By Paula Paterniti
It is a morning rush hour Q train, and Sally is heading into Manhattan for a doctor’s appointment. At sixty-five, standing on a moving train with bad knees and an aching spine is uncomfortable, challenging, and painful, so she’s happy to be sitting. The car is crowded, and every seat is taken. Subway seats are designed to fit three adults with enough room to feel uncrowded—a blessing in rush hour. Sally is lucky. Then at Seventh Avenue, a young woman pushes her way into the car and through the crowd, eyes the space between Sally and the wall, and squeezes herself in. She reeks of sweat and an unwashed body. She holds a filthy shopping bag on her lap, and the seat Sally had been so happy about only moments before, now feels cramped with an extra fourth person.
Sally glares at the woman, wanting to shame her into moving, but she is oblivious to her discomfort. Finally, Sally can’t stand it any longer. She jumps up, leaving the young woman the seat, and mutters, “Damn it! You should be ashamed of yourself.” The people beside her move away, not wanting to get involved in a subway altercation. Sally fights her way to a spot at the jammed subway pole and grabs it, knowing it is sticky and grimy but needing it for balance.
The young woman yawns and stretches out, muttering to herself, “Too bad, you old bitch. It’s my seat.” Sally tries ignoring her, but blushes intensely. She’s not used to such a public display. She tries not to meet anyone’s glance and resigns herself to standing.
Immediately the car lurches to a grinding stop, the lights blink off, the air conditioning turns silent, and they are stuck.
It is stiflingly hot in the car; the heat and odor coming off the other bodies crammed in beside her become intense, nauseating. People standing mutter curses; tension and hostility rise. Sally, feeling as though she might die standing inside this metal box, with pain streaming from her hips into her legs, and her heart beating wildly, closes her eyes and slips away into a half-sleep. Jammed against the pole, she imagines passing away into unconsciousness inside a crowded Q train. Would she sink into a faint, or would the bodies pressed against her keep her standing? Would someone try to help her or just wait until she slipped down the pole onto the floor?
She sways as she sleeps, and is lost in this fantasy, unaware of how long the train is held up or how long she stands dreaming. It seems an eternity.
There is a young child squashed at the pole beneath Sally’s belly. The child is in tears, hot and sweaty, and begins to poke her. Her pregnant mother, exhausted and out of patience, tries to shush her. She complains to the others nearby. “People used to give subway seats to pregnant women.” People at the pole nod understandingly, but no one sitting offers her a seat.
Suddenly the child screams. “You are crowding me, old lady! Get off of me.”
The child’s mother huffs, “some people,” happy to have someone to blame for her misery.
She pushes Sally, who wakes wearily, feeling very old and vulnerable. She meets the woman’s eyes, looks down, and whispers to the child, “sorry, little one.” The mother, now noticing Sally’s age, looks sheepish, nods apologetically, and moves a step away, giving Sally a bit of space.
The subway lights blink on, then off, then on, and the engineer announces, “There have been some technical issues on the Manhattan Bridge, but we are now cleared to move.” The woman sitting in what had been Sally’s seat stands, and Sally watches as she achingly straightens her body, obviously in her own pain, and pushes herself to the sliding doors. Briefly, they exchange gazes, and for a moment Sally understands her, and nods. Another miserable subway woman.
They are at Atlantic Avenue. Her seat is taken by the mother and child as the doors close, and Sally, fighting tears, counts the stops until she can get off for her doctor’s office on Fifty-ninth Street.