I was bounding down the stairs into the subway, three steps at a time, hoping to make the train. The stairs were wet. The air was cold. It was a day of harsh weather, a gusting snowstorm, but I had my iPod and was experiencing everything dreamily.
To say it was a new iPod was only half of it. I had sent it in for repairs. It had stopped working just before the warranty ran out, a very modern kind of good luck, given that some iPods seem to stop working just after. It had been delayed in its return. Weeks turned into months. By the time it arrived, it felt like a reunion. This was only its second day in action.
The subway doors were still open. I was listening to a Chopin prelude, and I was moving fast. I took the last few steps in a giant jump, sidestepping a man in a wheelchair who was shaking a cup of change. The sounds of piano filled my head. I was going to make the train.
Then I felt a brief tug on my ears, and silence. The iPod had fallen through a hole in my coat pocket and skidded across the platform like a bright white hockey puck. There was a sharp thwack as it slammed into the side of the subway car and fell into the crack between platform and subway, down to the tracks. The whole moment had the brisk finality of a goal in air hockey.
Everyone facing the open subway door, and a number of people standing behind them, watched the iPod drop to oblivion. Then they looked up at me.
The man in the wheelchair sprang to his feet. A miracle?
“What you drop?” he demanded. “I get it for you. No problem.”
I turned my back. I couldn’t let them see my despair. I waited for the doors to close. But the doors did not close.
“I go down there for you?” the man said. One of his eyes was gray and cloudy.
“It’s all right,” I said. “I can get it.”
“I go for you!”
The train was still there. It was being held in the station. I turned to face the people in the car.
“I can see it,” one of the men on the train said. “It’s safe.”
I went over and peered down through the crack. There it was on the black, grimy floor.
“If you go and tell them, they’ll get it for you,” someone else said. It was a sympathetic crowd.
The guy in the wheelchair had returned to his wheelchair. His body language suggested that it was a seller’s market. I would come around. Or not. It was all the same to him. I took out my wallet, hoping to see a 10. Five would seem too cheap, and 20 would be profligate. But no. I could not pay a man in a wheelchair to do my dirty work, even if his actual need for the wheelchair was now dubious.
I waited until the train and the two that followed it were finally gone. The iPod lay there on the floor of the tracks. The tunnel was dark and quiet. My knees were a little loose, like those of someone about to jump off a diving board.
New York is a vertical town. The emphasis is on things that rise. But the New Yorker’s panic-stricken need for accomplishment — the need to go up — is matched by a kind of vertigo that comes with being constantly aware of the distance below.
I took a breath and hopped down. I grabbed the iPod, its whiteness streaked with dirty water. I stood there a moment rubbing it dry, petting it, really, as if it were a small animal that had gotten itself into trouble. Then I dropped it into my pocket, planted my hands on the filthy platform, and hoisted myself up.
I didn’t make it. I bonked my shin, and fell back down. On the next try, no problem. But in the few seconds between the two tries, I felt a pang of awareness. I was on the tracks. I’d stared down at the tracks all my life. It had always been rats, the third rail and garbage that provided that space with its faint air of horror, but it turns out that the most powerful feeling while I was down there was simply being lower, almost beneath, everyone else. I looked up and saw a lot of knees. I wanted only to rise.
Back on the platform I brushed myself off. An older woman, well dressed, looked at me as though I were the Loch Ness monster.
“You get it?” yelled the man in the wheelchair, still shaking his change cup.
“Yes!” I yelled back. And I thanked him profusely for some reason and pushed $10 into his cup. Perhaps for giving me courage, even if it arrived via shame.
The iPod, though now scuffed, worked fine. I washed my hands several times before I sat down to lunch half an hour later. I kept rinsing and soaping and rinsing and soaping long after my hands seemed perfectly clean.
The whole episode should have been a fleeting moment, something barely remembered, but that evening, my fiancée said, “What happened to your leg?”
I LOOKED at my shin. There was a small cut, no more than a tiny red line, and a bump.
I explained about the iPod. She was amused as I described it skidding across the platform, and the fellow in the wheelchair jumping up to help. Then her face darkened a little. There were three months to the wedding.
“You didn’t go down there, did you?”
“I couldn’t bring myself to hire the guy in the wheelchair,” I said.
“You went down on the tracks?”
When I said I had, she got worked up. It really bothered her.
“You’re not alone anymore!” she said. She asked me to promise that I would not jump down onto the subway tracks in the future. I promised. She shook her head.
“I ought to put some of your sperm in the freezer,” she said.