by Malaika Booker-Wright

I stared down the set of steep cement steps that lead to the “A” train and hesitated.

“Gal! Come on! Mark and Len will protect us. And you only have four stops after me and Mark get off.”

I walked down the steps with Kim, Mark, and Len, feeling that none of them could protect me if need be.

Even after a night of dancing, Kim looked incredible. She wore jet black jeans, a black bra top, and a lime green sheer blouse that had one button at the neck. She had her long brown hair twisted and curled all over and the subtle make-up on her already flawless fair skin accented her babydoll features. How would Kim protect me? I could see her tall, slender body tripping in her black heeled boots as she ran from danger.

Len looked adorable to me. He wore dark baggy blue jeans, a dark blue sweater with a sand stripe around the sleeve, and some sand Timberland boots. His thick, six foot, broad shouldered frame and thuggish rapport should have made me feel secure about taking the train. However, it didn’t.

Mark and Len were dressed as though they were twins in a Doublemint commercial. However, Mark’s frame is just the opposite of Len’s. I couldn’t see Mark protecting me. His little short legs would be too busy running away and leaving the three of us to face the danger.

We paid our fare and went through the turnstile. At three in the morning, the sound of the turnstile was eerie. It echoed throughout the entire station. We were the only people on the platform. If it had not been for Kim’s and my clicking heels, the station would have been silent.

An Empty Station
While waiting for our train, I started singing “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” mocking an earlier story told by Mark. Kim joined in. The harmonizing sounded perfect due to the station’s acoustics. Our voices filled the station. We could hardly hear Len laughing at Kim and I as we mocked Mark. Mark kept pleading for us to “shut up” due to his embarrassment.

Feeling a sudden cool breeze, I decided to check to see if our train was arriving. I walked to the edge of the platform and looked down the long station into the tunnel. I saw the two bright headlights and the large white letter “A” of our train racing towards us. The cool breeze quickly turned into a cold tornado. In a split second, the roar of the uptown “A” drowned out our song.

The train came to a screeching halt and the doors opened. We boarded the vacant train car and continued laughing, talking and singing. Because we were alone in the car, we made ourselves at home; lying all over the yellow, light orange, and dark orange bucketed seats and talking as loud as we wanted. We were like children in an unsupervised playroom.

Kim, as usual, was being a comedian. Len and I laughed and laughed as Mark shot back dull comments at Kim. Occasionally, I would break out in song and Kim would follow in harmony. Then, Len and Mark would beg us to stop singing as though we didn’t sound like heavenly angels.

We continued to act silly. I forgot about actually being on the train until we reached the stop where Len got off. Kim and I stood to embrace him as the train slowed. Mark and Len gave each other a “pound” while we said our final good-byes. Len bopped off the train and Kim, Mark, and I continued talking, laughing, and singing over the roar of the train. We didn’t stop until we reached 125th Street; Kim and Mark’s stop.

I didn’t want to say “good-bye.”

I would be alone for four stops.

Kim hugged me and said, “Call me as soon as you get home. And stop being a punk! Don’t nobody want you but us!” She laughed at her own comedic tone. I agreed, then hugged Mark. They stepped off the train and the bell sounded for the doors to close. I had never noticed the sound of the bell before. It was loud and ear-piercing.

The Mysterious Stranger
A second before the doors completely closed, a pale, white hand, plastered in dirt and grime stopped the doors from closing. The fingernails of this hand were extremely short and coated with dirt as thick as chocolate. I sat pasted to my seat, afraid of what was attached to that hand. Before I saw the rest of him, I heard his deep coughing and gasping. It sounded like a drowning victim fighting for air.

He finally stepped into the doorway of the train car. The doors began to slam into his body. His body sounded hollow. He finally mustered up enough strength to snatch his body from the abusive doors and stood inside the train catching his breath.

He looked like a typical homeless man. He was tall and very thin. He looked like he hadn’t eaten in months. His cheeks were sunken and his half-closed crocodile eyes were dark. His fully grown beard was tangled. He wore a black hat which (I could only imagine) hid his dirty, matted, hair. He wore red Converse sneakers that were so filthy I could hardly see the white lettering on them. He had on Khaki pants. They were soiled with soot and some type of liquid. He wore a long tweed coat with only two buttons: one at the neck which was buttoned, and one at the waist which was not. This coat was defiled too. At any moment, I knew some rodent would come crawling out of it. Under his coat was a gray tee-shirt I was sure was once white.

He sat directly across from me. He wanted to taunt me. I tried not to stare at him, but he kept staring at me. I looked up at the Spanish soap opera-like cartoon, printed in black and white and advertising to have safe sex or get AIDS. I usually saw the English version of this advertisement. I pretended to read the unknown words, moving my lips as though I were fluent in Spanish. I read every advertisement within eyesight: The one about Whitney Houston having her shots as a baby; the one about lupus; the one about getting a hepatitis B vaccine; the one about the New York Police Department needing you; and many more. However, I couldn’t help but to return to gawking at this stranger. For some reason I wasn’t nervous or scared. I was intrigued.

Stranger than Fiction
I thought to myself, “Why am I not scared? I’m a female, alone, in a dark tunnel, with a strange man, with no escape, with no one to hear me scream, at three in the morning!”

The train pulled into the 145th Street station. The doors of the train opened. A warm breeze carried this stranger’s scent to me. I almost choked on the overwhelming smell of whisky. It was as if someone had poured an entire two liter bottle on him. I frowned but stayed in my seat. The stranger was surprised. He tried to hide his surprise by pulling out a half empty bottle of whisky from the inside pocket of his coat. He took a sip so small, I wondered if he took a sip at all.

I didn’t hear the bell sound. Tt must have because the doors began to close. As the doors closed, I crossed my legs and sank down into my seat. It was amazing how the stranger and I continued to stare at each other. It was as though we were having a contest. No words were exchanged. No sounds were made. All I heard was the roar of the train.

The train pulled into the vacant 168th Street Station. The doors opened and closed at the sound of the bell. The same scent violated my nose. For the first time, I heard the conductor announce the next stop.

“Neeeeeeeeext stop: 175th Street.”

Conclusion
I gathered myself and stood at the door. I saw the reflection of the stranger in the dark, oblong window of the train car. He had no idea that I was still staring at him. He put his bottle back in his coat, revealing the reason why his presence didn’t threaten me. I began to laugh as the train pulled into my station. I shook my head as the train slowed and the doors opened.

“Goodnight Officer”, I said as I stepped onto the platform.

“Goodnight young lady”, he said through his wide-eyed giggling.

Next time, I’m sure he’ll put his badge in his pocket and not on the inside of his coat.