January 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
At 9:16 AM, men in suits and women in suits were holding coffee and fiddling with Blackberries and standing at a metro stop in Virginia. A man with very little white hair rocked back and forth on his heels swinging his suitcase and coughed, and when he coughed one black boy wearing red sneakers rubbed his nose and pulled at his earphones, and a woman glanced over at him with dead eyes and the metal rails buzzed.
At 9:17, a man was struck by a train. I suppose time stopped for a moment, there would have been gasps, most likely, but all that the newspapers say is that a man was struck by a train. People would have to reroute, said the cool voice of a lady that reverberated off the sooty marble walls, the orange and blue lines would be temporarily closed. Blue and orange lines delayed. And so all the people who were alive at 9:16 AM and were still alive at 9:20 AM walked up the escalator and back through the turnstiles and into the sunlight and tossed out their coffees in receptacles. And the dead man lay in the tracks, crushed and disfigured and broken besides discarded potato chips bags and cigarette butts.
I stand far back from train ledges. When London tells me to mind the gap, I listen. I stand far back and try not to think about that scene from Ghost where the man was pushed and instead make my face impassive, bored, lifeless, because that is the norm among my fellow commuters and I always like to blend. To blend, you stand in the crowd at the metro, you tap your shoe and use sideways glances and bite into your muffin and fight your way through doors that seemed to be closing the second they open. To break from the crowd, to jump, to disrupt the morning commute, to die publicly and unashamedly, that is not to blend. That is to stand out. That is to be deviant. The odd one out.
But at that point, I suppose, it doesn’t matter if you’ve made yourself the outcast. Because you’re already dead.
I have two Uncle Steves. One we call Crazy Steve, but a lovable crazy, a fun kind of guy who taught me the best place to hide in hide and go seek is in the shower. The other we call Scary Steve. His hair looks like a shaggy poodle slicked in oil and he doesn’t blink but licks his lips a lot. He has dragon tattoos and used to be a heroin addict and now just eats a lot of Cocoa Krispies instead of shooting up. My mother said he started frying his brain because he saw his friend get decapitated by a train while they were fooling around on the tracks.
“Saw his head come clean off,” she told me while crossing the street in Boston. “You don’t unsee that.”
I’m standing waiting for the train, and I’m blending. I’ve got my purse and my knee is jiggling and I play with my hair and let my eyes bore into the DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE sign. I am a 20 year old white female at a good college and I’m alive in that my heart beats, but my mind buzzes like the metal rails. I am wearing headphones that blast the same song with the same beat in my ears and they buzz. I have stories like Crazy Steve, I could turn to the white haired man next to me and tell him that the best place in the world to hide during hide and go seek is behind the shower curtain, laying down in the tub and staring at flecks of soap and grime and mold and feeling your heart beat with the anticipation of being found. But I don’t. He rocks on his heels and coughs and I listen to my same song because that is what we are supposed to do. And the metal rails buzz.
And I see a man wearing a brown suit push through the crowd, so that it all breaks, all the standing and staring and coughing and side glancing. Because everyone is looking now, really looking, at this one man with a brown suit. And the newspapers won’t tell you this, they’ll just say he was a man, but he was a man who wore a trench coat and tilted glasses and shiny shoes and he never took his gaze off that train, not for a second. And he might have had a wife and children and a bachelor’s degree and a childhood home in Missouri, I don’t know, but he jumped, and the train barreled onwards as it does, and the man’s head went all the way round. And the people stared and it was as if shards of glass hung in the air.
I am rerouted that day. Just as quickly as the glass breaks, it is reformed, and the people are filing out like a well-trained army to the buses, and maybe they shake their heads, but then they are sitting on buses and staring. And it makes me think that maybe the man is a martyr, not just a man who died at 9:17 AM by being crushed to death by the Vienna train, but a man who died because he would not blend. And I know it’s silly, because it’s probably because of a chemical imbalance or because he lost his job, but I like to think the man died for a cause, that he sacrificed his life, took the leap, for the people who never leap, not once, not at all. Not intentionally, perhaps, not setting out to be a martyr, but a martyr nonetheless. I see him suspended in air, just as the train inches closer, and I think that at some point, I will be crushed by the train, and so will all the people still alive at 9:20 AM on a particular day in August. We will die of heart attacks or murder or choking on peanut butter, and in all of these ways the train will creep up on us, it will crush us without us having the chance to stand our ground and see it bearing down on us with that inescapable roar. But the man who leapt from the platform at the Foggy Bottom platform in Washington, DC on an August morning experienced what so few of us will: the chance to stare death in the face, to say, come get me, and take me whole.