Trains rumble past steel columns early, early in the morning while a lone saxophone player laments and I laugh and swear and think of the movies. I walk through a dim underground subway station, my face neutral because that’s what I’ve been told to do, my mind tripping over thoughts and ideas. I wonder where people are going, and why they’re looking at the ground, and what they ate for breakfast. I think about how much money they have in their pockets and what they do in their spare time. I guess at their ages, their temperaments, their motivation for seeing and doing and being.
And then the train pulls up and I step on, mildly fearful of the sliding doors and the possibility of falling through the space between the car and the platform to where the tracks wait, blue with electricity. I sit down and check to see if my expression is still vacant. I ponder the idea of slipping my jacket hood over my head to make this nineteen year old girl from New Hampshire look like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. I stare straight ahead. And then the train lurches forward and my body sways along with the bodies of the other passengers, all of us puppets on the same string. The only thing I’m sure about is who I am, and I find security in my ability to think about the events transpiring around me without losing my silly vacant expression. It is my first time alone in New York.
At precisely four in the morning I walk up to Grand Central Station and pull on the gold handle of the door, only to find it locked. A woman at a nearby breakfast stand raises her voice to say, “Opens at five. You’ve got an hour.” She is an older woman, wearing a wool hat and standing directly under a sign that reads, “COFFE. 50¢ ” And so I let my backpack slide off my shoulder and drop near the door of the train station, feeling a little nervous about being alone. After all, it’s four in the morning and I’m standing by myself on the sidewalk in a city I don’t know. The night before I had been at a friend’s dorm at NYU. At three-thirty, she had walked me out to the street where we hugged and said our goodbyes, leaving me plenty of time to navigate to Grand Central Station for a five-thirty train back to school. At four o’clock I stand with my hands in my pockets, leaning against the door of the station.
A scruffy-looking young guy walks up next to me and tries the door, two dogs at his heels. Finding it’s locked, he shrugs, throws his army-green pack to the ground and sits on top of it. His hair is blond and wildly curly. His jacket is old and worn and his jeans are dirty. I warily take a step away from him and focus my eyes across the street, trying not to notice he’s there. The man gets up to buy a tea from the old woman with the wool hat and, on his way back, he smiles at me. I suddenly feel foolish for trying to ignore him, and I offer him a half-smile in return. He resumes his seat and his two dogs sit right in front of him, looking up at their master, a lab and a peppery mutt of some kind. The lab gets up off her haunches and begins to eat a cigarette on the ground. The man man whistles and then affectionately commands, with a thick Scottish accent, “Marley, you fucker. Get back here.” The dog returns to her post, but it’s not long before the other one begins to wander. Again, “Fuckin’ Christ, Buttons. That’s it. Come on back here.” He whistles, but Buttons is busy investigating the “COFFE” stand. “Buttons, you little fuck. Goddammit. Listen to me. Get the fuck back here. Now.” Buttons ambles back and rests her head on the man’s knee. He laughs and scratches the top of her head. I laugh too, breaking my silence.
I decide to ignore the advice about not talking to strangers in the city and timidly ask if I can pet the dogs. The man answers “Of course!” and I bend down to scratch the lab’s ears. He smiles and says, “They’re little fuckers, you know. Real fuckers. But I love ‘em.” I feel an odd sort of affection for this man, but I keep quiet. He continues, “I’ve had Marley here for quite some time. Maybe five years or so. That’s a long time for me. Buttons, though, I’ve only had her for a couple months. I picked her up in Canada. A poor lady who was leaving the country was all sore over the fact that she had to leave her dog. Canadian customs. All that shit. So I tell her I’ll take the dog and give her a call on the telephone when I get back to my home.” I know he’s Scottish, but I ask him where he lives anyway. He answers, “Well, recently I’ve been in the park. Been sleeping on a bench, with the dogs here watchin’ my stuff. The little fuckers. Nobody will give me lodging with a couple dogs nippin’ at my feet.” The man takes notice that I’m listening to him and he goes on, “I’m just waiting for my passport to come on through. Tryin’ to get back home. Just hiked down from Canada, ‘bout a week ago. But I’ve got some friends waitin’ for me back on the island. They’re goin’ to put me up for a bit and then I’ll probably be off again.”
“Off?” I ask. “Off to where?”
“Ah, I dunno. Been travelin’ for seven years.” He nods. “That’s right. Seven years ago I looked at my life and said, ‘fuck this shit’ and I left. And you, what about yourself?”
I am startled to find the focus of our conversation shifted in my direction. “Oh, I’m from New Hampshire,” I say. "I was visiting a friend here.”
“So you’re catchin a train back to New Hampshire then?”
“No. I go to school in Rhode Island.” I sit down next to him on the dusty concrete. “I’m on my way back there now. I’ve got a five-thirty train. How about you?”
“Ah, I’m just after a little sleep. I’m thinkin’ that if I can just find a nice spot, I can sleep through the day and then be good for quite a bit longer.” Marley walks off to go after the half-eaten cigarette, and the man whistles and slaps his hand on his leg. Marley swallows the remains of the cigarette and returns to her master’s side. I can’t help but laugh. He smiles and says, “Yeah, they’re little fuckers but I love ‘em.” Then he laughs. “I give them enough food to feed an army, and yet the rascals still eat the trash off the pavement.” He shakes his head and turns his gaze to the street in front of us, lit with streetlights. In this moment of silence I am suddenly filled with a million questions. I want to know this man. I want to know where he’s traveled and what things have befallen him on his journey. I want to know if he’s really going back to Scotland or if he’s destined to a future of sleeping on park benches and in train stations. I want to know what he thinks of New York, what he wants to do with his life, and the contents of the backpack on which he is sitting.
The man chuckles and says, “Fuckin’ New York. It never gets dark here.”
“I know,” I say. “It’s a little surreal. I keep finding myself confused about the time of day.” I continue, “This is one of my favorite times. Four AM. Morning is just around the corner, but it’s not quite here. And ime stands still for a little while, because the night has nearly passed, but the sun is still far from rising.”
“Yes, and when it does everyone wakes up.”
“Yeah, and time starts and the day begins.” I summon up the nerve to ask him some of the questions that have been on my mind. “You said you’ve been traveling for seven years. If you don’t mind my asking, how do you support yourself?”
“Ah, I’m a writer.” I smile. “I write poetry,” he says.
“What kind of poetry?”
“Ah, just fuckin’ trippy shit. I sell it on the streets. Little slips of paper, you know. A quarter a poem.”
I ask him what sort of ‘trippy shit’ he writes about.
“You know. The Enlightenment. The Reformation. I’m tellin’ you, when fuckin’ Martin Luther nailed that shit to the door of that church, things changed. I’m tellin’ you, things changed. The people, they started lookin’ for their answers in science and forgot about what’s really important. They forgot about where they came from. The earth. They stopped appreciating the land they were livin’ on, took their departure, and got lost in all that science. They forgot about their own spirit. All that fuckin’ shit.”
He shrugs, chuckles, and then asks me if I’d like some tea. I say “no, thank you” and he excuses himself to buy himself another tea from the old lady with the woolen hat. The dogs jump up to follow him, dancing at his heels. I mentally remind myself to get one of his poems before we part company.
The man walks back and returns to his seat atop his backpack. He blows at the steam rising from the tea inside the styrofoam cup and takes a small sip. The dogs lie down on the concrete, their eyebrows going up and down as they look from left to right. Struck with a memory, I speak up. “Last April I was in Ireland,” I say. “One night a few friends and I went to a club, and after a while it got unbearably crowded, so I decided to go out and get some fresh air. It was such a beautiful night, so I decided to just get a cup of tea and sit by the door to wait for them. So I sat there on the ground leaning against a brick wall, holding a cup of tea with both of my hands. It wasn’t long before a passerby took a coin out of his pocket and almost dropped it into my cup.” We both laugh. I continue, “The poor guy looked so confused when he realized what he had almost done. And then he just walked away, neither of us having said a word to one another.”
He laughs again. “Shit,” he says. “Ireland. That’s not too far from where I live. It’s pretty over there, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I say. “Beautiful.”
He puts his tea down next to him. Buttons lifts her head and eyes the cup, but the man looks at her sternly and she puts her head back down. Then he says, “I miss Scotland. That’s why I’m goin’ back. After that I’m thinkin’ about headin’ off to the Netherlands. Got to make some money first, though.”
“Are you going to sell your poetry at home?”
“Nah. I’ll pick up a job or two, so I can make money a bit faster. The treasure I make with my poems only lands me dog food for Marley and Buttons, and enough liquor for me to get warm at night in the pubs.”
I look up to see the old lady in the wool hat selling a bagel to a man in a suit. I glance at my watch. It’s 4:30, and I find myself wishing it were earlier. I begin talking about books and he talks about authors. We speak of Ireland again, and of Scotland. We talk about the city, about politics, about sleep and dogs and cats and poetry. When a man comes to open the door to the train station, I reluctantly stand and pick up my backpack. I think about shaking the man’s hand or something, but I just smile and look at him for a moment. “Good luck,” I say. I reach down to pet Marley and Buttons. The man in the old, worn jacket and dirty jeans stands and laughs. “Yes,” he says. “Safe home.” Then, to the dogs, “Come on, you little fuckers.”
I step inside the door, leaving the man to get his things together. Grand Central Station is completely empty and I walk to the middle of the marble floor, gaze up at the high vaulted ceilings, and admire how much warm emptiness fills the hall. I walk quietly over to check my departure time on a screen hanging above the ticket counter, and then retreat to sit on a grand marble staircase. I pull out my journal and look up to see the man and his dogs walk into the station. He smiles up at me, waves, and then disappears through a high doorway. I realize I have forgotten to buy one of his poems.
I fish in my backpack for a pen, open my journal, and write the following: And so I sit here now at five in the morning, waiting for my train to pull in, and I find myself oddly missing his presence.
By 5:30 I am on the train, watching the sun come up as I leave the city.
My expression is no longer vacant.