cocooned within the sandstone confines of the upright house. The house is not allowed to lean; the other houses near it hold it upright. Cohere, they shout silently. Withstand.
While in the walkway from the shuttle train (why they could never have brought the shuttle line the extra two to three hundred feet he has never been sure) the duotone of the doors closing on a train ahead of him and beneath. Does he run? He is tired. Fatigue clings to him like the cape he wears as a badge of indignance and personal distinction; swirling around his ankles and threatening, it seems, to drag him down. The decision, the first of the night, is made; not to hurry. To conserve energy through the maintenance of a staid pace, allowing the folds of the cape to swirl about him in a black drape of a shield, allowing him to ignore and remain aloof and forcing others to stare at him. A strange sort of shield to invite the intrusion it is designed to guard against, perhaps.
Below and ahead, the plastic rattling of the doors, and the invisible train retreating in to a tunnel. There is no directional association; although he is in the plaza one level above the train stop, there are no pitch and frequency cues to allow his brain to process a direction.
Nothing to do but descend and hope.
Why? Because the trains run thirty to forty minutes apart this time of night, and because of the thought of remaining standing another eon in the grimy confines of the station while thinking of the (empty) (soft) bed. Descending the stairs, he clears the cloak instinctively, thinking wryly of how unnatural the action still looks. The garment brings self-consciousness. A silly thing to wear.
Reaching the bottom, a discouragingly empty station. Save, of couse, for the five transit police officers gathered in a loose circle near the next set of stairs? Ah. Perhaps he can ask them. No sooner said than done, at least after he reaches them. Boisterously, they laugh over some unknown private byplay, as he approaches, noticing the sleeping men (two) on one of the platform's benches beneath him. Passing with eyes averted, he reaches the police, who turn to look at him expectantly.
"Excuse me…hi. Was that, uh, was that a number 6 that just went through?"
Realizing as he asks that this platform is empty save for him, the police, and the homeless, while the other has several travelers waiting patiently.
"Yep, it was; they're coming 'bout every twenty minutes."
"Thanks." There's not much else to say. Wandering the platform is, perhaps, the only sane option; otherwise, to stand in one spot and minutely examine the grimy tiled wall opposite. Not an attractive prospect.
Wandering starts with the downtown end. There is a darkened booth at the southernmost point of the station; inside, unattended consoles wink with orange, red and green indicator lights. They speak, soundlessly and wordlessly, of the passage of trains and signals through the tunnels beneath the city; clearly displaying their secrets to men not there. A microphone stands on the counter near the console. It is an old device; a tall, chromed announcer's mike that now is worn in the middle of the upright section where countless hands
have gripped it.
The door in the back of the booth is closed, and he doesn't even know where it leads. Turning suddenly about (the cloak slides silently and gracefully in a parabola; this was the point) he begins to wander up towards the other end of the platform.
Exhaustion is a flavor at this point in time; it is a sticky fluid resting in the flesh, causing the unexplainable ache of night in muscles and bone. Each step brings a slow determination not to sit, or lean; concrete talks to the skeleton in jarring slaps of gravity and time. Gravity, it is said, sorts the living from the dead.
Gravity sorts the living from the dead. The thought repeats, and will not vanish gracefully. An elegant notion; although not entirely true; what about sleepers? What about those puposefully prone, awaiting signals, targets, visitors, rendezvous, sounds, mornings? What of them? Are they dead, or are they living?
The theory, perhaps, makes no mention of them. They are the undead and the unliving; inhabiting the middle ground between the polar states of living (upright) and dead (prone, involuntarily).
Another step. He passes the policemen, still idly chatting; they ignore him, classified as commuter, not a threat, weird. The cloak produces the last tagged identifier; perhaps that's the point.
There are several staircases up to the next (plaza) level; the policemen were standing at one that opened downtown. The next also opens downtown; the farthest one opens uptown, the stairs facing the nearby north end of the platform. Only five steps up, now; the white tiled sides of the stairs sliding by in slow symphonic sines.
Still no lights from the northern tunnel. Perhaps he's spent three minutes in the slow and careful passage of the platform; at most, then, seventeen to go, if New York police can be trusted on such an issue as train schedules. Of course, they should be trustworthy; why bother to lie on such an issue?
The bottom of the staircase draws even with our wanderer; he glances right as he passes the opening of the steps, to count the darkened spots of ancient chewing gum, long worked into the concrete itself, or perhaps the carelessly tossed wrappers of gum and chocolate.
There is a man there, at he bottom of the steps. He lies with his legs on the platform, and his torso supported by the first four steps. Slightly aslant, he leans to the left and towards our wanderer, his arms laid out before him in supplication and stupor.
Is this all? All that can be seen in the brief snapshot flash of the passing New York examination; performed thousands of times per day on those people passed on streets, in subways, in buildings, in lobbies, in elevators, in hallways. The silent evaluation of the other's intent and state; the instinctive response of the endangered animal that is the New Yorker.
Another look is passed, for reasons unknown. Our walker is almost abreast of the sleeper now.
There is blood on his lips.
There is blood on the stairs behind him.
And now, what? What there is is not in great quantity; many drops, perhaps. The lips are carmine with the stain; no motion can be seen.
Is he dead?
A brief curling throb as the heart misfires; what now? What to do? Is he asleep? Unconscious? Injured? Dead? The uptown wander stops abruptly, the gaze held by sickly fascination on the prostrate stranger.
There are police, immediately downtown, perhaps fifty feet. They haven't seen the walker since he passed beyond the staircase by which they stood. And now? Is he suspect? Did he do it? Did he hurt the other, cast him down?
How long before his failure to inform them becomes, itself, a suspicious act? How long before they wander up his way in normal patrol?
The fear begins to grow; sprouting up alongside the nausea and confusion. I should go back and get them. I might call from here. I might scream. The thoughts come, wash across, and recede, pushed by the next.
Two of them, approaching from up the tunnel; two red, two white, now, and then the train. The number 6; faithful urban steed. The doors sigh open. Perhaps four people are in the car that stands hard by; none bother to look up from their weary travel isolation, and he boards the car, heart pounding, to find a seat. The doors close; shuddering, the train rouses itself to slide downtown.
As the car passes the middle staircase, two of the police officers can be seen, wandering towards the north end of the platform. Sauntering; no alarm, no cry, no warning. He did nothing to help. He did nothing wrong. He did nothing.
The tears flow silently, and I make it off the train, watching as it recedes from the empty station, before vomiting onto the winking steel rails.