by Christopher Bacas
There’s a sidewalk grate in Beverly Road station. Train sounds rise; squealed intervals evaporating as you pass. Underground, sun squeezes through the grid like skin pressed on a window screen. On the brightest day, its gutter brims gold, but never overflows. During heavy rains, the station’s walls sluice water that puddles next to the benches. When trains pass, delicate ripples ply their surface. On a grey April morning, feet bridging two platform lakes, I heard a heavy thud. The whoosh of air preceding it didn’t register. Three days of rain swelled my skull. Between the tracks, garbage sank in oily swamps. Over a dry stretch, a man lay face down; nylon backpack listing across his tan jacket. Instantly, a horizontal window opened and time upended.
Matter is quite un-material. Atoms are flickering emptiness. In that chasm, cosmic forces act on infinitesimal scale. Particles unravel and reconstitute; their paths, limitless sorcery. Mass doesn’t tally the apple’s downward push, but the warp of gluons lacing quarks into its nuclei. Ancient eyes tuned to vibrations of air and earth, not dancing voids, we see only objects, immobile and too, too solid.
I looked left for an oncoming train. The tracks ran straight to “The Junction”, terminus of the 2 and 5 lines. From the intervening stop, an approaching train’s headlamps tilt down, then steadily rise. In front, on the rails, parallel mercury streams advance. Now, two oncoming lights shimmered, guttering ahead, backlighting people near the turnstiles.
“Stop the train! Stop it!”
I jumped to the tracks. A man further down joined me. We rolled the body face up, then grabbed handfuls of clothing and ankles. He was heavy and the platform shoulder high. We couldn’t heave past the bumper at its edge. From above, hands pulled the jacket and dragged him across concrete.
Leaning into the bumper, I discovered it was soft underneath; a rubber Mille Feiulle. In its layers, street grit and countless bug carcasses, the sour delta of 21st century Flatbush delivered by gushers of spring rain. I pushed down and couldn’t clamber onto the platform. Hands grabbed mine, and I stumbled up. Behind us, the stopped train, unblinking.
Splayed over the bulging backpack, the man’s torso was painfully vulnerable. I pulled the pack’s straps off his arms. They moved like a sprung doll’s, retracting with latex snap. Under the winter jacket, he wore a down vest, flannel shirt and thermal jersey. It was 8am and sixty hydroponic degrees. I unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open, folding the vest back as far as it would go.
Around us, a circle of morning commuters stared down. If there is an etiquette for dealing with a (possibly) lifeless body on a subway platform, we followed it. Quiet voices. Rustling coats.
A woman leaned in.
“I’m a nurse”
She knelt by his side.
The window closed. Matter assumed its false stasis and the tunnel filled again with rancid air. Now, his face and frame imprinted on me; an intimate anonymity. I closed my heart to the possibility he was dead.
Every rider dreads “police investigation”; a grinding halt in a dark tunnel or humming station that becomes a canyon of stolen hours and angry soliloquies. Train lines in both directions were sure to stop until long after this “action” completed. I didn’t wait for the cops.
My instruments and suit-bag lay heaped close to the man’s head. I slung their straps over my shoulders and headed to the turnstiles. I called my wife; talking too fast, asking for a ride to a different train. Above the grid, at the corner, a street solider hawked phone plans and conspiracy theories. I warned off riders as they descended the stairs, then headed west, sirens screaming past. My wife pulled over, I dropped my gear in and sat down; shirt soaked and clammy, pants splattered with grit.As we drove to to the Q line, clouds shrouded apartment blocks and piled the horizon. On the subway and behind schedule, I didn’t think of the man or sirens. At Penn Station, my legs galloped through fields of luggage and squinting travelers. Amtrack, timely as ever, waited for me, as if by command.
On the train to Pennsylvania, the man’s face became a pendulum; tick-tocking through every thought. Fatigue seeped into my legs. Once I arrived at the college where I would teach and perform, there were instruments, many names and musical cues. The face receded.
That night, at my hotel, I looked at a police blotter. No news. I couldn’t check again. Sunday night, back in Brooklyn, my wife told me she went through the station. At the booth, she asked about Friday’s drama. The uniformed agent looked up from his screen. He spoke agitated patois:
“These people! Stay up all night. Drink ‘dem energy drink, ‘den go back ta work. Look’n down de track, dey pass out, fall face down. Dam fools! Mess up de whole ‘ting. Lotta us workin’ depend on de trains!”
The last word on the man with the backpack.
Through subway grates or quicksilver along shiny rails, we travel lifetimes in a shard of a second. Approaching light-speed, velocity flattens us. We can move up, down, right or left, but neither forward nor back. Losing one dimension, we receive another, grace.
From NY Times:
“Train operators have come to learn certain rules of thumb. Expect about a death across the system per week, perhaps less in a good year. Prepare for more around the holidays. (Statistics do not support the idea that suicides go up at those times, but workers say they believe it to be true.) Operators who go five years without a “12-9″ — transit code for a passenger under a train — should count themselves lucky.”