Sep '02 [Home]


Breathe Until Bleecker Street
by David P. Follman

Sam worried that he would yellow his starched white collar before he got to the safe, air-conditioned zone of his office cubicle. It was oppressively hot on the subway platform. Across the tracks, thousands of brown and green tiles formed the mosaic station stop:  86TH STREET. Someone had laid each of the tiles by hand, a relic from a time before poured concrete monoliths. Sam's great-grandfather had helped build this city. After arriving from Italy, he had been a bricklayer on the Lincoln Tunnel, linking the island of Manhattan to the rest of the country a brick at a time.
          A bump from behind jarred Sam from his reverie. He patted the cell phone in his jacket pocket and checked for his wallet. A roll of sweat dribbled down his side and was quickly absorbed by his undershirt. I could sure use some coffee.
          The arrival of the clattering train blasted Sam with hot air and broke up the mosaic in front of him. The sea of people washed him into the waiting car. As always, all the seats were taken. Sam grabbed a greasy metal pole and braced himself for the lurching start of the train. Why are these poles always greasy? He flicked some lint off his cuff with his thumb. The black patent leather tips of his shoes were scuffed. It was an hour downtown to Wall Street, every ten blocks getting more compressed by the rising tide of commuters. And his shoes were a half-size too small.
          Sam stood in front of a woman in a tan pantsuit and sneakers. The color of the pantsuit changed from day to day, but the woman always wore the same sneakers. She lived two floors down from him. At least that's where she got off the elevator every evening. The woman in the tan pantsuit and sneakers stared endlessly at the ad for laser hemorrhoid surgery. The balding-but-fit businessman read a folded up newspaper everyday for the past three years, probably more, on that train. Two months before, he must have had a vacation or been sick, because the balding-but-fit businessman missed three days. Sam stood next to the Asian couple in matching black Armani suits. The couple traveled to work together, the woman chattering away at the man all the way downtown. The man never answered the woman; he just nodded every ten blocks, and stared at the poster with the leggy blonde in the white bikini telling him to ESCAPE TO JAMAICA. They knew him and he knew them and a dozen more on the train everyday, but never a smile, a nod, a knowing glance of recognition. For a few weeks when they went back to work in October it was different. They had smiled sadly at each other. Familiar strangers had chatted with one another like old friends. But that was after.
          Routine set back in. Sam stared out the window into the maze of steel and tunnels, the black city of rats and homeless, maybe an alligator or two. No, that was the sewer system. He wanted to run out into that darkness.
          The next station packed more people in wool suits into the shrinking car. Sam was pushed up against the Asian woman. She didn't notice. He stared down at the combination lock of his briefcase. Lost in the little brass numbers, he sensed fatigue creep across his face.… Another night in a posh East Side bar with short, tall, fat, skinny, Black, white, Asian, Latino identical bankers waiting for that hot tip and trying to drink themselves into believing that this lifestyle was success. Once in a while, for variety, he'd mix it up with the publishing crowd at a party at some apartment just north of Chinatown that a friend of a friend heard about. At least for fifteen minutes people would talk about words instead of money. Someone would pass around the drug that killed that Hollywood actor. Sam was glad he hadn't gone home with the brunette with the bigger than average thighs. Some nights he might have. She was just looking for someone to spend money on her. He wondered about her as a child. Was this what she'd wanted to be when she grew up?

By 42nd Street the subway was packed. Sam no longer stood of his own will, but was merely wedged into an upright position by every other body. One hundred hearts beat to the rumble of the tracks. His undershirt stuck to his chest. Up was the only place he could look, lest he be caught staring at someone. He did not want to be confrontational. His right hand clutched his wallet inside his pocket. His leather briefcase was wedged in his crotch; no other place for it. This was all a routine, a daily regimen performed to build character, stamina, and wealth. Someone sneezed on the back of Sam's neck; he didn't bother to turn and look.
          The train lurched onward and the edges of the human mass braced themselves against the metal wall, transferring stability toward the center.
          "Excuse me Ladies and Gen'l'men. I am an out-of-work mother. I have not been workin' since Nine-Un-Un. Could you please spare some change to help feed my chil'ren. Thank you."
          The voice came from the downtown end of the car and moved its way uptown. Somehow the sea of suits managed to part just enough for the small pile of dirty gray sweaters and skirts to pass. The only discernible human feature was a grungy hand outstretched ahead of her. Sam stared down at his shiny black shoes and mouthed the word "sorry" as she passed. The balding-but-fit businessman dropped a quarter into the open palm. She did not thank him, just continued moving on to the next car. Sam had seen her before. He recognized the hand. He had seen, felt, smelled it all before. It didn't matter what the weather was doing outside. It was always stiflingly hot in the subway.
          The crowd converged again, but the car seemed larger now as the people around him withdrew their support. He felt he would collapse. His yellowed-white collar chafed his neck and the rumbling clatter-clatter of the train was out of sync with his heart. He had to get out, but there was only blackness outside. No green and brown mosaic to facilitate his egress. He reached for the bar overhead, but it slipped through his fingers. Deep breaths. Slow deep breaths, his shrink had said. The scent of expensive perfume and cheap sweat choked him. Did I remember to move the car this morning?
          The Astor Place Station caught Sam by surprise. He tried to make his way out, but the people wouldn't give, and the doors closed with a ding and a bang. The station slid away and Sam watched the little tiles turn to darkness again. His head was pounding. He couldn't hear the train or the Asian woman standing next to him still chattering away at her companion. Sam wrenched open his yellow collar. The button popped off, ticking against the windowpane. Breathe. Breathe till Bleecker Street.
          The Asian man glanced at Sam with concern, but decided to mind his own business, nodding in agreement with his chattering companion and returning his gaze to Jamaica.
          At Bleecker Street, Sam knocked an old lady out of the way with his briefcase and shoved through the crowd at the door. He fought his way up the steps, bursting through the turnstiles, up more steps, and out. Out. Daylight. Air. A bus drove by and blanketed him with exhaust.
          Sam looked up. Buildings. He looked around. Where's downtown now? He started walking. It was late. He was late. He walked at a frantic pace. Store fronts, hot dog vendors, DON'T WALK signs whizzed by. He plowed through crowds, and watch hawkers, and taxicabs screeching to a stop, his briefcase an extension of his right arm, swung wildly like a mace. Sam walked down through the Village. Soho went by in a blur. Chinatown. He was late. It was late.
          At Wall Street he did not stop. He kept walking. Walking. To the big hole. Where were you when…? He was late. He let his briefcase go. It didn't contain anything of importance, a half-used legal pad and a $30 calculator. He kept on going. Climbing over construction barriers, he walked all the way down to Battery Park. Down to the launch for the Statue of Liberty, the very edge of Manhattan. He stopped at the railing overlooking the harbor. Green Lady Liberty had her back to him. He knelt down and took off his scuffed black patent leather shoes, his brown socks sticky with sweat. He peeled off his jacket and streaky yellow shirt.
          "Are you all right?" asked a tourist in an I LUV NY t-shirt.
          Sam squinted at him. What does he want?"I'm late."
          Sam climbed over the cool iron railing and curled his toes over the cement edge of the pier. He looked out at the open waters and wished that his great-grandfather had built a tunnel, not just to Jersey, but to the middle of the Atlantic.
          It was hot on the subway platform. Sam checked his watch and looked down the track, past the familiar brown and green mosaic tiles. Do I have time to make it to Starbuck's?

(David P. Follman is a playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter. His screenplay, Get Well Soon, won Best Psychological Drama at the 2000 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival. He is a former member of the Readers' Theatre and the Practice Space Workshop in Mystic, CT. Follman received a bachelor's degree from Brown University in 1997 and he is currently working toward a Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara.)

[Vintage photo, caption:  NY Transit Museum.]