What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Shuddering Uptown under Manhattan

Beaten Up and Stepped On

By Rosecrans Baldwin

The blond boy was rubbing his legs as if his muscles needed warming up, or he needed to pee. "Can I look up front?" he asked his mother, who had her eyes closed, leaning back against the conductor's door on a northbound C train. She nodded and he walked to the front of the subway car, gripped the rubber window rim with his fingers, and watched the train switch tracks towards 14th St., shuddering uptown under Manhattan.

A six-o'clock train on a weekday in New York is guaranteed to be crowded with people leaving work. The car was half-packed when I boarded at Spring St., with enough seats for the first two or three through the doors. When the boy and his mother got on at West 4th St., it was standing-room only.

"I think we're almost there," said the boy, who was probably seven or eight years old. Without turning around, he started a running description of the tunnel for his mother. "We just turned left—we could have gone right. I can see the next station. Now we're going up a hill." He was thin, with short hair and bangs that he frequently had to brush back from his eyes.

At 14th St., two more children, a girl with cornrows and boy in a yellow raincoat, pushed through people's legs and ran to the window, crowding out the blond boy until they squeezed him back. Their parents—a tall, red-haired man with a briefcase, and a short woman with a shaved head, dyed platinum—were pushed by the crowd to the middle of the car. "Jane, get over here," said the girl's mother half-heartedly. Jane, looking back from her perch, smiled and turned back around. "Jane..." the mother pleaded, then fell in conversation with the red-haired man.

"Look, that's a rat," said the raincoat-boy, pushing back the hood from his jacket. The blond boy stood on his toes and looked over their shoulders.

"No," he said, "It's a coffee-cup."

"It's gone," said Jane, shaking her head. "You know, people live in subway tunnels. They kill people." The yellow raincoat nodded. "So do rats." Sighing, the blond boy put a hand up on the glass. "It was a coffee cup." Jane stepped around them and started talking quietly with the boy in the raincoat about Spider-Man, the movie, which they had apparently just seen.

The first boy looked up anxiously at his mother, who had watched the conversation but had closed her eyes again.

"Mom," he pleaded, rubbing his legs again.

"Yes," she asked, opening her eyes and looking down.

"Mom..." the boy said. He looked back at Jane and the raincoat, who were still in conversation.

"Honey," she said, "We're almost home."

Finished with Spider-Man, which they agreed was "so cool," Jane and the yellow jacket had moved on to astronauts, which Jane felt was a good match for her, career-wise, while the jacket was more interested in baseball, specifically the Yankees and Derek Jeter. The blond boy wiped his hair back from his forehead and approached them.

"Do you guys like Pikachu?" They both turned towards him. The jacket nodded. "I have fourteen of them." The blond boy started detailing which characters of the Pokemon roster were his favorite and Jane agreed with most of his picks.

"I like the Yankees too," said the blond boy.

"They're the best," said Jane.

The train reached 34th St. and Jane's mother yelled again from the center of the car. Jane and the yellow jacket turned and ran for the subway doors, waving at the blond boy as they left him, shouting "Bye!" and smiling. He waved back, said "Bye" in a sad voice, then turned back to the window that he now had to himself. The train, emptied of half its riders, left quietly with most people sitting down.

"You know," he said, then stopped, as if he was figuring something out.

His mother opened her eyes and looked down. "What is it?" He looked up at her, and then forward again at the dark tunnel.

"Somedays," he said, loudly, with a touch of confession, "when you've been beaten up and stepped on, and you've had a really bad day, you can still make new friends." He paused, gripped the window with both hands, then let go and looked at this mother again. "And that's the lesson I've learned today."

available upon request

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