These diary entries used to live on Jackie Cangro’s website, The Subway Chronicles. The idea of the site was to collect stories about the subway. It was mostly essays, but there was a small section of the site devoted to diary entries. That section was my favorite part, mostly because I was in it. The site still lives on sort of in the anthology of essays that Jackie edited with the same name, The Subway Chronicles. It is a nice mix of famous and not so famous writers. You can still purchase the anthology here:
Subway Diary 2004-ish
Tuesday, Dec 2, Homebound C-A-F
Spring Street Station
There is some bit of indigestion, a minor rumbling in the system. The C train is too crowded for me to get on. Most New Yorkers would have gotten on but I’m finicky. I let another C and A pass by before I finally take an A that’s no more crowded than usual. Of course I haven’t escaped anything. Three stops later at Broadway Nassau, the platform is full of people, not finicky like me, who couldn’t physically push their way onto the last three trains. By this time I have made it to the relatively calm center of the train.
In general, people are courteous enough to move towards the center as the train fills up. However, tolerable personal space limits will only collapse so far. By the doors, it’s like a rugby scrum with people pushing into one another and reaching over each other for hand holds. It is the most open space but with few places to hold on. As you travel towards the area between the two doors, the space narrows with seats along the sidewalls and poles in the center. Not faced with the open combat in front of the doors, people in the narrows will only move as close to the next person as what they personally consider sane. With each stop, they might, depending on their general feelings on humanity, move in a grudging inch or two just to show the poor bastards by the doors that they care. The half-heartedness of the gesture is perfectly obvious to the people by the doors. Only once, have I ever heard anyone protest the order of things. At Carroll St, a woman had had enough and addressed the whole car loudly in a voice that was a whisper below a shout: WILL THE PEOPLE IN THE MIDDLE PLEASE MOVE IN. Most of the people shrugged and a few moved in another inch.
Wednesday Morning- City Bound F
A homeless man has created a pocket of empty seats. Any experienced rider knows to approach these pockets very carefully. It passes the smell test, more or less, and he isn’t yelling at anyone yet. He has a tremendous beard, the kind only an academic or a transient can get away with, not long, but bushy and round like a bit of topiary. It makes the bit of scruff that I’ve been sporting as a guard against over domestication look like the weak effort of teenager pretending he’s old enough to buy beer. He’s pulling at it rhythmically, and each time, it springs back into shape.
There is a well-dressed man sitting in front of me wearing a yarmulke. He takes a box of Entenmanns’s pastries out of his leather bag. It’s morning so I think it must be the mini muffins but it’s chocolate chip cookies for breakfast. One-two-three-four-five cookies for breakfast and the box goes back into his bag, ready for the next little emotional downturn that might be righted with a bit of sugar and chocolate. What measures have I taken? None.
My somewhat empty car suddenly becomes crowded at Carroll St. but I have a seat so I watch their plight with bemusement. Any human situation immediately stratifies into varying grades of have and have not. Have a good seat (me this morning), an okay seat, a seat wedged in between two large people not honoring the clearly denoted boundaries of the plastic butt grooves, have no seat at all but a grip on the center pole, a grip on the rails above the seats, one finger curled around the rail as you reach over a few belligerents, a desperate hand pancaked to the roof, and finally the lowest of low, no grip on anything at all and wondering if you fall whether they will help you up or trample you to death on their way off the train. If I let myself I could feel very superior having this seat. Obviously I was rewarded by my foresight in getting on the train at an earlier stop and moving towards the un-crowded center of the platform. Luck? Sure if you want to call luck a positive attitude and a willingness to seize the moment. Yes, it could be very tempting.
Thursday Morning Dec 2- City Bound- F
Someone across from me is writing in her journal that someone across from her is writing in his journal. What are the possibilities? An assignment from her psychiatrist? Seems sane. An editorial for the company newsletter? A eulogy for someone she lost touch with years ago? The pen is moving too fast for her to be a poetess. She’s practical enough to wear the jogging shoes on the commute and keep the leather pumps shoved under her desk. Essayist? Fiction writer?
The malevolent stranger watched her from across the car. After each glance he would write something in his notebook, making angry movements on the punctuation. Loretta thinks it’s obviously an assignment from his psychiatrist or some new-agey parole officer. She checks her skirt to make sure he can’t see too much. He won’t stop looking at my feet. Sexual deviant, I bet. Whatever floats your boat, Mister. You just stay over there and I’ll stay over here.
Sunday 11:30 am-F.
On the weekend, you see more kids and old folks on the train. Monday through Friday, those hours before nine and after five, we are the party of hunters and every other hour, the whole village rides the train.
Monday Morning-Dec 6-City bound- F
I’m not paying attention to anything. My earphones are on (no music) and I’ve just read the sports page without retaining a single word, when a voice cuts through my disconnectedness. Deep, mellow, authoritative, a West Indies accent, I think it’s an announcement for a moment. But it’s preaching, less crazy and repetitive than usual for a subway preacher. I have no idea why but this morning it’s mildly pleasant as he rhythmically goes through a litany of sins that pass for fun on a Saturday night. Amen, the pills and the booze and the Ya-Ya-Ya partying never got me anywhere either. I take my earphones off to hear him a little better. Just when I think the Holy Ghost might have a shot, some one wants to argue. A woman I would have taken for mousy becomes the first person I have ever seen talk back to a subway preacher, “Not everyone believes what you believe. Some people don’t want to listen to this stuff.” Ordinarily she would be my hero but this morning I’m torn. Fierce but reasonable atheist or passionate apostle? They argue a bit and finally he tells her that she doesn’t have to listen but that she could be quiet until it’s over. But she doesn’t want to be quiet. When she persists, he begins speaking in tongues at her. I don’t think I’ve heard that since moving north to the Blue State Capital. Of course, that wins the argument.
Dec. 9, Thursday Morning, F line
This bum is something out of Dante, a spirit tormented and goaded on to torment others. He is making a vile music with his change cup. Instead of rattling it, he is slamming the coins against the inside of the cup by thrusting out his arm. He makes the sound three or four times in a row and each time it seems more insistent. Shuffling from one end of the car to the other, he is getting closer to me. His skin is burnt dark and he smells. Dirty gray hair is spilling out from under his hood and his white beard is tucked into the front of his pants. He starts muttering at people as he goes by. At first I think it’s just nonsense syllables, a speaking in tongues for the Devil, but it resolves itself into Spanish as he gets closer. He pauses in the doorway at Jay Street and yells at us all for a moment before exiting.
Dec 20, Monday Morning, F line
The train smells like ketchup. Some bit of McDonald’s left behind from that O God the world is spinning, I’ve got to get something in my stomach, late night snack. Baby at home, I’ve almost forgot what that life was like. Don’t worry Wheaton’s got that beat.
Ps. I will not be licking any portion of the train.
In those two stops between Seventh Avenue and Carroll Street, that the F train is elevated, a little girl is standing, I’m not making this up, she is standing on her seat to get a view of the Statue of Liberty. Her father is telling her to sit down because it’s dangerous. I say let her stand. Let her stand.
Dec. 23, Wednesday Morning on the Platform at 15th
A guy is playing slide guitar, real muddy delta stuff, no singing, just strings bending and wailing. Now this is Christmas music, something a guy nailed to the cross over the weekend and back to work three days later would understand. His tip jar overfloweth. Even crusty old me throws in a quarter.
First secret new year’s resolution is blown. I’m late. Technically I won’t become late until somewhere under the East River. I don’t like to think about being under water in this contraption. As a general rule, I try to avoid places and situations where only a super hero can save me.
Feb 25, F train and the Chinese Curse Lady
I’ve seen her before so I’m not surprised. Most of us on the F have seen her before. We look around to find the new people to see their reactions. The only indication that you might have that she is a little crazy is that she wears dark glasses underground. Otherwise, she is a medium height middle-aged Chinese woman who is always impeccably groomed and dressed. Today she is wearing a striking blue wool coat. At first she’s quiet. She waits until someone offends her before she starts speaking. Her curses are usually aimed at talkers but sometimes there are other secret offenses known only to her and in rare cases, the entire car is cursed. Of course some jackass is rambling on as though the entire train cares about his life and for once someone is going to do something about it. She moves closer but not to close and begins to speak in a loud authoritative voice. It never becomes a yell and she never loses her temper.
“Don’t make me go over there.”
“When you go to hell bring the people who pay you money to drink.
“15 million curses, 100 million curses”
“You are lucky we are almost there.”
“500 million curses.”
“I don’t care what you tell people. I don’t mind you call me all the Chinese names, all the Chinese names.”
“3 billion curses”
I earn the wrath of the Chinese Curse Lady. She is about half a car away and I can’t see the people that she is cursing but I can see her in her Sun Glasses and Blue wool coat again.
“1 Curse is worth a million curses. Have fun in hell.”
“You think the Chinese name is funny so I have fun with you.
At this point she sees me writing in my notebook.
“Ten million curse for the person printing out the Chinese name.”
“No story and no Chinese name for him because he is on duty.”
“I am making a story for you to tell”
“It is okay to write stories but it is not okay to write down people’s name.”
“500 million curses for the person writing the Chinese name.”
She never moved closer to me, so I guess my offense was not nearly as grave as some others. Maybe she sensed a kindred spirit, someone else who would be handing out curses if he could only get away with it. I think she might have been right about me, about the stories anyway. I never could get the sense of play needed to make a story. I’m always perched at the edge of my seat with a pencil and notebook waiting for someone else to do something.
4-12 F-train, 15th St. Platform
Another Prophet, this one a disheveled white man in his fifties wearing a dirty tan trench coat.
“The Subway is not Disneyland”
“It’s not the Coney Island ride”
“You can’t pay $2.00 and ride all day.”
“Don’t do it. You’ll get in trouble. They’ll give you a citation.”
“The Subway is not Disneyland.”
“You can’t pay 2.00 and ride all day.”
“It’s a federal offense.”
4/14 F train
Commute to: There are a few empty seats and the people sitting next to them are doing their best to make them look unappealing. They are blowing themselves up like puffer fish, letting their bags and jackets hand over onto the seat. All of these yuppies trying to look like they’ve been to prison or just plain crazy. I sit right on the bit of jacket hanging over. He makes a great harrumph in pulling it back.
At York Street, he springs up and runs across the platform to the Ftrain going the opposite way. Did he forget that his house was on fire or that his wife loved another man? I check my wallet just to be safe.
Commute Home: In the trash between the tracks, a small bottle of gin, the kind they give you on airplanes, enough to get a rat drunk or kill half an idea.