No L Train Until 6 AM Monday, read the sign taped to the turnstile. As if the thin red string stretched across the entrance to that part of the station had not been signpost enough, someone had taken a pen with a thick black nib to a foolscap jotter, ripped the page out and gone looking, in the ticket agent’s booth, for sellotape. A roll of sellotape, in the subway, on such a hot day? No wonder the thing was pasted up there so crookedly, untidily, impatiently. There was probably a phone call to attend to, or a sandwich to eat, or a befuddle-faced Brooklynite to send packing to the other train. Ain’t no L till Monday morning, she’d tell them. F to Delancey. J to Marcy Avenue. Shuttle bus from there. Not my problem. You heard me, and the window would slam back down. No way to Williamsburg, on a clammy Sunday evening.
On the platform for the downtown F, at 14th street and 6th Avenue, the refugees from the L line stood scowling. Or perhaps they were pouting; it’s always hard to tell. A blonde girl was scowling, or pouting, at the train tracks; she might have seen a rat there, because she grabbed her boyfriend’s arm and gestured down. Rats the size of badgers down there, in those tunnels, the MTA men had said at Christmas, when they went on strike for better wages and the whole of New York City had to walk, block by freezing block, bridge by crowded bridge… and people used to live in those tunnels, I was thinking, as I watched the girl with jeans so tight they made bunions of her kneecaps and the boy with old-fashioned jazz shoes—no, they were just plain old, fashionably battered, I saw—and a fringe that could give a paper-cut, was I to walk up there and run my fingers along it…
The little woman was wearing old black shoes as well, hard ones, but hardly by choice (hardly, that is, by the same sort of choice as the boy with the sharp-sliced fringe) and her floral dress was vast, like something Nellie Olsen from Little House on the Prairie would turn up in, with a high collar and billowing sleeves, and she wore striped socks that reached up to her knees, and of course she was scowling, but wouldn’t you? The white plastic bags she carried were over-full, like a drooping bunch of frayed balloons, and her hair was less graying than ashen, as though coated with a building’s dust—and yes, now that you mention it, it was that time of year when the white dust of buildings was thick on everyone’s mind, and the memory of ashes. And she muttered. She muttered as she passed me where I sat on a wooden bench, clutching the novel that had been reviewed that week in the Times, the novel to be seen with, and she muttered as she staggered on to the end of the platform, her arms sagging under the weight of her bags. Was she angry about the L train; hot, frustrated, running late, as most of us were? Had she missed an important appointment because of the track repairs going on deep underground?
I thought not. The women on either side of me—a slender teenage girl with skin the colour of caramel, and her plump, shaven-haired mother—didn’t think so either.
‘She goin’ nowhere that matters,’ said the mother.
‘She crazy, Momma,’ said the daughter. ‘You see her eyes?’
‘I like that singer,’ said the mother, and waddled over to the busker by the rubbish bin. She rested a dollar in his guitar case with a teasing smile; in exchange, she got a business card and a Bob Marley song, which she sang along to as she returned to the bench, to her daughter’s rolling eyes.
‘See, sweetie, he’s called Corey,’ she called, squeezing herself back into her spot. ‘That gotta mean somethin’, no?’
‘Momma, Corey’s your son’s name, not your husband’s.’ ‘Don’t matter.’
‘And he’s not even properly related to you, your Corey.’
‘I don’t wanna wait in vain for your love, I don’t wanna wait in vain…’
And the daughter reached across me to stroke her mother’s arm. ‘Here she comes, here she comes,’ said the mother, as the first
flickering of the F train’s lights showed on the subway walls. Around us, people started to rise, to gather packages, to move towards the platform’s yellow line. But the old woman with the striped stockings and the huge dress now flapping in the wind from the tunnel, like a flag, the old woman did not stir. Instead, she screamed.
‘Stop shouting, stop shouting,’ she roared at the arriving train, and at the outward rush of travellers, although she was the only one shouting.
‘Get away from my house,’ she hollered as the doors opened and the carriages started to fill.
She pushed her way onto a car—my car, and that of the mother and daughter—and with her dress and her bags and her mutterings she took up three whole seats, but nobody complained. The truth was, nobody wanted to sit in those two seats on either side of her, anyway.
‘I heard about a new job I could do, Momma.’
The mother and daughter were sitting beside me. Again, the girl was stroking her mother’s skin; her arms, her back, the nape of her neck where the stubble of her hair must have been softest. The mother, maybe unfooled by the tender attention, frowned.
‘Secret Shopping,’ the daughter said, still stroking. ‘Chantelle says you get paid just to buy. You buy the things, and then you take them back again, and in between you get to wear them if you want, and on top of that you get your wages from the Secret Shopping people. Sounds good, huh?’
‘That’s fraud, honey,’ the mother shook her head. ‘Ain’t no way you’re gonna tell me otherwise; that’s fraud.’
‘How is it fraud, Momma? How could that be fraud?’
How indeed, I wanted to say, and I was looking forward to hearing, but the train had rolled into Lafayette Street, and the ashen-haired woman was stirring.
‘This is my house!’ she was screaming again, and the funny thing was that nobody else on the subway seemed to be looking at her. ‘This is my house, and there ain’t none of you supposed to be here!’
And with that, she was gone, and I thought I was the only one to watch her go. But, as the doors closed, people were staring, and smiling, and shaking their heads to themselves, and a few of them even to each other. Eye contact, that rarest of subway happenings, was being made. Chuckles and comments were being offered, accepted, returned. Mutterings, too. The mother and daughter, meanwhile, were laughing, the girl’s hand right on the stubble of the older woman’s head.
‘She don’t like company, honey,’ the mother said. ‘That lady don’t like company.’
‘I could work at the Wal-Mart either,’ the daughter said, and the train heaved on. I strained to look back at the platform, at the woman whose house we had all, with our wordlessness or our worldliness, with our blank stares or our banter, somehow defiled. But the view beyond the window was already black as coal.