Mole Person

by

04/13/2006

W. Houston St. & Broadway, NY, NY 10012

Neighborhood: SoHo

On my way down the steps I was stuck behind a man with a cane, so I missed the D train. In my head I said, “Curses,” then clarified out loud, “Not you,” to the guy with the cane. He had enough problems.

I didn’t think the next train would be long, though, because it wasn’t late and it was a weekday. I was heading home early because I was out of money, and principle dictated that I waste the $2 fare to get back to my neighborhood rather than spend $1.50 to get more cash from a third-party ATM near the bar where I’d been.

I could see four tracks from where I was standing; trains came on the three others out of spite. The tunnel of the D uptown lit up, so I gave myself the obsessive-compulsive pat-down of someone who subconsciously believes his wallet could go missing at any second, then I stowed my book in my knapsack. The train wasn’t slowing, though. I noticed that it wasn’t lettered, and, when it came closer, that it was altogether different from the usual passenger trains. It looked how I imagined trains when I was a kid: a barred, muzzle-like grill, two front windows glowing yellow like raccoon eyes. The conductor even wore overalls and a denim cap.

The engine barreled by, and I noticed the cars weren’t enclosed, but instead were wagon-like, with two-foot-tall sides, beds sparsely strewn with rubble: rocks and dirt. The first car was almost past and my thought was, “I could definitely make it,” by which I meant, I could jump over the wagon wall and into the car. I checked my wallet again, as if I was really going to do it, jump onto a moving train and go wherever it took me.

I don’t know where I thought it’d go. I’d become accustomed to thinking of the subway tunnels as hallways, totally enclosed somethings that demarcated inside from outside, just like houses did. But that there were real trains (as opposed to the domesticated passenger versions) driving the tracks implied that somewhere there was something undeveloped, somewhere where nature was pushing back against progress.

I imagined this train was coming from somewhere deeper than the passenger trains could go, that someone was digging into the planet and this machine went there to cart the earth away. For some reason, I imagined these digging people as mole men, or I guess mole people, since the city probably wouldn’t discriminate.

The next thing that occurred to me should have been, “there is no reason to do this,” or “it is very likely that you’ll end up bouncing off the sides, because you are not very athletic,” or, “if you jump, your wallet will come out of your pocket, and some crazy hobo will get it and charge a $1200 dollar baby stroller on your credit card: you should check your back pocket again.” But instead I was already thinking about the awesome story I’d have to tell my friends about how I jumped onto a moving train. I’d land on the flat bed of an open wagon car and roll three times (like a guy in a movie who jumps out of a speeding car), before I popped up unscathed and rode like a superhero through the dark subways tunnels.

I wanted a train story that beat my friend’s train story, which he could bring up in nearly any context and leave knowing that his was the best, even now, five years after it happened.

He was an undergraduate at the time and it was the night before his 21st birthday, which meant he drank at his apartment until midnight, then went to a bar to buy his first legal drinks. He repeated this final step, or people repeated it for him, until he couldn’t do it anymore. Then his friends carried him to their car and took him back to his apartment, so that he could vomit or drink or both.

Train tracks ran fifty yards behind his building and, stumbling around outside, he noticed that a train was stopped there. Because birthdays in our 20’s glow romantically in the subconscious, we’re more willing to act boldly and inquisitively, so my friend decided to do some exploring. He staggered through the weeds to the halted train. Once he got there, he didn’t see any reason not to climb on, so that’s what he did. He stood triumphantly atop a freight car, and the train started to move.

It occurred to my friend that freight trains might not stop too often, that he could end up in Kentucky before he had a chance to carefully climb off. But he was quite drunk and it’d taken him a fair amount of time to think of this, so the train was moving thirty miles an hour before he jumped.

Knowing he’d been out celebrating his birthday, I never would have called him so early the next morning, but it was September 11th and I’d just watched the second plane hit on television, and I was stunned and not really thinking.

“I don’t know what just happened,” I said to him.

“I know, I can’t believe this,” he said.

But we were talking about two different things, me about this awful thing on television and him about the torn tendons in his left ankle.

I wasn’t thinking of his ankle when I was standing there on the subway platform, just about the wind rushing by him when he stood atop that freight car, and about how I’d feel when the wind was rushing by me in the tunnels. The third open wagon passed and I bent my knees, coiling for the leap. The fourth car was not an open wagon, though. It was enclosed, seven feet tall. If I would have jumped, I would have slammed into its steel side, which would not have made a very good story at all, if I’d survived it. The story would have went as follows: “I got hit by a train last night.” And then they’d ask me how, and I’d shrug, and if they’d press, I’d let my mouth hang open like I had some mental infirmity, which would be the answer to their question.

The train pulled away, disappearing into the D tunnel, and I told myself that I’d never considered really jumping, that I was a well-adjusted, expensively-educated, rational person who just liked to think up funny hypotheticals.

I pawed the back of my pants to make sure my wallet was still there.

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