To Nowhere

2017

The air was unified but unfriendly.

            An older man was coughing, leaning onto his wife’s shoulder, his head curled familiarly into the slope of her neck.

            A crowd piled on the train, weaving its way into the empty seats, flapping in the aisles, untethered, rocking. They made a wave of red, white, blue mixed with beige wicker of cheap cowboy hats, trimmed with star-emblazoned ribbon, and the dusty leather of cowboy boots worn by New Yorkers—their dirt collected from time in closets and the remnants of stadium floors.

 

I was attempting to write my experience in Virginia Woolf’s style while I rode the train from Hastings-on-Hudson to Manhattan and back every weekday that summer. It was not going well. Her sentences wound down paths on which mine could never quite find the first foothold—or if I found one, I lost the trail after the second or third step. Her stories moved from place to place—mine wouldn’t even go in circles. The train moved reliably back and forth but I sat still within.

 

The older man began to laugh as the lights by the doors flashed white, signaling that they were about to shut. His body was stiff against his wife, more splayed on top of her than nestled in. His laugh was high pitched and bird-like, gurgling.

            The young man laughed at the sound. He peered through the U-shaped gap in the seats, his smile sliding as he grew unsure.

            The change whistled backward through the car, for a moment shocking the rowdy throng to silence.

            “My husband is having a seizure,” his wife said.

 

The train left Grand Central at 1:53 a.m. that Sunday morning. The time of day was unusual but the ride still felt tedious. My same friends from high school, going back home to the same town, where we passed time waiting for our time there to end—paused, hesitating.

 

            Luckily, everyone knew the best thing to do.

            “Call an ambulance!” a small, tipsy woman screamed.

            “Is there a doctor on board?” a tall man in a cowboy hat tenored.

            “Turn him on his back.”

            “Turn him on his side.”

            “Don’t touch him!”

            “If he twists his spine he’ll die!”

            “Sit him up.”

            “Has anyone called 911?”

            “Turn him over.”

            The train stalled in the station.

 

We sat on the train in a bit of a fog, clinging to each other, to the moment. The train started to smell stale, though perhaps that was some combination of the tequila leaking sweetly from my breath, tempered by the smack of tobacco that mixed and cut through, blending in a pungent whiff that floated up every time I shook my humidity-curling hair, and the gently acrid urine odor that wafted out each time the train knocked aslant on the track, causing the unlatched bathroom door to rattle sideways on its rail, and then quietly bump shut again.

 

“Joe, can you hear me? Can you hear me Joe? Squeeze my hand if you can, now, Joe.” The nurse kept talking, sure that if she maintained a dialogue it would be clear that she knew what to do, in front of this train car. It felt to her, in that moment, as if all of this red, white, and blue were for her, this was fate; she was being called upon to be an American Hero.

            “Oh my god, does this bitch even know what the fuck she’s doing?” one of the tank top-clad women muttered to her friend.

 

They carted the man off in a stretcher. Slowly, the train started up again, rolling into Hastings a bit before 3 a.m.

I got on the train Monday morning with the sense that something should feel different.

People climbed on around me, unaware of the crisis that had occurred two nights before in the lives of that man and his wife and the nurse and all the concert-goers and my friends and me on that identical train.

The train took us somewhere; the train came back at the end of the day to pick us up—different individuals, but all tracing the same circles.

 

The young woman did not understand why this emergency had been handled so badly. She said so. People around her nodded meaningfully.

She tensed her body, wishing she could do something. She continued to give backseat advice. Others around her continued to nod their agreement. Feet shifted. No one moved.

 

Note on To Nowhere:

The Metro North Hudson Line train leaves from Grand Central heading for Croton Harmon on the :20 and the :43 every hour until 12:43 a.m. The last train of the night leaves at 1:50 a.m. On August 9, 2016, a twenty-nine-year-old man was found dead, or almost dead, on a Metro North train leaving Grand Central, in the early morning. The news article about it only says that “MTA police are investigating how,” and then the story drops out of the news cycle. Almost all of the news in July relating to the Metro North regards a new app, allowing riders to purchase eTickets, that would roll out by the end of the summer, as part of Governor Cuomo’s battle against public transportation infrastructure jams. On July 12, 2016, a Twitter user was quoted in an article entitled “’Pokemon Go’ craze overtakes the area,” saying “Riding the MetroNorth is the lazy way to catch #Pokemon.” This is the extent of Metro North news coverage from June to August of 2016.

In my personal experience, riding the Metro North from Hastings-on-Hudson to Grand Central and back every weekday, and many weekend nights of Summer 2016, the train was delayed significantly at least once a week, and on three or four different occasions an entire rush hour train was told to relocate to another train, involving hundreds of people with suits and briefcases and backpacks and jackets to bottleneck their way out of one narrow train doorway onto a platform and queue their way back into the next, waiting on the other side, as there was a “problem with the engine.” The train consistently ran five minutes behind schedule, I believe because they started driving the trains slower after the multiple derailments in the preceding years, but neglected to change the official arrival times.

On the particular night this story takes place, I caught my first Pokemon on PokemonGo, and to the best of my knowledge, the man who had the seizure was alright, but I never followed up to see if anything had been written about him in the news, and I cannot find anything now, which I presume bodes well for him. On other train rides that summer, while the train was delayed in transit for thirty minutes or more, I overheard a group of high school girls debate whether some of the money the group had pitched in as tip for the driver of a limo they had rented for prom was missing, meaning that Jen, or possibly Jen’s mom, was stealing money, and whether Amanda was right in her assertion that Jen was lying, or Jen’s mom was lying, and whether the total was meant to be $1800, or whether Amanda should retake the ACT if she got a 23, or and also but seriously where was the $200?; I watched five middle-aged banker-looking men play poker for cash atop the cardboard sign, advertising a podcast app, they removed from the wall of the train; and I read Mrs. Dalloway in fits and bursts, perhaps to an even greater effect in the general sense I got of constant motion, but also doubtlessly at the loss of any sort of coherence.