Notes from the M Train

Sabrina Seelig

To invoke the different kind of getting-forward: high above the street and passing through windows, a pope down the promenade of a cathedral, no incenser but its own vibrating noise.

Kind as a gentle map of the veins, where they are meant to be and where they actually are, how that rhythm dictates the specific path the silver beast makes. Worrying the cornices of crumbling brick when the train slows on the track, of the huge old bank building advertising karate lessons on a flapping banner, the scuffed metal dome an illusion for the glorification of martial arts. The train peers out on the curtained windows of cheap apartments, windows with minute signals of what lies within. The boxing club at Wyckoff advertises $9.95 per week; posters are stuck to the windows like joyful threats.

If I start at Myrtle, there is the White Castle with its drive-thru and turrets–like King of Prussia when I was a kid on the Jersey turnpike, the reflective sign I could read just before it passed. I imagined a castle, shiny and with a mall. I was a weird and conventional child; I dreamed about Twinkies and birthday parties. Greedy up on the platform looking at the remnants of a billboard, the rusted rectangle of fading paint and illegible lettering like the crawl of rust from a car’s undercarriage. The rust from my forehead leaves a print of oil on the graffiti-scratched window. A thumbprint in someone’s squared-off O. After dusk, a fluorescent store with rack upon rack of bright clothing, shiny fixtures; during the day the window looks like one of an abandoned train station, big arched grey and dead. The clothes inside like the cracked growth of a geode. The M train goes on, unknowing; but how well to know its rumble, to know you can breathe on the inside, when some, entranced in the frantic hush of salsa, don’t look up.

A vacant lot in the shape of a generous piece of pie. What goes on there at night–how internal, when the windows of a living room are level with your eyes, but you don’t know what goes on beneath, beyond the thrill of proximity.

Start at Delancy St: emerging onto the bridge is like lifting up the burden of whatever is carried within what sits up there, while across the bridge Manhattan looks like the fairytale it once was, past the pilings, the barges, the waterlogged inlets, the lights sharp and swallowed up quickly by water, as though the water feeds on the night–though how it gorges during the day. And how it is shadowed by the great cinderblock harbor of posh apartment buildings with their windows unshielded by the train, unashamed like naked babies. The projects come next, biscuit boxes tempting the underbellies of jet planes taking off from JFK, making people look like flies sticking to flypaper (the lucky ones have balconies covered in wire fencing). Behind curtained and cracked windows they close their eyes in sleep; the train becomes a comfort, a few lullabies of sparse notes, broken now by the high squeal of wheels, makes the baby and the riders lurch forward.

Fix an eye to the left on the scrap of paper stuck and peeling on the old-time floral carvings of the spaces between bricks and windows. There are no daffodils in spring; what a stupid idea, what flowers is the clothes, in the windows, where they hang silently and the closed down theatre is its own castle, with its own dome, the whole thing dark red and bruised, the remnant characters of the last name of the last performer jagged in the marquee. Nobody looks up to see what it looks like, on the way to the Crown Chicken, the 99 Cent store, the miles of dresses, to wonder what’s under that vast dome, dust and broken wood; it doesn’t matter anyway, the place is closed down and it winks at you because it’s tired but it moves like a frog in winter, deadened under the ice.

The Spanish moss of sneakers slung over telephone wires. Counting six pairs at an intersection right after the Knickerbocker Ave platform, a kid crossing the street, with his shoes big (they make his legs look like twigs)–the people look both ways before crossing the white lines; old ladies turn their heads slowly. They seem to barely trust themselves, stepping out into the street against all kinds of better judgment. The kid doesn’t look anywhere but forward, his eyes slightly heavy-lidded but looking up and forward. He looks a little holy, you think. You say, “Hey, didn’t I see you once, in a cheap but very clean suit by yourself on the L train at 3:00 on a Sunday?” The telephone wires are the symphony’s music staff, looking the way a composer hears; seeing between notations’ plain lines.

What richness and poverty on the same plane. What goes on down there, on a trip to the store for milk, walking to work, to get a chicken, fried whole and the grease cutting through the bag like blood through a bandage. Look, the window closed against the train, you watch it still, waiting on the diamond end of the platform to transfer to the J, watch it to see how the windows continue to join to the brickwork and what the color is of the blackout cloth and how dusty on the pane, what never moves behind it, and maybe nothing does at all. Maybe the mystery exists as a backdrop for those who wait; I shuffle my feet and worry the things around it with my eyes, rub the cornices, the billboard, the knocked out teeth in the skyline that is, in my head, in perpetual dusk.