It’s never that easy. Other people make it look easy, and I watch them with envy and chagrin and, when my heart can manage it, admiration. Some days I even feel joy, this ball of gratitude and pleasure that inflates my chest, one bike tube pump at a time, when I watch their eyes and their hands and their cheeks and I can almost, almost feel what they feel. They seldom glance at me. I’m not really there. Not in the same sense they are. I am incidental. When people look at me, they don’t see me, and they certainly don’t see me seeing them. If we make eye contact, they avert. They sometimes react as they would to a homeless person. I’ve seen buskers have conversation with people. I once saw a young man sit down on the concrete and chat with the old woman who plays her five-string guitar here. I saw him reach out his hand to her and grip her palm, squeeze her fingers as if he were greeting his own mother. Maybe he was. But no one talks to me.
I’ve often thought I could pick their pockets. They don’t see me, they barely register me, why would they notice if I took their wallets? Would my hand even take physical form if I reached into their purses, their overcoats, their jackets? Would they suddenly feel me and the sensation would race to their eyes? Or would their blindness travel down to their nervous system and numb any awareness of that tug?
I sweep. I mop. I don’t have disinfectant but I have a bucket. I pick up dropped cell phones. I’ve lost count how many. Sometimes, if I can get to a listing and find “home #,” I will call and try to tell them where they can retrieve their property. But now almost every phone is locked and I don’t spend hours trying to guess security codes. I just leave them at the newsstand where the gal who works the pre-dawn shift gets to decide what to do with them.
I empty the trash cans into the dumpster. I go through trash. I eat. I find things to help me.
I have two blue shirts, stiff and thick with buttons of gray and black, like flat little marbles. They are my work shirts. They identify me as someone who works here, who belongs here, who has a right to clean and sweep and move trash around. No one else does. I think someone is supposed to. I have wondered for years if that person, that employee of the city, collects checks for my work. Or did we have a budget cut and no one bothered to notice that the subway cleans itself? If I left, if I took a two-week vacation in the south Bahamas or the South of France or the south side of Chicago, would it pile up and get so filthy and sticky and loogey-covered that people would start calling on the phones they hadn’t dropped and someone would show up and demand to know where that lazy janitor went? I might ruin someone’s job who loved not working for a living. But I might also ruin my job, when an employee showed up and asked, “Who are you?” Those would be the first words addressed to me in…all these years. However many it’s been. Nine? Sixteen? What would be harder, answering, or being spoken to? When I was a child (“when I thought like a child and spoke like a child”), my parents taught me, “Speak only when spoken to.” I don’t know if they pictured this.
I have my favorites. There are two children who run through here as if this is their playground, always with a father hurrying after them, shouting “Slow down! Watch where you’re going! Hold hands!” He is heavy but moves smoothly, as if once he was an athlete and his body remembers carrying eighty fewer pounds. The girl almost always wears a rough ponytail, which makes me think “tomboy” and “single dad.” They see me. The two of them. Her brother is younger and wilder and doesn’t ever watch where he is going, so he has run into me three times, twice full collisions without brakes. Twice I picked him back up and he said thanks, except not with his voice but with his eyes. I don’t know if he talks. He screams. He certainly does scream, almost as if when he runs it opens up a valve with breath and lungs and throat and volume. His dad yells, “Stop screaming,” maybe missing the irony, maybe imagining that his running boy will one time hear him in the middle of the circus and suddenly go silent. If that’s the only way he ever speaks, I’d think his father would want him to.
There is a girl, a young lady, who walks through here every day. She always wears flats, never heels. She always wears linen business suits, jackets and knee-length skirts. She wears light blues and dark blues and charcoal grays and even a light yellow jacket with a forest green skirt. That one is my favorite. I know, you’re thinking “Stalker. Rapist.” Because you wouldn’t look at the people going by who never spoke to you if you had lived in a subway station for a bunch of years. You would keep your eyes averted.
She’s pretty, I’m not saying she isn’t. But many of the passing women, and some of the men, are prettier than she is. It isn’t that. She has something else, but I can’t find a word for it. It’s like composure, but more than that. People move aside for her. People stop and glance at her—see, it isn’t just me!–and then tilt their heads at odd angles, as if trying to put their fingers on what’s different, too. She is always alone. I’ve never seen her talk to anyone here, either, though she smiles at people sometimes. Shocking. I mean, groups walking together, laughing and talking, lovers holding hands and telegraphing their feelings, but who smiles at strangers here?
She does. I tell you what, I would never touch her, but I would hurt anyone who did. So I watch for that, too. She doesn’t come through in the late and dangerous hours. I’ve never seen her in here past 8 PM, and it’s almost always 5:40 to 6:00 when she catches her train. She’s not clockwork like some of my regulars, but she’s consistent.
The clock is my day and night, my sun and moon, my metronome. I watch the tide of commuters crash in and seep back out, I see the seasons in their clothes, I feel the torrent that soaks them or the blizzard they shake out of their hair and stomp from their boots. But it all revolves around the enormous clock up in the wall behind its cage, face bigger than my arm-span, steady and silent, blind and focused on its one job. I love that clock, though it feels nothing for me. People who get stuck on desert islands make people up. Tom Hanks talked to a volleyball. I don’t talk to the clock. I’m not crazy like he was. I’m my own crazy, I’m sure, but I just always look at it, every hour, P.M, A.M, twelve and twelve and twelve again. It revolves and I watch and I work and it revolves and I sleep and when I wake, it still revolves, because that’s what we do.
You want to ask questions? You want to know how I ended up here? You want to know why, what went wrong in my life, how did I slip between the cracks? Do I have family that know I’m alive? Do they worry about me or search for me or did they give me up for lost? Am I on milk cartons? Or did they throw me out and banish me to this never-dark darkness?
Why do I sound educated? Did I go to school? Did I go to college? Was I gainfully employed before I became ungainfully unemployed?
Maybe you should ask if I was ever married and did I have children? Not because I intend to tell you, but because it opens up a new category for what might have happened. Did I use drugs and run through all my money and their money and stumble into this, a place to clean up and no money ever to buy more? Who needs meetings when you can be broken in exile?
Of course, people sell and buy in my line all the time. If I wanted to get drugs, if that were tempting me and driving me blind to consequences, I could do it. Someone would probably come and kill me later, but I could obtain my hit. Sometimes they leave their needles in my bathrooms. I use the gloves I find to pick them up. I have an impressive glove collection.
People drop things. People drop everything. For everything people carry, and for every thousand commuters who walk through carrying those things, eventually one of them gets dropped in my line. Wedding rings. Diabetes kits. Wallets, of course, and passports, cameras and pens and lunch bags and birthday presents. I don’t find them all. Other people pick them up sometimes. But I have a room, more of a cave, where I store a lot of their stuff. I would be able to make a lot of money, if I ever got a wheelbarrow and hauled it all to a pawn shop. I think about that sometimes, when I watch the clock, when I wonder how far south I might go, before I go south completely.
In the first few years, I thought I’d leave. I still made plans then. I just needed to be away for a while. I wasn’t here forever, just long enough.
How long is “long enough?” How long do you need to recover?
I still think about leaving, but those aren’t plans. They’re more stories I tell myself. Not the kind you told yourself in elementary school, when a poisonous snake got loose in school and you alone were brave enough to grab it and save your classmates and teacher, and she finally had to admit that you were more than just a troublemaker. No, I just think about walking out one of the exits, climbing the stairs, and being outside again, breathing outside air, and then transitioning seamlessly into some job, some life.
Even if I could put together some money, even if my pawn shop dream joined reality, how would I get started?
“Recent job experience?”
“I voluntarily cleaned a subway because no one else would.”
“Very commendable. For how long?”
“Twelve years? I don’t remember.”
Or I fill out an internet dating profile:
“So, what do you like to do in your spare time?” she asks.
“Well, there are these children I like to watch.”
“Rental records? References from your last two landlords? Previous bank account? Credit rating?”
I’ve seen people killed down here. Two. I don’t want to talk about that.
And I’ve seen a bunch of heart attacks, or what people thought were heart attacks. At least one of those guys didn’t make it, I’m pretty sure. They were still trying to revive him when they carried him out, but all the EMT’s were shaking their heads and looking at their watches. People pass out. People flip out. One man started screaming and couldn’t stop. They called the paramedics, who sedated him and carried him out on a stretcher.
Then there are seizures. You think people avoid me? A grown woman falls down shaking, and suddenly she’s not only invisible, but there’s a five-foot barrier between her and everyone else.
The amazing ones, though, are the people who have helping animals. I don’t have access to a lot of things, but some things I find out by seeing them. How do dogs know when their owners are going to have seizures? I don’t get it. I’ve watched it happen at least four times and I completely don’t get it. Can the dogs smell something different? Sense vibrations? Do they detect a mood change?
This might sound strange—though really, stranger than anything else so far?—but I feel like the helping animal down here. I feel the vibrations. I don’t have the power to keep the bad things from happening, but I know when they’re coming.
I get it. You think I’m delusional. Nobody talks with me or looks at me, but I imagine I have the ability to help when something really bad, some kind of collective seizure, hits this random collection of people underground.
Okay, I’ll tell you this, and then that will be enough. I already said I’m not answering your questions. I’m not the hunchback for you to gawk at. You wouldn’t even know if you’re in my station versus the custodian who goes home to his two kids and leaky apartment. Think about that next time. Think about what assumptions you make for all those the people you see.
We had a pipe burst five years ago. Maybe that one I kept track of. Maybe I know how many days since it happened. In Chicago, pipes break all the time. It’s what they do. But this was overhead and it was hot water. It wouldn’t have been pretty.
I knew. I knew for sure, not exactly when it was going to burst but for sure that it was happening. It wasn’t mysterious like with the epilepsy help dogs. I just heard it. I don’t have special hearing powers, but I live here all the time. I know what my home sounds like. I know the patterns, the waves, the cycles. I know how close it gets to quiet in the small-to-medium hours when people don’t come down here. And I know when something sounds different.
It was like a whistle, but not a whistle. It sounded like a cartoon version of the whistle that tells you work is over, like from the Flintstones. But no “Yaba-daba-do!” to go with it. It got louder and louder and people could hear it but they didn’t know they could. They were just getting annoyed. More arguments than usual were breaking out. Moms were yelling at kids. Some guy with a tie on threw a punch at a T-shirt vendor. And it just kept getting louder—both the whistle and the whole station. It was like all the other noise increased to keep up with it.
I kept looking around at everyone. Someone else would figure out where it was coming from. Somebody would point at the ceiling pretty soon.
But no one did. I saw it drip. Just a few drips to start, but it wanted to rain inside, it wanted to rain steam.
I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t just walk up to someone and exclaim, “I say, Old Chap, is that not an old pipe preparing to explode in our ceiling?”
So I pointed. I watched for the time and when they came through, on schedule, I ran up to the kids, my favorite kids, and I pointed at the ceiling. No one was going to listen to me. No one was going to listen to those kids. But I showed them what I saw. Unlike everyone else, they’re able to see me.
The little boy looked scared, not of me, but that I was acting different then he’d ever seen. The girl looked at my eyes and then started scanning all over the ceiling, trying to help me. She wanted to understand. Neither of them asked me anything. Once she started looking up, he did, too.
And right when it got worse–a drizzle came down and hit a woman with dreadlocks in the forearm and she screamed–they saw it. And then they did the craziest thing.
They ran and grabbed hands with the dreadlock woman. She was still staring at her arm and freaking out, but they each grabbed onto her and started telling her, but they were singing to her. It sounded like singing. I don’t know why. Maybe she only communicates in music. Maybe they knew she wouldn’t take them seriously if they just shouted, because adults don’t listen to children if they can ever avoid it.
She got what they were telling her. She ran with them to the guy in the ticket booth. He’s the guy I’m always afraid will call me out, but he never acknowledges notices I’m here. But she started pounding on his window and pointing and he grabbed his phone in the booth fast and was talking and waving at the same time, and then maybe two minutes later, these guys come racing in with their maintenance cart and put up warning signs with tape stretched between them restricting that area and now everybody is looking up and then, God as my witness, we had a geyser in the subway station but pointing down, and everyone scattered out of the way and it got like 1000% more humid than it had ever been in here before but no one got burnt because they were’t anywhere near where this pipe was pouring hot water down on us, and it goes on crazy like this for a while until the water just stops. Someone figured out how to turn off the valve, and it was over.
Some guys came in with scaffolding that they put together and it got higher and higher and they even harnessed themselves in so they didn’t come plunging down and then they fixed that pipe.
No one got hurt, except the dreadlock lady’s arm, and she seemed okay right afterward, talking with the kids. They were smiling and giggling, like maybe they had become long-lost relatives. While the repair guys were still up on the ladder, a TV crew came loping in and spent a few minutes making up a story.
And sometime near the end of it all, right before things went back and you couldn’t tell anything unusual had happened, the little boy looked at me, right at me, the way he did only when he’d just head-butted my ribs, and he winked.