It was a cold, dry night this past January. I was listening to music on the subway platform and fighting to stave off sleep. I adjusted the buds to fit snugly in my ear canals and pressed the volume button on my phone through my jeans. A plump, grey rat scurried across the tracks, scavenging for morsels of food and fighting to survive the winter. I squinted at the scuttling sewer-dweller and empathized with the rat, wondering if he, too, just wanted to get home at such a late hour. A decrepit pillar, stained brownish-yellow through millions of interactions with dirty New Yorkers, propped up my weary body. It was two in the morning.
I’d spent the evening in Manhattan with my brother. We watched a jazz band in the park as the last glimpses of the pale, winter sun faded behind the skyscrapers. We braved the cold, gloomy night, trying a new restaurant downtown and enjoying a few beers at a comedy club. I lingered late into the evening watching baseball at his apartment. Now I just wanted to get home, to get off my feet, and sleep.
I left my post on the pole to peer down the tunnel. A white glow, growing brighter, spread down the tile wall of the tunnel. I exhaled. The subway emerged through the black archway from a tunnel of immense, haunting depth into the station. The train was a snake, uncoiling itself gradually until you could see the full extent of its massive body.
The subway had bright, fluorescent, white lights and powder blue benches. The walls were made of the cold, silver steel which composed so much of the city. A seated man with sharp whiskers, paint-stained jeans and scuffed brown boots laid his head on an aggressive advertisement. His eyes were closed and his barrel chest heaved up and down with his breath. A young couple with clasped hands communicated with glances, not words. They massaged each other affectionately to stay awake. The car was silent. When I removed my earbuds, my ears rang in response to the quiet.
I advanced one train car every time the train stopped. I’d boarded at the middle of the train, but the station I needed to get off at lined up with the train’s last car. Walking between cars while the train is moving could’ve earned me a ticket, so at every stop I waited at the back door of the train car, hopped onto the platform when the train stopped, and walked into the next car before the train left the station.
After three stops I reached an empty car. I walked to the end and sat by the door, tapping my foot to the beat of my music. Vacant subway cars made me anxious. Silence is fleeting in New York City, and the peace of an empty subway car always feels temporary, like disruption is inevitable. I felt I was lounging beneath a greying sky on a summer day. I was enjoying the heat, but I knew the sky would open up any minute. Looking through the scratchiti-stained window to my right, I was relieved to see one woman sitting at the end of the next car.
When I entered the next car, I was surprised to see the woman was not alone. A man wearing khaki pants and a hoodie, which veiled his face, lay on the floor at her feet. His arms and legs were splayed like a starfish. The woman’s face was also obscured by the hood of her jacket, and the two of them were still when I entered the car. It’s common practice for subway riders to look your way when you step into a car late at night. Either the mysterious figures didn’t know I was there, or they were pretending not to.
Fear and suspicion pushed the drowsiness from my body. I plastered my back against a door at the foot of end of the car I walked in through, making sure to stay as far away from the mysterious figures as possible. I kept my eyes trained on the other passengers. For someone who had never been mugged, I was immediately suspicious and defensive. I was taught that the city is a dangerous place, perhaps more dangerous than it really is. But I knew I wanted nothing to do with these people. Those still subway riders could’ve been violent criminals feigning sleep, trying to lure me closer and preparing to pounce.
Who passes out on the floor of the subway? I thought. These people were reckless. They got too drunk and too high and couldn’t make it home. If these people were a danger to themselves, I reasoned they could have harmed me when they woke from their inebriated slumber. I never considered that the subway may’ve been the only place these passengers could sleep.
I focused on my perceived danger and the strangers kept dozing. I pushed myself harder and harder into the subway door, as if I could camouflage into the train wall. The passengers were impossibly flat and still, like pancake batter sizzling on a griddle. Even the harshest jolts and ear-splitting screeches emitted from the train didn’t phase them. During normal, sober sleep, people stir. They adjust themselves during the constant struggle to satisfy the weary body. So I decided the strangers were either too wasted for me to wake them up or dead. I’d read news stories where citizens stumble across corpses on the subway. Bodies are found in the tracks, or on empty cars late at night, and even sitting upright on crowded train during the day. Hoping I had better luck than the New Yorkers in the papers, I tiptoed down the car to investigate.
When I walked to the end of the car, I saw the man on the floor was frozen. The woman’s body bounced slightly with the rhythm of the train. I reached the man first and I leaned over his sprawled body to take a look at his face.
I have never seen someone die from suffocation, but I thought the man was dying from a lack of oxygen. His head was tilted back. His chin pointed up slightly and the top of his skull rested on the subway floor. The skin and fat on his face and neck bunched up towards the center of his face, resembling rolls of fat on a stomach. His chin was maroon and the color only grew darker and more purple towards the top of his skull, where blood was pooling. I could barely make out the thin slits which were once his eyes. It was hard to imagine this swollen, bloody pulp of a face contorting into a recognizable human expression ever again.
I didn’t need to look at the girl. Her face was still veiled to me, but I couldn’t look anymore.
Heroin, I thought.
I looked up at the electronic graphic to see how far I was from home. I was two stops away, which roughly equates to five minutes. Gnawing at my fingernails, I knew what I was going to do. It was not what I should do and I hated myself for the decision already. If I pulled the emergency break at the next stop and demanded that the train stop and help come immediately, it would mean I had to get out at the next stop and make the hour-long walk home at two-thirty in the morning. I chose to wait until my stop to get help. I chose to avoid an inconvenience instead of trying to save a life.
It won’t make a difference, I’ve waited so long already, I told myself. Every minute made a difference. I was selfish. I was a murderer.
I sat down at the o
ther end of the car and tried not to think about the passengers who were in need of help. I couldn’t honestly tell myself they’d be fine. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but I kept imagining swelling pools of dark, red blood filling the subway car. The blood in the car was my blood and I couldn’t move. A man and a woman looked at me lying on the ground and watched the life leave me. They whispered to each other that I could wait for help to arrive. They said I was reckless so I probably deserved to die. When I opened my eyes, my face was wet with tears. It was my stop.
I leapt off the train, but kept my arm in the doorway to prevent it from closing. A subway worker, donning the token dark blue cap and blue button down shirt, walked down the platform in my direction. I yelled to him.
“You need to get help, now,” I said. “Two people… I think they overdosed on heroin. They’re not breathing. In this car. Please get help.”
The worker met my frantic eyes with indifference. “Sure thing,” he said.
Brushing past me, he walked into the car as the doors closed. He looked at the splayed man and the motionless girl for a moment. Then he walked to the opposite end of the car, as far away from the helpless passengers as possible, and sat down. He rotated his body ninety degrees, using the end of the bench to support his back, put his feet up, and faced away from the passengers. He tipped his cap over his eyes. I watched the train roll away.
Photo credit: New York subway – New York City. Photo. Britannica ImageQuest. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 25 May 2016.
http://quest.eb.com/search/167_4042731/1/167_4042731/cite. Accessed 17 Oct 2016.