As soon as I got belowground, I knew there was a problem. Even before I reached the turnstiles, I heard a low, subterranean rumble echoing off the tiled walls, and noticed more than the usual number of aimless-looking people milling about. A tangy whiff of disgruntlement wafted on the fetid air. Every once in a great while the "announcement system" would come on and "announce" something, but none of these spatterings of word salad resulted in the arrival of a train, not for a long, long time. Along with everyone else, I leaned out over the platform edge, hoping to see the pale yellow of a train's headlight glinting off the track, but the tunnel was black. I smelled like a rained-upon, nervous sheep. My feet, in their navy heels with the bows on the toe, were killing me, as was my back, and the platform was so crammed with people that before long I began to worry someone was going to fall off the edge onto the tracks-possibly me, or maybe the person I was going to push during my imminent psychotic break.
But then, magically, the crowd veered away. For a split second I thought the stink coming off my suit had reached a deadly new level, but the wary, amused looks on the faces of those edging away weren't focused on me. I followed their gaze to a plug of a woman, her head of salt-and-pepper hair shorn into the sort of crew cut they give to the mentally disabled, who had plopped down on the concrete directly behind me. I could see the whorls of her cowlick like a fingerprint, feel the tingle of invaded personal space against my shins. The woman was muttering to herself fiercely. Commuters had vacated a swath of platform all around the loon as instinctually as a herd of wildebeests evading a lioness. I was the only one stuck in the dangerous blank circle, the lost calf, the old worn-out cripple who couldn't keep up.
The loon started smacking her forehead with the heel of her palm. "Fuck!" she yelled. "Fuck! FUCK!"
I couldn't decide whether it would be safer to edge back into the crowd or freeze where I was. My breathing grew shallow as I turned my eyes blankly out across the tracks to the uptown platform, that old subway chameleon trick.
The loon placed both palms down on the concrete in front of her and- CRACK! - smacked her forehead hard on the ground.
This was a little much even for the surrounding crowd of New Yorkers, who of course all knew that loons and subways go together like peanut butter and chocolate. The sickening noise of skull on concrete seemed to echo in the damp air- as if she was using her specially evolved resonant brainpan as an instrument to call the crazies out from every far-underground branch of the city. Everybody flinched, glancing around nervously. With a squeak I hopped back into the multitude. The loon had a smudgy black abrasion right in the middle of her forehead, like the scuff mark my shoe had left on my gynecologist's door, but she just kept screeching. The train pulled in, and I connived to wiggle into the car the loon wasn't going into.
It was only once I was in the car, squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, the lot of us hanging by one hand from the overhead bar like slaughtered cows on the trundling train, that it came to me - as if some omnipotent God of City Dwellers were whispering the truth in my ear - that the only two reasons I hadn't joined right in with the loon with the gray crew cut, beating my head and screaming "Fuck!" in primal syncopation, were (1) I'd be embarrassed and (2) I didn't want to get my cute vintage suit any dirtier than it already was. Performance anxiety and a dry-cleaning bill; those were the only things keeping me from stark raving lunacy.
That's when I started to cry. When a tear dropped onto the pages of the New York Post that the guy sitting beneath me was reading, he just blew air noisily through his nose and turned to the sports pages.
Copyright © 2005 by Julie Powell
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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