Saturday, May 18, 2013

Commute To Somewhere

She swipes her subway pass, acknowledges the beep of success, and pushes through the turnstile. In her left hand, she clutches a pen to an open, spiral-bound notebook, which serves as a sort of washer for everything else hanging from that arm: her unzipped purse; her yellow coat, whose sleeve is about to drag the ground; an umbrella. Her right hand is devoted to the Metrocard.
Once through the turnstile, slow motion sets in as she arranges herself. She slips the card into the wallet and returns the wallet, which is sticking out of the gaping bag, to its pocket. She takes a seat, crosses her legs, gives a little fwack to her coat to make it lie smoothly, and smiles vaguely at her surroundings before turning to her blank page. On second thought, she gets out her New Yorker and opens it to caption contest at the back.
She loves waiting for the train. In the cool subway station, she knows that something is going to happen without her doing anything to will it.
People are wearing red shoes, today, some Keds, some low boots, and those loose, patterned pants, tight at the ankles. If you want to be in style right now, that’s what to buy. She wears short black boots and jeans. The boots would be stylish if she wore them the right way, but she wears them indiscriminately, afraid to try and fail to look the right way. Plus, what’s “the right way” changes not only by day but also by location—in Greenpoint, apparently, knee socks are the thing.
If names were like fashions, she would probably avoid choosing one. Her mother had picked a name that was quite adaptable, an all-weather name: when in doubt, Kate; Katie at home; Katherine in Manhattan; Kat in Bushwick. She is mostly Kate.
            The train arrives. It is nearly empty, a glaring chamber of light reflected off the blue benches. She sits with her New Yorker, content with the knowledge that she is going somewhere, knees together, coat on lap, purse on coat, magazine and notebook atop it all. It is Katherine’s subway primness. On trains more crowded than this one, she does not feel prim. Holding a magazine close to her face so as not to whack anyone with it, she feels more like a lichen, surviving where it lands, flourishing in a crevice, more like a Kat. (That is the version of her name she rarely has the pluck to use.) It is somehow easier for her to read on the train than it is at home, where she feels like she should be doing something else. The outcome of this trip, whether she reads or writes, stares or sleeps, will be 14th Street.
            Kate looks around at people, of course, but she really stares at their shoes. The woman beside her wears black ballet flats and footies. Across the aisle is a pair of slacks and “old-lady shoes,” fastened by Velcro, with the characteristic pucker of the leather around the toe seam. Nearby, snakeskin loafers. No puckering seams there. Plastic shopping bags also dangle or droop near the observable zone, the area she can see by looking just a degree up from her book.
            “Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice addresses the crowd, “we are being delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. We apologize for the inconvenience and will be moving shortly.” This is what resignation looks like. Mostly, people do not respond. The train continues.
            At 1st Avenue, another voice, also canned, breaks the silence. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, I am very sorry to bother you. My name is Peter DuBois, and at this time, I am homeless,” he says, accenting the ‘am.’ His voice has the lilt of a child who has been forced to deliver an apology; the sentences run together, and they all have the same intonation. “Any donations—pennies, nickels, dimes—would be greatly appreciated. I do not like doing this. I am going through a difficult period and am just trying to get back on my feet. Thank you for your time and generosity. God Bless, and have a great evening.” It is 10 am. He is pale and blonde, clad in jeans and a t-shirt. He bumbles down the aisle. Some ignore him. Others hold out bills or drop change into his cup. “God Bless You,” he says, to everyone who donates and to some who don’t. She stares at the back of her New Yorker, a bright pink iPhone ad, as he passes. “Have a great evening everyone,” he says, and passes into the next car.
“This is 14th St., Union Square,” the subway voice announces. The doors open and let in the sound of the violinist playing klezmer music. Kate leaves the train and climbs the stairs, following close behind the woman in front of her, who is wearing black leggings and sneakers with green fluorescent treads. People stare at each other’s buttocks as they go up in tight file; the pitch of the stairs determines this. Then she pushes through the turnstile again to the other side. Outside, it’s not raining after all. In fact, the sky is blue, a more vibrant blue than the subway pews. She walks out into Union Square Park to bench-lined path lined where people are sipping coffee or reading the newspaper.
She, too, sits, book on her lap, and stares. The clouds are moving along, very slowly.  As they go, they change shape. They are not wooden props moving across a stage. In a few minutes, they will not be recognizable as the same clouds. Clouds act out the imaginations of cloud watchers. Kate sees a subway in the sky.
“I love clouds,” she writes. “I guess it’s because they are always there, always moving, no matter what I do. But they aren’t always the same. They change all the time. They’re ephemeral.”
There’s something about the blank page of a notebook that draws one forward, like a frontier. The words follow their linear paths across the page as if they want to know what lies on the other side. Kate reveals herself to her notebook in a way that she doesn’t quite manage on the computer. The linearity of it, the one word in front of the other nature of it, forces her to speak plainly. Sentences like “I love clouds” are confessed and can’t be taken back. She’s not really embarrassed, though. Deep down, Katie likes her notebook the same way she likes clouds. 
When she writes in a notebook, she does not delete sentences halfway through. She does not constantly interject words, sentences and paragraphs between the ones she has already written—well, there are a few stars and asterisks—the way she does on the computer, hopscotching around her doc. Once she writes a sentence, she wonders what to write next, not whether or not she should change what she has written before. She keeps going and before too long, Kate has arrived somewhere: page 19.

* This is fiction. I liked choosing names for these characters about as much as Kate likes to get dressed in the morning. Peter DuBois is not based on any specific person. As for Kate, she's based on someone (any guesses?), but that person is not named Katherine.