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By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1963 Doubleday & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Man in the Subway
I suppose that to most men the realization that they are not going to make it comes slowly. We live in an affluent society, so the goal is affluence. Some call it security, but you can have a hundred years of security buried in your cellar or safe-deposit box and it doesn't bring you status. Not the kind of status that mink coats, diamonds, Continentals, and hundred-thousand-dollar houses purchase when you have purchased them, and it's unfashionable to talk about happiness. Today, the ingredients of happiness are too complex. I had a wife I loved and she loved me, and we had a four-year-old daughter whom we both loved, adored, or what you will. You know about four-year-old daughters. Ours had blue eyes and golden curls, as if color, complexion, figure, and personality had all been painted to order for her and fate to satisfy us in this, unquestionably the best of all possible worlds. We suffered from very little in a world where most people suffer, but exemption from suffering did not cure what I was sick with.
I was sick with awakening, which is the best way I can put it. Day by day, I awakened to facts, and mostly the process took place on the way home from work. Where I worked was Fortieth Street and Park Avenue, and the firm was Sturm & Jaffe, a large and important and successful architectural firm that employed some forty people. Among the forty, myself as a draftsman, with take-home pay of one hundred and thirty-two dollars a week. I could have earned more as a plumber or carpenter, but I hadn't been trained as a plumber or carpenter or anything practical and income-begetting. I had been trained to construct blueprints, and I wore a clean shirt and left work each evening at five o'clock—except when I was asked to stay later, which was at least twice a week.
Then I stayed later without overtime. I called my wife in Telton, New Jersey, and said, "I got to finish up tonight, honey." "How long?" "Maybe an hour or two."
I worked board to board with a fellow called Fritz Macon. He was a philosopher. He liked to say, "People like you and me, Johnny, live lives of quiet desperation." He wasn't much of a philosopher, but our lives did not call for anything much more profound. He wasn't even original, but each day, when I took the subway up to the bus terminal on 168th Street, and from there the bus to Telton, I found my desperation increasing. I was maturing at the age of thirty-five, and awakening to the facts, as follows—that I was going nowhere and achieving nothing, that I would never make very much more money than I was making right now, that I had not very much to look forward to. Fritz said that the way to get rid of my problem was to substitute another problem, and that I ought to find one of the hungry girls that the city teems with and get involved with her. But aside from other things, I did not earn enough money to get involved with anyone.
Today was a fine, clean, cold March day, the sky blue and windswept and tumbling with clouds, and I looked forward to my walk across town to the subway and even held out hope to myself that I might make it to Telton before dark. But Joe Sturm, the son of one of the partners, dropped some work in my lap, and it was six when I left. Fritz walked across town with me and talked about the problems and rewards of being the boss's son.
"Stop eating your heart out," I said to him. "You and me, we ought to be the boss's sons."
"No, we're not."
His direction was downtown each night to Pennsylvania Station to get his train for Amityville, Long Island. "I used to think," he said to me, "that you could beat it by not getting married."
"You can't beat it."
We came to the corner, and I said good night to him.
He crossed Eighth Avenue to take the subway downtown, and I went into the station. At six-fifteen, it was still crowded. I bought a newspaper and pushed my way toward the uptown end of the platform and spent a penny on chewing gum—the only thing a penny still buys—and then this man came over and gripped my arm and hung on it and leaned against me, and whispered into my face, his breath hot, sour, and sickening, "Please God, help me, mister, sick I am—God, I am so sick."
Your well-trained and conditioned reaction is, "Leave me alone, mister, you have a whole platform full of people. I am nothing to you, I don't know you. Have the decency to get sick by yourself."
I began to put words to that effect together, and then I stopped—because he reminded me of my father. He wasn't a bum, either. He was hatless, but he was well dressed and he wasn't a bum. He was just sick. He was about sixty years old, maybe a little more, white-haired, blue-eyed—and under other circumstances he would have been a very nice-looking old gentleman—but his face was full of pain and fear; and in the instant that he reminded me of my father, I was filled with self-loathing and self-disgust. I told myself that I would help him, and to hell with it if I came home an hour or two hours later, and that somewhere in me there was a vestige of something resembling kindness and decency.
These were very quick thoughts. The platform was crowded. A downtown train was beginning to pull out and an approaching uptown train had begun to rock the tunnel with the thunder of its approach. The old man clung to me and looked over my shoulder, and suddenly the pain left his face and fear replaced it. His face was all fear and horror with no room on it for anything else. He wrenched away from me violently, flung himself back, missed his footing, and fell in front of the uptown train that was roaring into the station. There was no time for the conductor to touch his brakes. One moment the old man was toppling into space, and the next moment the train was passing over his body—and the scream of horror from so many throats was almost as dreadful as what had happened.
I pushed my way through the mob of shivering, weeping, excited, trembling people, who now had something to talk about and to break up a day no better or more exciting than mine, and who were exulting while they sobbed and shivered at the nearness of terrible, deforming death. No one thought to look for the man the dead man had embraced; no one stopped me; no one spoke to me; and the police passed me as I left the subway station. They were part of a river of people that poured into the station. Death travels faster than sound; even as a whisper it does.
My own credo was plain, and no more peculiar than other things I shared with a hundred million people. "I don't want to get involved, so leave me alone. That's all. I don't want to get involved. What happened was a terrible thing, but it's none of my affair. I didn't push him."
That last was it. I didn't push him. If I stayed there, some joker would remember me, and then his mind would begin to remember things that his eyes never saw. I knew that routine from a psychology course at New York University, where a professor had pointed a banana, someone else had fired a shot, and we all swore the banana was a gun. I didn't want anyone swearing that I had pushed the old man. What would I swear? I tried to recall it, and mentally testified under oath that I hadn't touched him. He had leaped back. His foot had slipped. He fell under the train. That was it. I didn't come into it at all, except that it was in my mind to help him. I could swear to that under oath. He was sick and frightened, a poor, trembling, frightened old man, who had begged me to help him. But no one could help him the way he was now, not one bit, and no one could ever put the pieces together.
So why should I stay there? To look at it? I didn't want to look at it.
It was a cold March evening, and I was pouring sweat, soaked with it under my coat, and shivering too. As I walked east across Forty-second Street, the edge of darkness touched the city, and the bright white and yellow of the honky-tonk skid row flickered on.
An ambulance screamed past me. It would pick up the pieces and put them in a watertight basket. I wanted to throw up, but fought my stomach and got to the subway and into a north-bound train. Here, on the old IRT, the trains were running, with no bodies of frightened old men to impede the mass motion of thousands of tired, close-pressed, white-faced people. I wanted to mourn in some way, but instead I read my newspaper, reading words as symbols the way one does, with no shred of comprehension behind them, no communication to me, no absorption of the violence that the newspaper paraded, because violence that you read about is as meaningless as death that you read about.
Above 125th Street, the car began to empty, and most of the people found seats. I sat down and a man sat down opposite me, and when I glanced up from my newspaper, he was watching me. He was thin, with long black hair, combed back and fixed rigidly with some sort of plastic hair-spray. His face was long and narrow; he had black dots for eyes; and I remember that he wore a striped shirt, the collar pinned under the tie with a pearl, screw-on clip. He watched me and made sure that I would know he was watching me.
He was intent and businesslike in his manner of watching me, and when I got up to leave at 168th Street, he rose and followed me and walked alongside of me across the platform, tapped my arm, and said to me, "The key, captain."
I was more afraid and nervous than I should have been, even considering that most of us are afraid and nervous when the wall that binds you in yourself in New York is broken. You must consider that for me it had been broken twice this evening. If we live in a world where violence is paraded almost as much as sex, in the newspapers and on television and on the screen and in books and magazines, we still are not intimate with it. I had been in a fight at the age of sixteen, and not since then. As an adult, I had never punched a man or been punched, and if called to it, I would not have known how to begin. So I did what people do, under such circumstances. I walked on, and tried to ignore the thin-faced man, who would not be ignored, not by any means—and on the stairs leading up to the street he grabbed my arm and swung me to him, and spoke to me coldly and evenly.
"I tried to be a gentleman, buster, but you don't want to play nice. Give me the key."
The last of the people who had gotten off the train at this stop walked past us, leaving us alone on the steps.
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said. "I don't know who you are or what you want, and I'm late already—" I tried to pull away from him then, but his hand gripped my arm like a vise, and he grinned at me.
"Let go of me."
"You give me the key. I let you go."
"What key? I don't know what you're talking about."
"The key the old man gave you."
"What old man?"
"Shlakmann! Shlakmann! Don't play footsie with me, mister, don't play no games. I don't know who you are or how you come into this. Maybe you don't. Maybe old Shlakmann picked you out of the crowd. The hell with that. Give me the key."
"I don't even know what key you're talking about."
"You make me sick," he said. "I saw the old man give it to you. Enough?"
I shook my head. "I got to catch a bus. I'm sorry."
Now he dropped his voice. It became a whisper, cold, direct, and his left hand came out of his pocket with a set of brass knuckles that glittered in the faint light of the stair well. "You going to give me the key, mister, or do I have to go over you and take you apart and look for it in the pieces. Because then you won't look no better than Shlakmann—"
Someone was coming down the stairs into the station, and in that moment, he relaxed his grip. I flung him away from me, and he fell back, lost his footing, and stumbled down three or four steps before he was able to catch the banister. I didn't wait, but raced up the stairs and across the street, plunging into the terminal. The Telton bus was taking on passengers. Panting and trembling, I pushed into it. It was not heroic behavior, but I was not a hero.
When the bus pulled out, he was standing there outside my window, watching me coldly and thoughtfully.
"Is anything wrong?" the stout woman sitting next to me asked. "Are you sick? If you are, I can have him stop the bus."
It was kind of her and thoughtful of her. Her lap was taken up with two big shopping bags from Gimbels, and she wore the small, rimless glasses that seem to be made for stout, elderly women; but I think I would have strangled her if she had reached for the pull cord to stop the bus.
I told her I was all right. "I ran for the bus, you know, ma'am, but I'm all right now, thank you."
Yes, I was all right, except that my stomach was churning and my heart was racing and my head ached, and I was remembering how agonizingly afraid I had been when the thin-faced man stopped me on the stairs and showed me his brass knuckles.
We are supposed to be brave. We read about people who are brave until it begins to soak into us and we begin in turn to believe that we are brave and aggressive, and then we are full of shame when we understand that we are neither. The memory fights the reality. Why didn't I take a stand with him? Why didn't I ask him who the hell he thought he was talking to?
I could have said to him, "Look here, Jack, run along and sell your shoelaces somewhere else."
I could have said it in a certain way and made him believe that I meant it, except that I could not, and I had never said anything just like that to anyone in my life.
It ties in with the fact that I have been putting all this down, but not a word concerning what I look like. I don't know how to do that, because I suppose I don't really know what I look like. Some people do, or must; I am sure there are people who must, and they can think about it and evoke an image of what they are like, because they look like someone singular. I don't. I walk along the street sometimes, and I see twenty or thirty people who give me an impression of myself. They are medium height, medium coloring, brown eyes, light brown hair, and faces cut of cardboard, nice faces, faces that are eager for reassurance and hope, but, as I tell myself, not real faces. Alice, my wife, will be shocked at that. She thought I was handsome when she married me and probably still does, but that is a sense of what I am to someone else, not to myself; and the image to myself has no form whatsoever; but perhaps to someone like the stout lady sitting next to me, it was acceptable and innocuous.
Whether or not in so many words, it must have gone through her mind that I was the kind of a man you could safely speak to on a bus to Telton, although women of that age are safe under any circumstances—or aren't they? Or wasn't I just as safe right now, the thin-faced man standing behind on the platform and no strings ever to lead him to me again with his terrifying nonsense about a key? And the old man's name was what—Sherman, Shellman, Shlakmann? That was it, Shlakmann, but what did thin-face have to do with the old man?
And then, dozing off to the rhythm of the bus, I had one of those quick, flashing, half-sleep dreams in which the whole thing was enacted again, the old man gripping me and then his body sprawled through the air in front of the approaching train.
I woke with a start, and as a reflex motion, my hand went to the pocket where I keep my cigarettes, but then I remembered where I was, and in my pocket my hand let go of the cigarette pack, my fingers moved, and I drew out of my coat pocket a flat key that I had never seen before. It was a brass key to a safe-deposit box, bare and smooth except for the letter f at the top.
So the old man had given me the key, and thin-face had seen it; and at that moment, there in the bus, all I could ask myself was why—why hadn't I put my hand into my pocket on the subway—because if I had, then I would have turned the key over to thin-face and said to him, "There it is. There is your God-damn stinking key, and now leave me alone and leave me out of it," wanting at this moment only to be what I had been and where I had been a few hours before, a draftsman by the name of John T. Camber, thirty-five years old, married, the product of three years of college and two years of the army and thirteen years of listless continuation. If that was a hole—as it was, deep and bottomless—I wanted only to crawl into it and shelter there.
Excerpted from Alice by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1963 Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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