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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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E train, early November

The joys of autumn subway travel

June 1st, 2013

BY RENARDO BARDEN

streetcarconductor*This morning. Wind-driven sleet and rain. I pull my umbrella down and close it as I descend the first flight of steps into the subway. Passing through the turnstile, hearing the train rumbling into the station, I list for the railing and skip-race down the steps to the tracks, a scurrying bug, among so many others. The train car doors open as I bound inside, awkwardly, because narrowly avoiding a stomach full of puke, not steaming but clearly fresh and so perfectly situated just inside the admitting doors that I’m convinced it was deliberately placed; so now I’m angry as well as wet.

The car is fullish, seats all occupied and passengers standing in clusters, their backs to the vomit, crowded in other doorways. The robovoice warns of the closing doors and we’re off with a lurch. Now, in the enclosed humid car there’s the sourness of the barf — yet one more thing to contend with.

Everybody’s dressed for the cold but now hot and sweaty in the overheated car and sitting or standing too close to someone else. Any more passengers would mean that everybody standing up would have to wrestle with wet backpacks, reposition their umbrellas and shopping bags. At 50th Street a broad thirty-something man with grit-encrusted dreadlocks suggestive of a murdered giant tarantula on his head brushes past me and elbows deeper into the throng. He’s got a wet cardboard sign for a vest and under it, in lieu of more usual clothing, he’s wearing, carefully wrapped and pinned, half a dozen blankets, all plain grays and greens. He’s followed aboard by a middle-aged woman who is clearly shepherding four male adults. The men are very bland of expression, blankly placid, mentally different and seemingly medicated for a mandated outing of some sort. The woman tells the men, one of whom is standing on one of my heels, to hold on so he doesn’t stagger or fall when the train lurches downtownward. He gives her a big thumbs up accompanied by a delighted grin.

The fat man in the dirty blankets stands in the middle of the car, near the puddle of puke, and delivers a biographical announcement. He’s very close to a woman with a highly colored face who blows her nose in a paper napkin. The compliant, smiling men are curious about the man in the blankets. Distracted by him, they encircle me and I smell onions on the breath of the one standing closest. I look around the car and make eye contact with some fellow passengers. A couple of people are angry and annoyed but three or four seem on the verge of a shrug, saddened to be witnesses — again? — to those whose suffering is more naked and in your face than their own. The train bolts forward and most standing and sitting passengers seem to sigh, all at once. The middle-aged woman charged with custody of the four men calls out to the man in the blankets until he finally turns around. She shouts that she has pastries if he’s hungry. He comes back toward her, taking up space that three could share, maybe more. Nobody wants to get too close to the blanketed man except the four men who are benevolently titillated by his unkempt appearance. For a few moments I worry that one will reach out and touch the congealed braids, setting off an outburst. There’s a problem, though. The man bearing the pastries — they’re in a plastic bin with a snap on lid — has to hold on the the rail and needs two hands to open the bin for the man dressed in the blankets. The pastry bearer’s three comrades watch placidly but take no action. The middle-aged woman is helping one of the other befuddled men with his jacket zipper.

I look down, not really inquiringly, at a seated man wearing a business suit. He shakes his head. No way is he going to give up his seat or allow his lap to be used as a temporary table so the plastic lid can be removed and the man in the blankets can snag a pastry. With my umbrella and my awkward stance I’m in no position to move or help. The woman and I are still trying to solve the problem of how to open the pastry bin when the man in the blankets says, “shit, pastries,” nudges one of the benign men out of his way, and wanders back over to the middle of the car to resume his announcement. As we pull into Penn Station, I use my elbows and knees as gently as possible and bump my way toward the doors of the subway car. A voice behind me says hey. Over my shoulder I see that the man with the pastries has made a radical adjustment to the still-closed pastry bin and freed one hand to wave goodbye to me. Somebody stepped in front of him so I’m not sure he if he saw me wave back. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Barden | Link to this Entry

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