by Lynette D’Amico
New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town,
the Bronx is up, the Battery is down…
The people ride in a hole in the ground…
On the Town, music by Leonard Bernstein,
lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
It was the high heat of summer. We were married. We were two women in New York City, visiting from Boston, for business, for the pleasure of walking endless blocks, for a glass of Prosecco at a small cafe, for expert wait staff, to intersect with the world’s most beautiful and interesting people, and for the odd comfort of being anonymous in a foreign city and completely at home. One of us was quick and purposeful, the other was dreamy and drifting. One led, crossed against lights, stepped off curbs, landed sure-footed, never missed a step, never paused. The other got stuck behind strollers and shopping carts, expected to fall into an open cellar hatch, was bumped off the sidewalks by the other tourists, by dog walkers with their tangle of indifferent city dogs. The City was itself: an exhalation of overheated garbage and car exhaust, burnt sugar and burnt coffee, sweat and piss and fried food—equally rank and delectable. It was so hot we had crossed the street to find shade; we had rolled up our sleeves, pressed dripping bottles of water to the backs of our necks. We had passed open doors of air-conditioned storefronts and gulped open-mouthed. This was a heat that thickened the air, that slowed our thinking; we were walking on radiant cement walkways; our feet were burning. It was so hot we might spontaneously combust and never get to where we were going.
And where were we going?
We were on the B train. We had boarded the train at 42nd Street-Bryant Park and 6th Avenue. We were on our way to Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. Our purpose was dinner with friends and a night of theater. The purpose of our visit to the City was often some gustatory or arts booster errand. It was rush hour. We were standing, and the train was so crowded there was no part of us that wasn’t smashed up against another person—so crowded we didn’t need to hang on to a pole or a strap; we were supported upright by the press of bodies around us. “We’re on the sardine car!” a guy in a Yankees cap announced for our benefit, for the benefit of the sweating, panting horde.
We were getting off at 7th Street, but before we even got to the next stop, which was 34th Street and Herald Square, the train slowed and stopped. We were experienced travelers—we’d navigated the Tokyo subway system, speaking of sardine cars—but as we were congratulating ourselves on our travel acumen, the lights in the car dimmed, blinked, and went out. We were underground in the dark. “At least we have air—” somebody said, and then, on cue, everything went still and silent. No air conditioning. No broadcast announcement. Without the constant background noise of the subway power systems, it was eerily quiet, just the electronic bzz bzz leaking from passenger headphones. Passengers looked up from cell phones and tablets, sighed, and put their heads back down again.
“If this was a terrorism, we’d already be dead,” a woman in blue scrubs said, which launched nervous laughter and grousing, joking, and cursing among the passengers: “I knew I shoulda waited for the next train.” “I’m dying here. Where’s the fucking air?” “The same thing happened last week. The police shut down the train looking for a guy.”
We were poised for the power to kick back on, for the train to start moving, for cell phone and internet service to resume. Any minute now. Now? Now. In just another minute. Now? Now.
A young man in a business suit, his hair sweat soaked, clutching a canvas messenger bag to his chest, addressed the woman in scrubs, “Can you talk to me? It’s so crowded. If you could talk to me…”
Finally an announcement: “We are experiencing delays between 34th Street and Broadway-Lafayette. Please consider alternate routes.” What alternate routes shall we consider in the breathless hot dark?
“I work in finance. How long? How long have I worked, how long do you think we’ll be stuck here?” The young guy was sweating even more if that’s possible, sweat running down his face and neck. He unbuttoned the top few buttons of his dress shirt that was stained dark blue with sweat. A pregnant woman sitting on a bench seat said quietly that we should pull the emergency brake. A chorus of voices argued against that maneuver. We were already stopped. We didn’t need an emergency stop. If the brake was pulled we might be delayed even longer since authorities would have to come to investigate. A boney, bare-legged blonde woman stood on her seat and managed to open a window. She leaned her upper body as far out the window as she could stretch. Was she trying to escape? Where would she go in the dark tunnel with the electrified third rail right below?
“Can you just talk to me?” the young man pleaded, turning to passenger after passenger. “Tell me a story?” He clawed at the subway door, wordlessly keening, a sound escalating from him like an emergency siren. A child started to whimper. “Hey, Buddy, chill,” said a large man in work boots, a hard hat hanging from his belt. “Chill,” what we all craved, a manufactured refrigerated blast, although at this point, we’d have settled for the benediction of a warm puff of wind.
Another announcement: “…experiencing delays… service should resume shortly.”
As the minutes stretched on and the temperature climbed in the crowded car, more than one person was unraveling. The two of us were not immune from the collective anxiety, the heightening sense of panic. One of us incessantly checked her phone for service. One of us blotted her wet face with her pretty neck scarf and then stuffed the damp rag in her bag. We were visiting a city where we were not at home, in spite of our street shoes and MetroCards and credit cards, our little bottles of hand sanitizer and our umbrellas at the ready; we were inside another city under the City. We were in a story about the city within the City.
“I just got married three months ago,” a woman with dark curly hair said to the young guy, talking fast. “I have three new stepchildren, all girls. The youngest is thirteen. She ran the 400 in track. I watched her run. She likes to run. It was hot out that day, but it was a good day.” The panicked man was still turning in circles. “The other two hate me.”
“I had to give up my running career,” said a man with cultivated dark stubble, “after the shark attack. Lost a chunk of my leg. Gave up swimming too.” He barked a laugh.
“When I came to this country, I was alone, no friends, no family. I went to school and worked hard. I married twice, one time a black man, one time a white man. I never told either one about the other.”
We traded stories, some real, some invented, some intended to distract our fellow traveler from a full-blown meltdown, whatever that might look like—oceans of gin, fountains of champagne, buckets of rubies, car crashes—other stories followed the fictions the City offered us as residents or visitors.
Like little 17-year-old Jimmy Gatz who leaves the Middle West and comes east to reinvent himself as garishly rich Jay Gatsby, we could become anybody in the City. We could wear beautiful shirts, host lavish parties, and drive a cream-colored Rolls Royce. We could be anybody from anywhere, or nobody from nowhere; we could become the mother of daughters, survive shark attacks, marry and remarry.
“My family all died and I came into a good deal of money.”
Announcement: “We are experiencing delays all along the Brighton Line. Thank you for your patience.”
“Maybe somebody should go for help? Does anybody have any water?”
“After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe—Paris, Venice, Rome—collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.”
“Then came the war, Old Sport. It was a great relief, and I tried very hard to die, but I seemed to bear an enchanted life.”
“I think this lady fainted! Lady, hey Lady! You okay, Lady?”
We wondered what was going on above us. Were people getting to where they were going? Were people in the city above the underground City cool and dry? Were they younger? Better looking? Was their progress unimpeded? Were their lilting steps accompanied by a snappy soundtrack? Was a sea breeze blowing through their hair? Were they drinking cocktails on a patio? Was a gentleman in a sherbet-colored suit hosting a party at the Plaza to which we were not invited?
The guy in the Yankees cap and a couple other passengers maneuvered the fainting lady toward a seat. Her face was white and she was dressed all in white, like a shut-in or a tennis pro. “Get up fool! Let this lady sit down, and you,” he turned toward the finance guy, “do us all a favor and just shut it, Old Sport. We’re stuck here, okay? Nobody’s going nowhere.”
“Where you from, Hon? Not from here, I take it. Logic doesn’t work when a person is having a panic attack,” said the woman in scrubs. “You can’t rationalize with all that. Boy needs a pill. I know how it goes. My sister has the panic. Boy, you have any pills you can take?”
“It’s too late, too late, too late, too late,” moaned Mr. Nobody from Nowhere, our infirm friend in finance.
Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.
We came to the City burdened with our histories, our comfortable Middle West expectations, our Middle West sensibilities. One of us grew up in the Middle West of Indiana with the expectation that she would leave home forever and for good and never return. She left behind her basketball trophies and diplomas, her ill-fitting girlhood and used cars. One of us came from a suspicious people who only trusted their own blood, their own Western New York geography, who lived in fear of the hot dark, the underground, the city under the City. We came to the City alone and together to find out who we would become here.
We were so close on the stalled train, shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip, tennis shoe to sandal—the theater producer next to the nanny next to the web editor next to the medical records clerk—but we were not close. Who among us hadn’t paid our rent, who was a criminal, who were lovers, who was careless, who welcomed the hot dark, wished it hotter, darker and never wanted to rise to the surface?
…there was one persistent story that he didn’t live in a house at all, but in a boat that looked like a house and was moved secretly up and down the Long Island shore.
Before marriage and weekend trips to the City together, one of us came to the City alone and stayed at the Barbizon Hotel for Women at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street. This was before the hotel was reinvented as the Melrose Hotel, before it was converted to condos. It was her very first time in the City. She was a version of an ingénue from the Middle West, her hair piled as high as a pastrami on rye from Lansky’s, in an electric blue suit with padded shoulders; it was some time ago when everything was possible, everything was available, so everything was terrifying. By Middle West standards, the hotel room was so small—“full-length mirror, no draught ventilators, three-channel radio, convenient electrical outlets”—but the history of the ladies-in-waiting who came to the City to be discovered, to discover themselves, was large and far-ranging: Sylvia Plath had stayed at the Barbizon. So had Frida Kahlo, Grace Kelly, Joan Didion. Imagine that dollhouse slumber party! Clothes tossed from the roof, princess-in-training pillow talk, a red-hot tamale with a mustache, and clouds of cigarette smoke behind piles of pages. About the same time as Miss Grace Kelly was dancing in her lingerie in the Barbizon hallways, Miss Subways were riding all over the City.
Miss Subways was a beauty contest sponsored by the Subways Advertising committee. Every month, from 1941 to 1976, a different aspiring city chick-lette was crowned Miss Subways. The glistening, hopeful faces of two hundred Miss Subways or more appeared on placards on trains and were seen by millions of subway riders.
Gatsby wanted to believe that if he could recreate the past, before alternate routes and traffic up ahead, before Daisy Buchanan succumbed to big-bucks bullying, he could return as well to possibility, recapture what he had lost—not just Daisy, but some version of himself. Daisy, on the other hand, wanted for her daughter what she didn’t manage for herself—to grow up to be a fool—“that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
There’s a Facebook page for former Miss Subways and a few years ago, there was a “Then and Now” exhibit at the New York Transit Museum. “Miss Subway November 1941. Muriel Schost is changing her name to Suzanne Saunders. A Brooklyn girl, Madison High School graduate, with secretarial training, hopes to become a successful model, get a Hollywood actress test. Loves to swim, play handball.”
“Miss Subway July 1946. Enid Berkowitz. Art student at Hunter College—interested in advertising and costume design—makes own clothes—plugging for B.A. but would settle for M.R.S.”
Before moving to a city with subways—the L and the Metro and the T—one of us had the panic and couldn’t travel underground. When she visited the City, she studied maps and pathways, plotting her route. Once she met a Brooklyn girl, who loved to swim, who was plugging for F.U.C.K., who caused her to lose her way.
We wanted to return to the City we remembered, romantic and rich with possibilities, the City where poets threw their editorial intern drag off hotel roofs, where straphangers looked up into the face of a dream girl on a poster and felt flushed and refreshed.
We wanted to go back in time and never get on this damn train.
We were waiting in the hot dark, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting in the wings, an accident waiting to happen, waiting for the train.
“Keep your eyes closed,” the woman in scrubs said to the young man in finance who was openly weeping now. “I want you to think of the ocean. You’re on the beach looking out to sea. Nothing interrupting your view—no skyscrapers, no mountains. All you can see is blue water. It’s windy on the beach. The wind is blowing, waves are slapping against the shore. You can feel the wind on your face, smell the salt air…”
Past the point of no return, past the point of patience, past hope and hopelessness, the power came on. The train began to move.
There are artificial reefs up and down the east coast, off the coasts of Delaware and New Jersey, Virginia, and South Carolina. The reefs were designed to create habitats for marine life and recreational fishing. They are made of retired subway cars that have been sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic.
There’s a green light out in the water. Keep your eyes on that green light. It’s what you’ve been waiting for your whole life. Maybe it’s a girl or money; maybe it’s your mother or your future children, or the dog who ran on the beach with you when you were a boy. You walk into the ocean, and the water is cool; you can feel the coolness on your bare feet, your toes, your ankles. You take another step; the train comes out of the water, and you climb aboard.
All material in italics is from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Lynette D’Amico’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review and online at Brevity. She is one of the founding content editors for the online theater journal HowlRound.com, and a graduate from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her novella Road Trip, which was first runner up for the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest, was published by Twelve Winters Press in 2015. She makes her home in Boston, but she has a prairie eye.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 4 • December 2017 (update)
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