I know a lot of stories. Some of them are so funny that you’ll be laughing out loud on the floor, and some so sad that thick tears would come out of your red eyes. But this isn’t the right time or place for those. So I’ll just tell you about Him. Yes, I know. There are many hims in the world, from George Washington to the guy who works at the local diner. But this him didn’t have a name. At least, he didn’t tell me it. He was, “untitled,” as far as I know. So we don’t get confused, I’ll just call him Burgundy, named after the color of the coat he was wearing when I met him.
It happened on the day I took the D train, from 59th street to 125th street, where I live. It was about 4:30 p.m. It was dark outside. I was waiting on one of the wooden benches with the abnormally short armrests, when a strange looking man comes and sits next to me. I put my hands in my pocket and looked away, not wanting to start a conversation, but then I heard a voice on the loudspeaker, saying that the train was late because of some fire on the tracks. My phone was out of battery, so I knew I was going to have nothing to do until the train came. But then I looked at him. I don’t remember much about his face or body, but I remember his raggedy, burgundy coat. I also remember his nails. They were bitten almost to the bottom. It wasn’t disgusting. It was probably just a habit. I started the conversation with a rude remark, since I was pissed off at the train not coming. After all, my girlfriend couldn’t wait forever.
“I’m so freakin’ bored. The train’s not coming for a while, and I’m annoyed about it,” I said, in an irritated tone.
He stared into space, as if he concentrating on something in the empty air. For a few seconds he didn’t say anything, like some dramatic pause in an action movie.
“The train will come,” he slowly stated, as if he didn’t know that words were coming out of his mouth.
I was careful about what I would say next, because it can be risky, having a conversation with a stranger you met in the subway. Especially in New York City, home of the crazies and druggies. “How do you know that?” I asked, “You can’t know that for sure.”
He didn’t reply. He just stared, unblinking, into the air.
At that point, I thought he was kinda creepy. The kind of guy who you would stay away from, unless you were looking to be kidnapped. I thought about stopping the conversation, because I knew this was the type of person who could pull out a knife from his pocket at any moment. My hands even came out of my pocket and adjusted my position. But I was a bored teen, with nothing to do except talk. “Hello sir? How do you know if the train will come?”
“I don’t,” he said, still looking into the air.
“Yah, well I need it. I’m late and I have a lot of things to do tonight,” I replied. “My girlfriend and I are going out.” I don’t know why I told him this. There was an awkward silence between us. I don’t know why. Maybe I didn’t know what to say. Maybe it was because I wanted him to say something. Eventually he did.
“Do you have a cigarette?”
I looked at him in surprise.
“No. I’m 14. Why? Are you a smoker?”
He suddenly released himself from his trance, and gave me a crooked grin.
“It clears the thoughts,” he said.
I was disgusted by him, yet also intrigued. What were the thoughts? What happened to him? Who is he? I gathered up all of my courage and asked another question.
I became eager for a reply.
He looked at me with a concerned look, like he said the wrong words, before going back into his otherworldly trance.
“Do you know the story Robin Hood?” he asked.
“Yah. I do.” I replied cautiously, “I’m reading it for school.”
“Do you know how he steals from the rich, and gives to the poor?”
“That’s what they said the man was. Robin Hood.”
I started to get interested. I knew it wasn’t right to get into other people’s business, but this man was so mysterious, it was hard not to.
“What man?” I asked.
He stared at his pockets for a second, then went back to his trance. I was impatient.
He took a breath before the words came out.
“The man who broke me,” he answered, with a whisper, “Who broke my spirits.”
He paused. I looked at my watch to see what time it was. I didn’t care if the train was late now. It didn’t even need to come. In fact, I didn’t want it to come. It would interrupt his story, and I needed to know more about this man. My girlfriend could wait. I asked a vague question.
He looked at the yellow line on the edge of the platform. The curb meant to tell people to step away, or else…you know. I looked into his eyes. I wanted to see what was wrong. Instead I saw a painful memory. You know the kind of cringe you get when you remember something you shouldn’t? Usually, you just close your eyes and think about something else, even though you know it will come back. It always does. But sometimes, you let it in. Let it change you. Let it control you. I wish he knew better. I rephrased my other question. I didn’t want to disrespect him.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked, as politely as I could.
He looked at me with sadness in his eyes. He had the painful look he had before. He took a deep breath through his nostrils. He didn’t go back to his trance.
“I’ll tell you this. I believe in God. Everybody needs someone to believe in. Someone to thank for their blessings. Someone to blame for their problems. I believe in God for those reasons, but there is another, more personal cause. He made my life predictable. When something was going too well or too bad, I knew he would make it equal. It is good to be predictable though, because life is a train track, and I want to know where I’m going. He was the one who set out a clear path for me. I could expect anything, I thought. I thought.”
He fixed his eyes on the trapped rat on the tracks. Maybe Burgundy knew, like I did, that it was the rat’s final destination. He paused his story, making a remark that I thought went off track.
“Look at the rat,” he said, “Do you think it knows what will happen to it? Do you think it knows that it will die? More importantly, do you think it chose this? Suicide?”
“Maybe,” I answered carefully, “I don’t know if rats can think like we can. Why?”
“I’m not sure. Just an observation. I think I can tell you what happened. I need to let it out. I need to tell somebody before I die. And who knows when that will be?”
I didn’t know how to reply. I wish I had said more.
I felt like he was implying something. “I need to tell somebody before I die. And who knows when that will be?” I felt like the words kept echoing. I didn’t know him. I quickly got the image out of my head, even though, like a painful memory, I knew it would come back. I needed to get back on point.
“So…can you tell me your story?”
“Yes,” he replied, still looking out in the tracks, “I can.”
“I owned a grocery store on 176th street. I had a wife. We had recently had a baby boy, whom we both loved very much. Business was going well. My family was satisfied. God had been very good to me. Everything was perfect. I was happy.”
He paused. He cringed again, but, for some reason, shook it off almost as quickly as it came.
“I tried to test my luck. Go against my predictable path. Little by little, I raised my prices, until everything increased to an absurd amount. Little by little, people stopped coming to my store, until there was nothing left. I lowered my prices once I realized what was going on, but it was too late. My prices must have drove customers away.”
He squinted his eyes, like he was trying to blink a tear away. I think he was. I thought I saw him slightly nod at the yellow curb, as if he were telling it something. He rose his voice as he told the next part of the story.
“The city sent a man to close my store. His name was Robin. I forget his real last name, but they called him Robin Hood, because he took from the people and gave to the people. Personally, I didn’t think that was who Robin Hood was. The real Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor. I was definitely not rich, yet my prized possession. My store. The only thing that kept me off the streets.”
He scratched his cheek and the side of his nose with his bitten nails. He took a deep breath, like he was hesitating to tell me the next part of the story.
“I couldn’t take care of my family. My wife stayed up every night trying to help the baby. The baby was growing restless. We had no way of getting income. Our money was limited. One night…”
He started stuttering on that word. I suddenly became nervous, for many reasons. The voice on the loudspeaker said that the fire on the tracks had been put out, and the train was coming.
“One night we got into an argument. A big one. She needed money. She said she couldn’t support the child. She said the baby was getting sick, and we needed to pay for a doctor, treatment, and other things. I said we needed to conserve it for more important things, like food, water, and anything else that could help. She said our baby was the only thing that she cared for. I asked her if we wanted to starve. We raised our voices to intimidate each other. Eventually it intoxicated me. I told her it was my decision, as the man of the house. She asked me if I even cared about the child. Our baby. In my anger, I slapped her across the face. She looked at me in awe. She opened the door and left, with the baby in her arms. I ran out the door, calling her name so loudly, the whole neighborhood could hear me. I cried it over and over, until I realized there was no point. I sat on the concrete stairs leading to our building. I rested my head on the rails and cried. Not just a cry about something small, like stubbing a toe. But a cry of realization. I realized my wife had left me. With the child. Without even a goodbye.”
He let a tear drip down his face. I tried to not cry. Not because of his story, or his tears, but because he trusted me this much even though I had just met him. I was only 14.
“I only had two things left after the store closed. My family, and my faith. I knew I had lost my family for good. My faith was all I had left. I asked God, to come to me in some form, and tell me if things were going to be better. He never did. So then I decided that I would do what needed to be done. I had nothing left. I had nothing to live for. I decided the only solution would be to die. I used to take this train to my store every day. It’s ironic that the train that used to bring me to my living would also be the one that would kill me.”
I heard a low rumble. The train was coming. The normal hustle and bustle of an MTA station in New York came with it. I just sat there. Somebody had just told me that they would commit suicide. I didn’t know what to say, so instead I screamed. Tears came out. I held him down on the bench with all my strength. I screamed louder, asking for help from the millions of New Yorkers striding around me. They didn’t listen, even though a man was about to commit suicide. For them, it was just 5:00 p.m. Rush Hour. As I pinned him down, he said something that would change my life forever.
“You give me hope in the time when I most need it, but I’m sorry. I must.”
He suddenly broke my grasp. I thought about running after him, but millions of people were trying to take the train at rush hour. I couldn’t see anything. Not even a burgundy coat. I sat back down in my seat, with the hope that he decided not to carry it out. Life is so beautiful, and it should be lived to its fullest. I was still crying. I missed the train.
I skipped the date to watch TV. That is the absolute worst thing to do, I know, but I didn’t skip it to watch Homeland or New Girl or anything like that. I skipped it to watch NY1. To see if a man commit suicide by jumping onto the tracks of the D train. My body was tense. I was eagerly waiting the news, refusing to do anything but listen. I was just about to turn it off, but then it came. I will always remember the headline. “Man jumps onto subway tracks to death.” I had so many thoughts going on at once. I could’ve stopped a man from dying. He said I gave him hope. This man lost everything he had, including his life, and I could’ve prevented it. I could’ve done so many things, but I didn’t. I just watched as he ran. I only knew him for thirty minutes, yet I felt like I knew him forever. No words came out. Only tears I let fall.
I don’t know why I told you this. I realize it’s not the right time or place for this story either. I mean, you thought that you could read or listen to this for fun. But instead I tried to tell you something really deep. Maybe a little cheesy. Don’t ask me what the point of this story is. I wouldn’t give you a good answer. But if I had too, I would just say that sometimes the biggest things in life come to you at the most random times, in the smallest ways. Imagine what would happen if the train wasn’t late. Or I decided to sit somewhere else. Or I just dismissed him as another crazy in the subway. You probably think I’m getting to sentimental with this story, but you don’t know how much he changed me. The way I look at things now. The way I’ll look at things for a long time. I still wonder what his name was. I just called him Burgundy as a nickname. He never told me, but I realize I never asked. He still is, and always will be, untitled.
Oliver Effron, Age 12, Grade 7, The Dalton School, Gold Key