We’re all on the A train to Brooklyn. The disturbed man is telling us, too loudly, that he spent time in a Puerto-Rican prison. He’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt and a vest with many pockets like a photojournalist. He has a red backpack.
The woman with the stroller would move to another car if she weren’t so tired. She hangs an I ♥ NY shirt from the stroller canopy to make a curtain over the child’s sleeping face.
The disturbed man is telling us about a friend from prison who didn’t deserve to be there. The businessman is frowning, worried about his suit. The disturbed man is smoking. It is giving the mother the tiniest headache.
Outside the sky is gray. It is too cold for July. It has been a gloomy week—a commercial jet shot down in Ukraine, rocket fire in Gaza. Another jet has disappeared this morning over the Sahara. Officials say it fell off the radar, “probably crashed.” Some of us have in our minds that other missing plane, lost over the Indian Ocean and still not found.
The skater walks from the far end of the car. He has long dark hair tied back, a black t-shirt and orange shorts, blue socks pulled up to his knees. In a soundless vacuum, you would have a hard time telling which man was disturbed.
“Yo, can you put that out?”
“Yeah, I’m just stressed,” the disturbed man says.
We feel a thump of pity in our chests. We understand the power of a cigarette, to take the edge off frayed nerves.
“Yo, I understand you got the freedom of speech, but you got to tone it down, bro. This is about people’s health. There are babies on here. You got to put that out.”
“Yeah, I will, I will.”
“Yeah, I’ll put it out now.”
We don’t see how but he does. The skater walks back to his end of the car. His friend hands him his board. He stands, holding the pole with one hand and spinning his board like a top with the other.
At the next station the businessman moves to another car and a couple gets on. They are in their fifties, both wearing stripes. European tourists. We sniff it out by their footwear.
The disturbed man says, “I’m so stressed today! There’s a war going on. I keep thinking about Palestines.” It is probably a mispronunciation—he must mean Palestinians—but we wonder if the invention is a way to connect different regions of unrest that feel as near today as the clouds outside.
The mother feels sorry for the Europeans, who had no idea what they were walking into, a man shouting in the corner of the subway car, just like the guidebooks must have warned. She wants to tell them this doesn’t happen every day, but it wouldn’t be true. Someone is often shouting on the subway about something.
“Americas!” the disturbed man shouts. “There are Palestines! Go to bed and wake up dead—that what you want? Is that what you WANT?”
No, it isn’t what we want. He is right to be upset. We all should be as upset as he is. But now he stands, angry, and walks to the other end of the car. The skater’s friend nods and the skater turns around. The disturbed man walks past them to the other corner of the car, where he feels safe. He faces us and begins to yell again. We don’t hear the words anymore; we only read the gestures of his war dance: arms in the air, mouth in an O shape, eyes squinted, feet spread wide. The skaters plant their boards upright, like tridents. We women are staring at the floor, making ourselves as invisible as possible. We men are watching, heads turned toward the threat.
The disturbed man sees that we are disturbed. He turns to the door and waits for the next station to arrive. The skater’s friend twirls his board and laughs—not to belittle, we understand, but to relax himself. We women exhale but we don’t look away. The mother sees that her child is still sleeping.
When the doors open, the disturbed man gets off.
At the other end of the car, two teenaged boys enter. One is wearing a yarmulke and a hoodie. The other, brown-skinned, is wearing a pressed white button-down shirt and a black tie. They slump into a pair of seats. It’s hard for us to tell whether they are world weary or just late to class. The subway has that slackening effect on us, too, but it takes us where we need to go. For a little while we are all going there, wherever it is, together.