subterranean nocturne (from the archives)

The rats have all gone to sleep, but the trains, they say, are still running, past the nearly empty platforms with their scuffed wooden benches, each of which serves as this night's refuge to a human being, almost unrecognizable, buried as they are beneath their piles of earthly possessions.

But are the contents of their shopping carts and garbage bags so different, really, from the jumble in my purse or the inventory of my house? Probably not - they are all collections of accidentally acquired items that we have charged with a portion of our humanity, intending them to give us a measure of power - a sense of belonging or owning - ending up, instead, by giving them a kind of mute, imaginary power over us.

A surplus of baggage betrays a kind of fragility, buries our humanity. We have learned - the lucky ones - to leave enough of it at home to trick the world into believing in our independence, our security and stability. But we are all buried beneath our earthly baggage, aren't we, whether it's material or mental. We cart our histories around with us. We burrow into them for warmth or comfort, or simply to ward off irrelevant or unwanted sensory stimuli - like the woman wrapped in her old overcoat, ignoring the rattle of the trains and the shouts of the clean-up crew.

The trains come and go according to their practical schedule - take whichever one you wish, or none at all.

The small, silent group of passengers is a breathing reliquary of stories. Hard to imagine anyone taking a Brooklyn-bound train casually at 2:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. We are all coming from somewhere.

Always are, I guess.

Tired, still faces; some dozing, some reading or listening to music. A few - the well-dressed group sitting near me - chatting so animatedly, they clearly just had a pleasant evening. Two girls in high heels and a man in a pin-striped sports coat, a Canon SLR slung around his neck. Wonder what he's got on his memory card.

I suppose everyone has within them a pearly kernel of a story. Sometimes, I am indifferent to that. Other times, I wish I could plumb the depths of these forgettable faces, to see what lives they lead outside our shared bit of time.

I guess that's why I sometimes don't mind talking to odd strangers. Like that guy I met near Coney Island, who claimed to be the son of God. Was he crazy? Possibly. But he just believes in his personal convictions, his intuition. Who am I to judge or slight that?

How different, really, is the belief that one is meant to be the Messiah from the belief that one is meant to be a lawyer, a painter, an accountant? How different is a heaping old shopping cart from a Vuitton purse bulging with year-old receipts? Similar enough, I think, not to judge or look too much askance. It's all a series of choice and chances, anyway, that bring us to where we end up.

October 8, 2008

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