the city: in transit

Montgomery Station

For five months a large streak of dried blood, the length of a long stride, darkened the tiles of the subway platform just where the train pulls up. Every weekday morning for five months I stepped out of the train and passed over it, with a momentary grim wondering. You could see it had been scrubbed at, and this just blurred the edges. But the stain could not be gotten out. It remained, unmistakably blood. Finally someone must have poured bleach on it and, by taking away the very glaze on the tiles, removed the blood. Then there was only a long, pale streak, the length of a stride.

Powell Station

A bearded man is passed out under the Chivas Regal poster, bags and a battered crutch at his side. Another florid-faced man carrying a bottle of cheap wine comes up and crouches beside him, poking him gently. “Bert? Bert?” he says softly.

The Old Man I Don’t See

The old man I don’t see sits next to me in the low light of the underground, as the train moves into the station. His gentle voice asks: This is Van Ness, isn’t it?

Yes, I answer the old man I don’t see and he rises to leave. He steps past me and leaves the train and I have never seen him, never looked at him (nor he at me I think). His question lingers like a ghost. We pass like ghosts in the underground.

Night Bus, Black Poet

The black lesbian poet, her hair a new shade of orange, new piercings in one ear, was riding the bus. A commotion started up next to her: a junkie: black, skinny, female, swaying, strung-out, battered, ageless, sat in the adjoining seat, yelling out incoherent epithets at the passengers moving past her along the aisle.

The poet wrote of abuse, filth, the ninth circle of an addict’s hell in which she had grown up, and also, clean now, of her holy fire and newfound pride and newly voiced rage. Now she sat unmoving next to the junkie, leaning forward, head down. There was no discernible emotion, except perhaps fatigue, on her massive, masklike face. She certainly did not have the expression of mixed irritation and fear, or slightly jaded curiosity, so common among the prosperous evening crowd.

She never turned her great head once to look at the woman next to her. Why should she? There was no strangeness in the other woman’s face. Its every detail was already known to her, and she must have known, as surely as if she’d been handcuffed to the junkie’s wrist, that it didn’t matter where she went, how far, or in what way: that face would always be there, right next to hers.