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Running on Empty MAG
I have been alone in an empty subway car exactly once in my life. I was on the B train, and for two and a half minutes between 145th and 125th Street, I felt a sense of dazzling euphoria.
The sensation of overwhelming possibility crept up my ribs and into my excitedly pumping heart as my eyes quickly confirmed a fantasy turned reality. I lost no time, racing to the center of the car, swinging from pole to pole like I imagine Tarzan would if he were significantly less trained in the art, stomping on the seats, rebounding off the shiny metal doors. I was a whirl of activity, an electron colliding with everything in sight. And to top it off, I started to sing “Freedom!” in a quasi-controlled yodel that was both painful to listen to and immensely pleasurable to produce.
Looking back on the experience, I see myself as somebody in a nearby car might have – maybe peering up from his Daily News to acknowledge the psychopath in the next car; possibly blinking back momentary alarm and alerting the person adjacent with a half-concerned, half-you-don't-want-to-miss-this elbow poke; perhaps sinking further into his seat while muttering a perfunctory “Kids these days.”
But the idea that somebody might have seen me only made the moment more incredible. Maybe my private release of pent-up, baboon-like craziness was shared around somebody's dinner table that evening in the weekly contest for strangest sightings, and the mystery of whether or not there is a 30-second clip of me tucked away somewhere in a dusty corner of YouTube's attic is an exciting possibility. I could be famous, for all I know!
I am a commuter living in Manhattan, attending high school in the Bronx, going regularly to Brooklyn for orthodontist appointments, and visiting my girlfriend who has the misfortune to live in Queens (not even in the “accessible” part). I am definitely on the subway more than I am out in the fresh air, which, as depressing as it sounds, I have become accustomed to.
I used to rationalize my insane amount of wasted time in transit by convincing myself it was good me-time, time for introspection, planning, or the occasional power nap as I waited to get to my destination and continue with my life.
Recently, though, I developed a new theory. I like to think that the New York City Transit System has a reward system. I imagine that someone somewhere maintains a running log of my daily hours in transit, and after I've achieved a certain number, I will be presented with another empty subway car to do with as I choose. But the time quota is so high that even the most hard-core commuters can only fill it once every two or three years. It's like an elite frequent-flyer program, but in the hands of The Fates of the Subway and not American Airlines, with a prize far more coveted and elusive than any free trip to Hawaii.
About three weeks ago, I thought there had been a glitch in the system: The Fates of the Subway decided to reward me again. I was on the 1 train coming home from school – it was a Thursday, so I was a shell of my former well-rested, Monday-morning self – when the doors opened at 125th Street. I was traveling at that awkward time around 5:30 p.m., too soon for the rush-hour throng and too late for the regular crowd of students returning home from school. For the last three stops the number of people in the car kept dwindling, asymptotically approaching zero. There were three others on the train: a middle-aged woman speaking Spanish on her sparkling cell phone a little too emphatically about her back pain, an elementary-school-aged boy sitting beside her whose backpack was hopelessly too large for him, and a professional-looking woman in her early twenties, decked out in a pantsuit, who I was sure was bound for Columbia University, just one stop away.
But when the doors opened, all three of them stood up to leave. In less than two seconds I had come alive like a wind-up toy, my back straightening and tensing for the moment the metal doors clicked shut. And then they left! With fresh zeal I started to sing anything and everything that popped into my head: “Hallelujah,” “A Whole New World,” a hopeless medley of loud, exciting choruses with partially memorized lyrics and squeaking, high-pitched harmonies I could never get away with in front of any kind of audience.
But as I was coming down from a ninja-esque flying sidekick around the center pole and reaching the climax of “I'll Make a Man Out of You,” I made shocking eye contact with a lone, nonplussed transit worker sitting in the back of the car, his bright orange and yellow vest the exact color of the seat behind him.
I instantly felt like a deer caught in headlights, seeing the unfathomable happening, staring me in the face, exposing my forbidden actions as I was paralyzed by fear in a place I didn't belong. I choked on my song and staggered over to a yellow and orange seat, looked away, and started to count to 10 in terror, as if somewhere between six and seven I would come up with some brilliant justification for why I was dreaming. I sifted through images of the last 30 seconds in my head, wondering how, in between my jumps and yelps, I could have missed him – how I could have overlooked this very near, very real witness to my secret revelry. I looked back quickly, hoping it was just some sick prank my imagination or my guiltily subdued sense of propriety had played on me.
But he was really there.
I felt exposed despite my many layers, naked in my puffy black winter coat. I had shared I-didn't-know-exactly-what with I-didn't-know-exactly-who. But, whatever it was, I had shared it, and I couldn't take it back.
Frustration tingled my temples. Why didn't he say anything? I could have gone on for another minute or two without seeing him! Why didn't he have the decency to stop me? He could have shouted, “Kid, stop. You're not going to weird me out. I'm a transit worker. I had to chase down a stoned, cross-dressing fare-beater singing opera between 23rd and 28th already today. This doesn't even compare. Just let me sleep.”
But instead, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him, eyes closed, unsuccessfully pretending to have fallen asleep in the last 10 seconds. I don't know who he was trying to convince, but, at that moment, I didn't care. He was saving me from the most awkward train ride of my life.
I got off at the next stop – two before my actual destination. As soon as I reached the darkening streets of the Upper West Side and had a moment to collect myself, I started to grin uncontrollably. I was so sure my embarrassment would be obvious, so sure the passersby would stop to stare at The Boy Who Thought He Was Alone on a Subway Car, the new YouTube celebrity. But I was just a small piece of flotsam in a tide of strangers waiting to get to their destination and continue on with their lives, walking far too quickly and focusing far too intently on themselves to even notice the guy who thought he'd cheated The Fates for an extra free subway car.