I got on the last car of the subway. I liked the idea that if I started there and walked forward from car to car, I would be traveling faster than everybody else on the train. As I stepped inside and looked around, I noticed a mood in the car. It was one of excitement coming from the people inside. Two Asian businessmen were smiling and speaking a mile a minute in Japanese, in unison. It sounded like one long sentence, no periods, no commas, just an occasional break for laughter. I never knew when the break was supposed to occur, but the men did as they both quit talking simultaneously to let out loud maniacal staccato laughs. On the opposite side of the car there was a junior high choir group; they had big suitcases and larger smiles. The electric dozen had flown in from some small town in Oklahoma to compete in a singing competition. They were more excited just to be in the city though. I moved past the group and opened the door to the next car.
This one was Desperation. A man was pleading with the passengers to give him their change. I’ve heard the speech so often I can recite it as easily as I can the P.A.s on the airplane, “Ladies and Gentlemen please excuse the interruption. I am not a drunk or on drugs, but I am homeless. I haven’t eaten in three days and I’m asking you today for some help. I’m not too proud to take anything: a quarter, a dime, a nickel, even a penny, anything would be greatly appreciated. I’m sorry to disturb your ride. Thank you and God bless. We will be arriving at La Guardia soon.” He had lost his job and the police boarded up the building he was calling home, so he says. The man was insanely thin with blotchy skin and a terrible odor. A couple of people emptied their pockets. Most did not. I smiled and walked on under the row of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum ads.
The next car I entered was Hope. A Cuban man was sitting in the priority seats with his very pregnant wife. She seemed exhausted, her eyes were closed and her body was limp. He spoke gentle words to her and rubbed her stomach with a callused blue-collar hand. The baby would have an easier life than they have had. Two young black children with violins, a brother and a sister, were playing songs and taking requests. They had a sign saying they were trying to help their family buy food and clothing. They were also earning money to fix their out-of-tune instruments. While the boy would do a hoedown solo, his sister would walk around with a cup accepting contributions. I had seen these kids before; I gave them a quarter and kept on trucking.
This car was the Love car. There were couples and families, lovers and friends. One young Puerto Rican couple was sleeping hand in hand, her head on his shoulder. Another older white Anglo-Saxon Protestant couple was standing close together. They hadn’t been lucky enough to get two seats next to each other so they elected to stand; they didn’t seem to mind. He would listen to her inane gossip while gently brushing her hair away from her eyes. I don’t think he was really listening, just losing himself in her eyes. There was a family of four on vacation, they were all dressed up and on their way to see a Broadway show, the matinée. They were deep in conversation, discussing where they would go after the show and the following day and the day after that. They didn’t notice they missed their transfer to the Times Square shuttle at Grand Central.
In the next car I found Giving. A middle-aged man was offering free food and drinks to anyone who needed it. Like me, he had also been traveling from car to car, going the other way. I guess he was the slowest person on the subway. He would lay sodas and sandwiches in the middle of the car and then walk to the next car and give his speech there. In a minute he returned and collected what was not taken. Nobody took anything, I should tell him about the homeless guy a few cars back. Club Med ads line the top of the car in the Giving car. I can’t imagine any of these people at Club Med. I proceeded unnoticed into the car of Apathy.
A disfigured lady was making her way toward me; she couldn’t use her legs. She didn’t really have legs; they were mangled and shriveled. She scooted her body along with her arms, leaning forward, stretching out her powerful arms and pulling herself along. She moved like an inchworm. She couldn’t speak clearly, but her grunts and open hat let everyone know she wanted money. The people who were wide-awake looking around only seconds before, closed their eyes and pretended to sleep or raised their newspapers to cover their faces. I stepped out of the way as she slinked by and waited for someone to open the rear door. I opened the door on the front side of the car and left. She was still waiting for someone to let her out by the time I was gone, helpless as a cat.
The last car, or the lead car I should say, was empty. No one was sitting, no one was standing, and no one was lying down passed out. I knew the conductor was in the little room at the front, but that was it as far as people. No talking, no soliciting, no emotion, just subway sounds and subway smells. I couldn’t go any further. I walked up to the front window and watched the underground scene in front of me. I watched the stations come in and out of view until 77th Street. I got off at the next stop. I could walk the rest of the way to the park.