I was trying to take the M train home at 1:30 in the morning on a Friday. Or a Saturday, depending on how you conceptualize time. There was a problem, though – the M train wasn’t coming. A platform full of bleary-eyed people in various degrees of drunkenness leaned out over the tracks, as if they could will it into Essex/Delancey Station by risking their lives.
“Excuse me, do you know what time the M train is supposed to come?” asked a guy around my age. I didn’t look at him because I didn’t want to encourage conversation, and replied in a clipped, expletive-peppered monotone in which I compared the entire subterranean MTA system to excrement. It was a harsh response, but I was sober, tired, annoyed, and trying to discourage interaction because you never know when a man is politely asking you a sincere question, and when he’s gearing up to assault you.
He moved down the platform and asked an older man in a hoodie the same question, which made me feel better. I decided to go drop in on their conversation and see what was going on with the M train. No one seemed to know.
“Maybe I’ll just get an Uber,” the younger man sighed.
“Yeah, I might, too. Where are you headed?”
“Upper East Side.”
“Me too!” My stranger danger pretty much disappeared at the prospect of splitting the cab fare. The older man suggested an alternate subway route to save us our money and we thanked him and went downstairs to the F platform.
“I’m Bryce,” he said, holding out his hand for me to shake. He smelled like Jägerbombs but wasn’t slurring so I took his hand and told him my real name. The F platform was packed compared to the M so I figured it would be easier to ditch him if it got weird. We chatted as we waited for the train, and he told me that he had just come from a 500-person “summer kickoff” party at a private club. I told him that I had just come from a poetry slam. We exchanged a look that said the others’ choice sounded hellish. He asked me what I did and I told him that I was a writer. I didn’t reciprocate because it was late and I was tired and truthfully I didn’t really care what he did for a living. I assumed something in finance because every guy in Manhattan seems to work in finance in some capacity. Somehow he mentioned a friend of his who designs cat tattoos – cattoos? – and I asked if she worked out by Coney Island, as I also knew an Instagram-famous tattoo artist who deals primarily in cats.
“No, no. I don’t know anyone out that far. God, you couldn’t pay me enough to go out to Coney Island.”
I bristled, defending a nice summer day on the Coney Island boardwalk. The beach! The soft serve! The people watching! He made a face. I asked him if he was from the Upper East Side, like did he grow up there, and he laughed and asked if he seemed like he was.
“I mean, you’re kind of a snob about Coney Island, so maybe,” I replied.
The train came and we got on and rode it uptown. Just before we changed at 63rd street a man staggered up the car, leaned down next to us and vomited all over the floor.
“Did any of that get on you?” I asked my travel companion as we got off the train and walked across to the platform for the Q. There were some clear drops on one of his polished loafers, like he’d walked inside just as a light spring shower had started.
“Yeah, kind of,” he muttered. “I should probably find a damp cloth to clean that off with. This is why I moved to the Upper East Side, so I could avoid this kind of thing.”
“Ah, it’s not so bad. We’ve all been there,” I consoled him as we boarded the train. “Everyone walks through puke now and then. Once I walked through a puddle that I’m pretty sure had human shit in it.” He nodded sadly.
When we got near my stop he asked if I had written anything that he might be able to read. I thought about it briefly and said no, probably not. The train pulled into the station.
“It was nice meeting you, Bryce. I hope you have an uneventful ride home.” We shook hands again and I go out.
Thanks to the travel delays, I didn’t walk into my apartment until close to 3:00 am and slept until noon the next day. The late morning sunlight was beautiful, brilliant, streaming through a clear sky the colour of a blue Popsicle. I knew exactly how I wanted to spend the day.
An hour on the Q, during which time people breakdance for money and the concrete of Manhattan gives way to trees, lawns, and houses that wouldn’t be out of place in a Boston suburb. An hour on the Q, during which time people laugh and talk and stare at their phones and no one vomits. An hour on the Q that takes me to the first glimpse of the sea shining like tears between high rises.
Mermaid Avenue. Neptune Avenue. Surf Avenue. Stillwell Avenue. Even the names are beautiful. The wind, cold with salt and the smell of ocean and weed, whips my hair around my face as I pass the old men fishing off the pier, their rods leaning hopefully against the sides. The boardwalk opening out before me as if into forever, like train tracks, like a promise.
Áine O’Hare is a writer whose work has been featured in SOMA Magazine, The Coast, The Impressment Gang, and Chaleur Magazine. She holds degrees from the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto, where she worked on the board of editors for the Acta Victoriana. She lives in Nova Scotia, Canada.