Rush-hour commuters crammed into a Brooklyn-bound train fixate on smartphone screens, colorfully-jacketed books, photocopied Jesus tracts, or else stare vacantly ahead like idling androids deactivated for the remainder of the day. Each enjoys a secret soundtrack piped directly to their ears through white wire insulation stymied only by the screech of the train’s brakes as it jerks and sputters beneath the East River. Conductors force car doors shut on legs and arms as trains pull off with angry passengers cursing on the platform and muttering about plenty of space. The lucky ones who’ve pushed inside form a solid human mass remarkable in its sheer density of flesh and bone and more so for the disciplined unwillingness of its component parts to acknowledge one another’s existence. The mass maintains a studied silence, even as it is jostled and tossed by the fits and starts of a conductor who cares not that many riders can’t get ahold of a metal pole and are braced instead on the bodies of those around them.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen…”
A young man with sunken, desperate eyes cast downward clad in dingy clothing sagging off his slender frame shuffles shoulder-first through the throng, hauling a heavy backpack and shaking a tattered coffee cup. He speaks like a telemarketer or a novice actor unsure how to emphasize key words of rehearsed dialogue. If anyone can hear him, nobody lets on.
“I’m down on my luck, and I’m out here trying to put together thirty-nine dollars for a bus ticket to Buffalo. The bus is at eight PM, and I currently have thirty-three dollars. That means in the next two hours I need to collect six dollars to catch the bus, and get back to my family, where I have a place to stay.”
A disembodied voice chides him.
“You’ve been trying to catch that bus now for a while, huh?”
Silence. Then the panhandler explodes.
“That’s right asshole. There is no bus. Guess what? I’m actually homeless and I’m trying to put together a little money so I can eat. Do you think I’m proud of that? Do you think I wanted to say that? Hey, did you hear that everybody?”
“I’m homeless, asking for a little money so I can eat. I didn’t want to have to say that, but now you know. Thanks a lot, asshole. Great job.”
The train jerks to a stop and the doors open on another station where passengers will struggle for a square foot of space on which to travel home. Shaking his head and muttering, the panhandler exits the train without even passing his cup around for collection. Pages are turned, screens are scrolled, eyes glaze over evermore.
The panhandler’s voice returns once more from a door further down the car.
“Thanks again asshole. You have a nice day.”
The train doors close, and silence returns.
Jarrod Shanahan is a writer, activist and doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. For more of his work, visit jarrodshanahan.com.