Mind the Metro

An obituary for subway rides

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in Features • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

“Stand clear of the closing doors!” was all I remember hearing as I woke up on a Monday morning in a cold sweat, dream tears still wet on my face. Even my dreams are nostalgic of crowded places, worst of all the D.C. metro, where Anne Taylor pit stains let out triumphant sighs and 24-year-old dreams go unblinkingly to die. Yet, I couldn’t remember a single trip from the depths of the railway system from the last two years I had used it. I had I once overheard a woman say loudly to her friend on one of the busiest metro routes in Washington, D.C., “Oh, everyone blacks out their trip on the metro.”  

Something strange happens when we enter and exit the underground labyrinths of our respective metropolitan subway systems. Emerging in a single file line, within pressed blazers and clasped watches, we glide diagonally out of our subway tunnels like the steady hike of a roller coaster about to nosedive into the day. At some point during that dreaded ascension out of the depths of Hades, we forget the unfiltered encounters we left underground. 

“How was your 36-minute train ride to work this morning?” any slightly decent colleague asks. Like trying to recall a dream the night before, we come up with nothing, stuttering and stumbling over our own words to answer this basic attempt at small talk. We wonder why we can’t recall a single thing from those moments on the train. Our colleague, Angela, is facetiously persistent in asking this question day after day and the inability to answer leads to perpetual, almost obsessive, Dr. Google searches of early-onset Alzheimer’s to the point that our internet histories raise a flag for HR, and Angela no longer asks pinpointed questions about the 36-minute commute, nor does she extend the next happy hour invite. 

But, alas, it is during these suspended moments of transit, when we are en route to the next human experience, when we think the world isn’t watching us, is when peculiarity finds its petri dish. Which is why I started doodling the odd encounters I had on the metro in a palm-sized pocketbook. 

As the masses of morning professionals swayed back and forth with one limb tethered to a subway pole, a dust particle flew up into my right nostril at 8:40 am. I sneezed violently into my untethered arm’s coat sleeve. Three minutes passed and a man, sitting down in my left peripheral, was still staring at me. I felt a tap on my shoulder. Without uttering a word, he flicked his apathetic eyes down to where my left boob was masked by the sleeping bag of a coat I had on that obliterated any presumption of femininity. My gaze followed his and we both landed on the four-inch nose dingleberry, still fresh as morning dew, splattered in all its neon green glory against the black backdrop of my coat. I didn’t immediately react, so he raised his pointer finger to where my newfound gloobie wiggled like Jell-O on my coat.  

His thick eyebrow cocked up as he waited for my apology, on behalf of my nose. If anyone was going to be doing the fingerpointing, it ought to have been at the caterpillar of hair that was, in fact, fully alive between his eyes.  

I looked down at my nose jam, looked back up at him, down at my brain slug, and back up at him again. With a straight face and pursed lips, I let out a questioning but confident, “hmm.” 

For four minutes his unflinching finger remained pointed, now with a heightened determination, at the general area where my left tit hid underneath my elongated George Constanza Gore-Tex coat. Neither one of us broke eye contact with the other during this greenie stalemate. I may have had an avalanche of other petty losses waiting for me later that day, but I could not, would not, give this man on the metro the satisfaction of my shame at the crusty noog now solidifying into my parka. 

At about a quarter to nine on a Tuesday, a green caterpillar pinched itself from the sweaty subway poll my hand clenched on to and crawled over my knuckle. As I gripped the pole, one end of the caterpillar (its head or its behind?) pinched up high in the air as if it were on its tiptoes sniffing for something salacious. Then, it outstretched one end completely straight into the air, as if he were waiting for a draft of wind to inform him which direction to inch to.  

“Where to next?” he asked me, clearly disoriented. I nearly spat out the half a mouthful of home-brewed Folgers trying to make its way bitterly down my esophagus. I hadn’t had enough coffee to answer that question intelligently. Nor did I have a spare metro card for this intrusive creature. He’d have to figure it like the rest of us. I set him on top of a cheery ad for Hamilton, an optimistic ledge to wait out the chrysalis of a train he landed himself on.  

“JEEESUUUs is COMING,” a bearded man belched from the dimple of his chest, which was visible through his wet t-shirt. It was 5:48 pm, and it had been pouring rain all day. In the dead center of the subway car, his slippery boots were straddling the floor in an upside-down V so that he could stretch his arms out above him. His voice bounded and crackled through the hollow piece of metal we shared, like a chorus, as he repeated these three words again and again. His eyes were closed with an intense determination. I thought he might cry.  

In this dry space, the heads of scattered passengers swiveled as they were torn between what enticed them on their phone screens, and the wet spectacle in the middle of the car, trying to maintain a neutral and non-judgmental facial expression.  

I had seen many of what I called “transit disciples” since moving to a big city: people that would take advantage of a reluctantly captivated audience to announce matter-of-fact apocalyptic forecasts. If the performance didn’t go well or the message didn’t hit with the desired gravity, the show was over in a matter of seconds and in walked a whole new audience, just like that. It was ironic because by the time anyone crawled on to the metro either before the day started or after it was over, they really just wanted to zone out.  

As the bearded man continued to recite his message, dully colored flats shifted nervously on the ground. A woman near the exit doors gave an awkward clap. Then, the train came to an abrupt stop in the middle of darkness.  

“Hold tight, everyone. We will be here fiiiiive more minutes,” a bored voice dragged out each word through the subway speaker. The bearded man, still holding his arms outstretched toward the ceiling of the metro like it was the steeple of a church, hadn’t planned for this much time on stage. After another eight “Jesus are comings,” the urgency began to level out of his voice, until it took a steep decline to an exasperated “Jesus is cominnnng?” Looking around at a now a fully attentive audience, the transit disciple collected his limbs into a straight posture and let out a sigh. He pursed his lips and shuffled to a seat next to an older white-haired woman who had been watching him carefully the whole time, and his eyes went somewhere distant as the drumming of the rails came back to life.  

“Pssst, Jordan?!” 

I looked up from my feet, trying to pull my mind back into my head like reeling back a kite with a tense line. Leaning against the sliding doors ten seconds after the stand-clear-of-the-closing-doors lady already implied what kind of day she was having, stood Thomas, a guy I dated briefly when I first moved to the city. My friend set us up because we went to the same university but had never met. Thomas played golf and enjoyed margaritas and . . . shit. It took me between 20 and 60 metro rides later to realize I did not want to date someone from college.  

My mind raced like a legal assistant through a filing cabinet to the most up-to-date memory I had of him: Tiger Woods. 

“Ah! Hey Thomas!” I smiled to buy time. “. . . Are you still working on your golf blog?”  

One of the reasons it didn’t work out was because I never read the blog post he wrote about the legacy of Tiger Woods in a five-page blog he emailed me a copy of after our fourth date — tacos. I really tried; I even printed and stapled the copy he sent, and picked it up from my kitchen table a whole eight and a half times. I fell asleep six times and the other two and a half I stared out of the window of our living room. I had been through four years of a liberal arts education and read two books a month, but I couldn’t read a 1,200-word golf blog about Tiger Woods making his comeback this decade. Anyway, the guilt over not reading it led me to never text him back at all. 

“Yes!” he said, as a flash of confidence zipped across his face, and an awkward silence after. The subway had never moved so agonizingly slow. I plunged into him when the train stopped. 

“What’s the next piece?” I asked as the corner of my mouth uncontrollably twisted upwards on one side of my face. What came out next was, “Society champions another male athlete for overcoming the great adversity of female temptation, getting a second shot at their career?” Oops. I really needed to start drinking coffee before my commute. 

I never saw Thomas again. 

On the morning of my birthday, which fell on a week day that year, I descended down the escalator to the subway, as the hot breath of that realm blew through the bags under my eyes almost as gracefully as the lone grocery bag in American Beauty. It was 5:30 am. As I rounded the corner to the gate, I heard some shuffling to my right. I shifted my head, and found a man lying on the ground. He looked at me expectantly, his mouth open and ready to say something. I waited. It was my first human interaction as a 24-year-old. 

“Hey,” he said with a hoarse urgency. It looked like he was opening a bottle underneath his jacket. 

“Oh, good morni —” I saw his right hand moving unusually fast as I spoke.  

“Hey!” he said more fervently. My feet began to move my body away from him. He was really struggling with that bottle. 

The train came to a halt on the tracks. I had to catch it, or I’d miss Justin Timberlake versus Brittany Spears as the theme of the cycling class that morning. I looked more closely at the man. I was invested in the point I was waiting for him to make.  

He pulled out his penis and was now smiling, his hand moving even faster now over what was never a plastic bottle. I realized I had cocked an eyebrow and was beginning to point before half of my brain turned on.  

All I heard come out of my mouth in what I can only describe as an imitation of grandmother’s quivering voice was, “you should be ashamed of yourself young man!” I then did my best basketball fake out and ran away like a gazelle onto the train toward my 2000’s reunion cycling class. 

We sat side-by-side in a shared blue seat. The bottoms of our thighs fell out of our jean shorts and stuck like playdough to the plastic belly of the seat. Her hand rested on my inner thigh and mine fidgeted with the ring on her forefinger. We had only been “hanging out” for a couple of weeks. We were bored, it was summer. I caught a glimpse of us in the window, which acted as a mirror in the surrounding darkness of the tunnel. The reflection in the glass showed two strangers as intimate lovers in that shared seat. It was fun to pretend. We decided to take the metro to our third date, in Chinatown. Three stops later, and the train came to another dramatic halt, which I liked because it pushed her into my bony shoulder and the passengers’ attention toward their feet. She grabbed my neck, I smiled, and we kissed.  

I had never cried on the metro. It was the last ride before we were no longer permitted to go into work — before comfortable businesses decided a pandemic could not amplify within their offices. On my way home that night, the weight of my small world felt overwhelming against the white noise of metal smoothly sliding over metal. I couldn’t see the heads of people on their phones, as my eyes flooded with pools of my own salt water. Something so subtle at work hit me with an impact I had been able to ignore all day until I stepped through the sliding doors.  

I had seen other people cry on the train before. There is an unspoken rule of communal anonymity on the subway. Unlike the rules of above-ground, there is a mutual understanding that it is safe to look your worst here, but under no circumstances can you stare for too long, pass judgment, or stand obliviously in the middle of the car like an animal when people are trying to exit. 

In the small space of the car, the weight of that day and other subtleties over the last month finally cracked open and streamed down my cheeks. I pretended to look at my phone. That’s when my second subway booger of the year slid out of my nose and splattered onto the ground. I laughed at it. To my right, a man who had been staring from his peripheral laughed, too.  

Finally, looking up, I caught a glimpse of a man dazing off. He was holding a book I bought when I first moved to D.C., but hadn’t finished &madsh; Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, a retelling of Lincoln’s presidency with vivid Civil War-era reimaginations of city life in Washington, D.C. He wasn’t reading the book that was open in front of him, though. He had been hypnotized by the rhythm of the car, as his eyes were staring ahead but not focused on anything. I couldn’t stop looking because I caught him in one of those moments in the day when the world is still buzzing outside but we are somewhere deep inside ourselves. The sound of the doors opening didn’t even stir him from his daydream. I gestured a wave toward him, but was abruptly interrupted-   

“Stand clear of the closing doors!”  •

Jordan Walker is a journalist in Washington, D.C. Her work has also appeared in <em.McSweeney's. She enjoys running for absurdly long distances and exploring the endless frontiers of her Instant Pot.

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