One winter's evening years ago, I don't really remember when, I was sitting alone on the subway making my way home from work. I was tired, numb from the day's ebb and flow, the bustle of the city streets, the constant noise of high-speed life. In hindsight, I probably looked just as good as the foul-smelling homeless man sitting across from me, him just grateful for a few minutes of warmth before he had to head back out into the cold. Or the hoodie-wearing meth addict three rows down who couldn't seem to stop scratching at her reddening neck and shins. Or the plump, clean-cut businessman standing eagerly near the door, who's incessant smile was just as cheap as his ill-fitting suit.
I looked like hell. Even though I didn't seem to know, couldn't see the mask of a withering soul in the mirror, I'm sure everybody else did. Or maybe no one did. Everyone on the train both is and isn't once you step into those grimy concrete tubes, checking whatever personality you might have in when you get your pass. Humanity turns off, voices die down. Like a church without a pastor or a federal building without numbered tickets, my subway was both an anarchist's and a totalitarianist's place of worship. As if going down the River Styx, people accepted their fate, placed their lives in the hands of machines and unseen operators, and forgot their grand plans for those few moments of subterranean travel. Scarcely would I even remember the ride, in spite of the hundreds of times I had completed the circuit, let alone if there were other people present.
But that day, under the flickering, yellowy fluorescent lighting of the C-Track train, I missed my stop 31st Street. I had been taking that route for years, five to six times a week, and never had a reason to miss my stop before. So, in a moment of impulse desperation, I came up with a reason to battle back my rationality: I was too busy to get off at my stop. I was too busy staring at the incoherent graffiti on my armrest, trying to make sense of its oblique curves and jagged lines. I was too busy trying to dissect the redolence of the homeless man, debating whether it was more body odor or moonshine, or a hybridized byproduct of the two. I was too busy wondering if meth had a taste, if I should try it, if I would end up like that teenage girl or if I could find a way to control myself before getting that deep. I was too busy trying to guess if the businessman was smiling because he had just got a job or lost one, and if maybe he was actually the homeless one among us, the other just enjoying the lifestyle because he could and not because he had to.
I was too busy thinking about everything and nothing at once. I was too busy being not busy.
I was too busy not giving a damn anymore.
I had most everything anyone could ever ask for. I was an American, educated, successful in my field. I made a lot of money at my job, had security, a booming 401k and diverse investment portfolio. I was healthy, a runner five miles, four times a week. I had the perfect wife and two aspiring kids. The perfect house in the suburbs with a large, well-manicured backyard. The perfect neighbors. The perfect car. The perfect dog. The perfect shoes. The perfect life. I had ergonomic utensils with which we would eat McDonald's takeout with. I had an abstract sculpture in the hall that cost more than I dare remember. The wife said she liked it.
I had most everything anyone could ever ask for, but it came with the things that everyone has: more wants. But not my own. The wife wanted to renovate the house we had built new and had only been living in for two years. My son wanted a Ferrari. He's twelve. My daughter wanted a boyfriend. She's nine. The dog wanted my spot on the bed. Most times I let him have it; the wife doesn't seem to notice.
I didn't have any wants. I didn't even want to want. My life had become the assumption of other people's wants and dreams, and so what I would eventually define as my happiness was directly vicarious. My wife asked me once what I wanted for dinner. I, in turn, asked the dog. I thought myself clever in avoiding something so benign, though it terrified me just the same. She thought I was trying to be funny. But the honest answer was that either I didn't know or I didn't care.
And in that moment on the subway, the intentional skipping of my stop directly elected the path of the latter.
The homeless man chuckled, his putty-like face rippling with each breath exhaled. He grinned at me, most his teeth missing, his tongue lashing out to whet his cracked, parched lips. I scarcely dared look him in the eye, his glazed pupils so content in their despondence. Was he laughing at me? I looked around the train. The meth-head and the businessman were gone, as were all the other passengers. Just me and the peddler remained. How much time had passed? Had I reached the end of the line yet?
"Missed your stop," he said with a gravelly voice, the occasional whistle escaping between his gapped teeth.
I stared at him blankly. "Sorry?"
He chuckled again. "That good, eh?"
I frowned, shrugged; feigned my ignorance.
He pulled his raggedy wool overcoat close and began to rock in his seat. "That's okay. I don't wanna to get off either it's scary out there at night."
I squinted, peering at the man before me. I didn't recognize him, though that wasn't much of a stretch. I hardly noticed anyone on those trains, let alone the homeless. "Do I know you?"
I don't think. Well, I don't think you should, no. No sir!" He shook his head. "Never spoke, no."
"But you know what stop I take?"
I was desperate, clawing for answers from a person that just might have been my best friend or my worst enemy in another life. I didn't even know why I needed to know, but I felt that I would live a life of starved agony over so small a thing.
He looked down and began fumbling around in his pockets. "Heya
you got a light? I traded mine for
I held up a hand. "No, I don't smoke. How do you know what stop I take?"
"Huh, me neither. Don't have no smokes anyhow, even if I did." The man gave up his rummaging and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees in order to stretch his back. "I don't know the stop you were gonna take. Who could know that 'cept you, hm? But I do know all the stops you've missed, a right lot of 'em. That's the funny 'bout trains you can jump off in many places, but not always land exactly where you would want, eh? Always just shy or too far from where you wanna be."
I folded my arms. "Well, if I wanted to go directly to where I wanted, I'd just take the car instead of the sub. This way saves time."
He grinned again. "No diff 'tween rails and roads, son. Well, other than you don't have to be rich to ride the rails."
"I have a car, but I wouldn't call myself rich."
The man's eyebrows rose. "You don't say?"
I shrugged. "I'm not poor, either. Guess I'm in between."
He shook his head, pointed a bandaged finger at me. "Na, look at ya! You're a rich man down to your socks. I live off the scraps of the likes of you, the leavin's. You have so much overflow I almost call myself rich from time to time."
"I suppose perspective is everything," I answered, feeling as if even my words were being chosen for me from some unknown dictator.
"Meh, truth don't live under lenses."
The overhead bell rang upcoming stop. I looked out the windows, but all I saw was the rushing by of grey concrete walls and pillars, no sign of the upcoming destination's name.
The man tugged at his collar, pulling it close. "This is your stop
or it isn't. There's only so many chances before the rail runs out, and then all you end up doing is running backward. That is presumin' they don't throw you off
which they usually do hate people sleepin' in the cars, even though they're empty half the night and runnin' 'round without need."
I rubbed my eyes. "Where are we?"
His tongue lashed out along his upper lip. "I dunno
not much for detailin', myself."
"Not even a guess?"
The man closed his eyes and his head began moving back and forth as if he were listening to Van Halen. "Haven't much need for guesses, either. Living on the street is living for the day, for the breath. Living for tomorrow is too rich for my shoes. That's what you people have to do: waste your todays with your tomorrows."
I fought back. "But today leads to tomorrow, and what we do today could change our tomorrow or the next day or even the next year. What we do today could even affect someone else's tomorrow with or without their or our knowing it. There are consequences when it comes to those kind of choices."
His eyes opened. "See? You live for tomorrow. It's all you got. And it leaves you with what for today? Nothin'." The man smiled and stood up. "So, after you skin it, I guess that makes me the rich man and you the bum, eh?"
I stared up at him, unsure of what else to say. I felt the need to say something, had been programmed to be the champion of ideals and of conscience, but lacked the will to fight. I had been beaten so very easily and he knew it.
The bell rang again and I blinked. I saw the sign outside 31st Street. My street. The businessman bounded out of the train as if he had just conquered the world. The meth addict slowly moseyed out, scratching her arms and looking around suspiciously for cops. In the seats in front of me was a young mother and a seven-year old boy reading a comic book, the homeless man nowhere to be seen.
Dumbfounded, I sat there for a few moments unable to move, barely able to breathe. So confused, I only flinched when the doors to the train shuttered closed and we lurched forward again.
I let out a sigh. I missed my stop.