Hummingbirds use stolen spider webs to help build their nests.
I stood on the subway platform, imagining that my skin was being licked by the vapors of old trash and excrement, and that was enough to keep me steady. I had to do something to take myself away from that place; not because of the filth, but because I couldn’t live, for one more second, in the same reality as the New York City masses around me. Those corporate slaves, those automated piles of flesh, not even worth the noxious dust that licked our faces. At least the noxious dust lived by its own rules.
Not one detail of that day escapes me, perhaps because my nerves were so raw and open that they recorded every blistering sensation. Or perhaps because that day, when I became mesmerized by a girl who lived inside the city’s belly, was the hinge upon which the rest of my life would swing.
On that February morning, skewered by a penetrating cold, I shoved and battered my way through the bitter F-train platform to find a spot where I could wait with an ounce of peace, disappear into my headphones - into music that nobody else could hear – and think about how tragic and hurtful and hateful the world had become, and how we’d all be dead soon, and how I didn’t understand why everyone was not in a panic every second of the day. And I thought to myself, that girl next to me in her carefully distressed designer jeans and tousled hair is trying so hard, way too hard, and she really should re-think those skinny jeans, because it’s really not everyone who should be wearing skinny jeans, especially in winter, when we’ve all packed on a few extra pounds, and oh my God what is wrong with me, I want to beat all of these people over the head with a fire extinguisher and then blow the fire extinguisher’s guts out and asphyxiate all of us down here in this filthy tunnel, and why the hell does everyone always stare down into the oncoming train tunnel, desperate to see the two bright shining eyeballs come around the bend, as if the desperation will make the train come faster and the day end sooner...
If I had known then what I know now, I might’ve tried to contain my fury, I might’ve tried to calm my messy mind, but of course I didn’t have the wisdom of age; I couldn’t imagine myself as I am now, squirreled away and lonely to the bone. So I stood on the platform, immersed in my own naïve fear of the world.
The subway’s eyeballs appeared, and the minnow-people shuffled and jockeyed for the best train-mounting position, ramming through pregnant mothers and stepping on children and despising homeless people. I thought to myself, there’s not a single person in this country who cares about anything except his or her own position on the platform.
Chatter and sweet garbage air still licked my face and my hands. I stood there, shoved in every direction, riddled by the sounds of footsteps and hostility, thinking what a beautiful swirl this is. The doors closed. And I stood there still. And I looked around and thought to myself, I’m impervious to all of this. I’m living my own life, and I don’t need to follow the minnows unless I really want to, and I didn’t want to. I was so sick of the common routine – wake up, subway, work, eat, work, eat, subway, home – tedium was driving me to an emotional death. All of the potential that I’d gleaned from so many years of study at well-manicured educational institutions had begun to hollow me out from the inside, like an avocado sucked from its shell, and what remained of my core had become a fetid, gelatinous mess.
So I kept standing there. For over an hour. And the morning rush ended. God, that felt powerful: every moment in my life was a choice, and at that moment, I made the choice to do nothing other than listen to music, and stand perfectly still.
I started counting things – pillars, pieces of trash, rats (which I’ve always valued as one of New York City’s only indigenous land species). As it had since childhood, counting things brought me a sense of placidity.
I counted everything in sight and listened to more Bjork than most people would care to hear in a lifetime when, down deep in the tunnel, I saw a movement much too large to be a rodent. A masculine swagger and a confusing wad of distinctly feminine hair. The shadowy thing hunched its way to me and became more and more a girl. Even at a distance I saw, in the eyes of this stooping form, a ferocity that nearly made me turn away. But I loved it, this impossible idea – a girl from the bowels of Metro Transit.
She jumped the highly electrified third rail, threw her hands up on the platform, and hoisted herself up to stand in front of me, nose-to-nose, intense, and reeking of something long ago discarded. She wore old black army boots and her blonde-ish hair was tied in a stiff and pointy mess on the top of her head just like the heroin-hungry models in Europe, a style I found remarkably hip for a homeless person, although the rest of her betrayed absolutely no notion of current fashion. Her jeans and striped sweater were relics from the 1980s – I couldn’t remember when I had last seen a young woman wearing jeans that actually fastened above the belly button – and she wore a stained puffy coat that must have once belonged to a smallish man. Less than a foot from my face, she cocked a delicate chin, curled her mouth into a sneer, and barked:
“If I give you money, will you buy me some stuff?” Her voice was too loud, as if she dared anyone to listen to her, to hear what she had to say, and to take exception. Although she was as white as snow, maybe even whiter, she had a hint of that East Village street accent that says, I live hard, I am not afraid of you, and I am not afraid to eat your face if you get in my way.
“Who are you?” My voice was meek in comparison to hers. But she had me hypnotized; I was six inches tall, and she was a giant.
“Credenza. Who are you?” Her eyes didn’t waver from mine. She had hollowed eye sockets, and her blemished skin was translucent white—almost grey—almost hideous, as if it were rotting, even while she lived inside it. But she was one of the prettiest people I’d ever seen. Under the grime, she had the infectious features of a hometown cheerleader. Her eyes shone ice blue – somehow that seemed strange – such a pure clean beautiful color. I always had imagined vagrants having dark eyes like mine, but red-veined and hollow, the whites turned yellow.
Standing still, I whispered, “Ruby.” I always despised my name, “Ruby Cooper,” in all its jeweled cuteness. I had thought about changing it to something mysterious like “Five” or something ironic like “Sudan,” but then I decided that it was romantic to suffer a name that I absolutely hated, so I kept it.
“Well, Ruby, I can see that you’re bored. You’ve been standing there for over an hour waiting for something to happen, because you hate your life so much. And you’re really excited that a crazy girl just jumped out of the tunnel.”
At this, she threw her head back and laughed; not a sweet laugh, but brash and loud, like a hooker in the hands of a high roller.
No response from me.
“So, since you obviously can’t deal with whatever is at the end of that tunnel, and since I’m the most interesting thing you got going on today, why don’t you just do me a favor and go get me some food?” Her power and ferocity filled the station.
I tried to be tough, like her, “What if I don’t have any money?” I wanted to raise my voice, but it refused to be raised, and my lip quivered, and I felt pathetic and small.
“Oh my God, I’ll give you the money.” She smiled at me like a mother amused at her young child, and reached into her jeans pocket, drawing out a crumpled wad of bills, extending a hand.
Everything around me disappeared. I watched her watching me, felt her penetrating my subconscious, noodling around inside me, and I considered my options. I could refuse her request, send her back into the tunnel, and hop the next train to sameness. Or I could get her some groceries, and at least have something to think about for a few hours. My choice was clear.
“Okay. What do you want?” I shifted my stance, from one hip to the other. She still stood square, with her feet apart, strong and resolute, and held out a list.
“You can get everything from the grocery store across the street. There’s an extra five bucks in there for you to keep. Thanks.” She placed in my hand the small slip of stained paper, and the wad of cash. As she moved, her stench, like rotten apples and old whiskey, wafted over me. Still, her eyes didn’t deviate from mine.
I careened my way to the grocery store. The streets were bright, and packed with broken mothers and angry children. My mind reeled, romantically mesmerized by the notion of girls living in tunnels; girls like myself, but more in touch with darkness, and hardship, and fear. I had heard about people who lived in the subway system, but I always assumed that they’d be delusional criminals, wacked out on cheap crack, sleeping in their own shit.
Some piece of me, deep inside, wished I were a feral subway girl. I knew that this desire was wrong, but years of confusion and inexplicable sadness had thrown me into a relentless condition my mother chose to call “depression,” but I preferred to call “heightened awareness.” And in my scarred, heightened stupor, it seemed to me that life in a tunnel would be a fantastically heroic way to live and survive the trials of the world. It would certainly be more heroic than the lives of the broken mothers and angry children.
Not until I got to the grocery store did I look at Credenza’s list. Eggs, bread, potato chips, Vienna sausages (people still ate those?), Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs, New York Times, People Magazine, Home and Garden Magazine, Cheerios, box-o-milk, paper towels, toilet paper, Clorox Cleanup (somewhere down below, there was a disinfected tunnel!), light bulbs (light bulbs?), beer, cheese, soap, double A batteries, D batteries, cat food…
My checkout girl was a spectacled, slick-haired, pudgy little girl who should have been in school. Despite my better judgment, and for no particular reason, I found myself saying to her, “I’m taking this food to a girl who lives in the subway station.” The pudgy girl swiped the groceries, smacked her gum, and, with sleepy eyes, mumbled “okay.” I visualized myself slamming her indifferent head against her dirty little scanner, and I knew this was wrong, and felt, as always, grateful that nobody could see into my head. I thought, every day, all day, Americans exercise only their most boring neurons – we mine ourselves for boring fuel until we collapse in a boring heap every single night.
Laden with 40 pounds of groceries, I lumbered back down into the F-train (I may be small, but I am fierce – don’t be fooled by my stature), paid another $2 subway fare, bumped down the stairs and back to the end of the platform. Credenza wasn’t anywhere to be found. I could for once feel every nerve in my body as I waited for her to re-emerge from the whale’s belly. And suddenly, there she was. She flew out of the darkness, hopped up, and threw herself down on the bench like she owned it. She pierced me again with her steely eyes.
I became acutely aware of my diminutive stature – she had at least six inches and twenty pounds on me – but then, most of the world has at least six inches and twenty pounds on me. Suddenly desperate to impress this woman from middle Earth, I tried to startle her with my magical stare. Lucky for me, my eyes are as big as I am small, and, combined with my extremely long and straight chestnut-colored hair (of which I’ve always been very proud), I’m told that I give off a mixture of great charm and frightening intensity. I used to stare at people in the streets, or wherever, and it totally freaked them out, especially since my eyes are nearly black, and they seem better suited for a gelfling or a cat than for a human being. But Credenza didn’t bend to my spell – she saw nothing in front of her but the accomplishment of her agenda.
“I had to make sure the booth guy was sleeping, and no trains were coming.” She sat with her shoulders hunched, legs spread wide, like, I’m hard, I’m not delicate, don’t forget it. “Now I gotta wait ‘til the next train passes before I go back down. Anyway, thanks for your help.” With this, she turned away from me, a bit too forcibly, as if her movements were premeditated and dishonest.
“Sure. So, do you live down there?”
She said nothing, looked at me sideways, then turned away again.
I was pinned by the idea of her, forging her own path, sticking it to the man, dwelling at the apex of human beings’ potential for individuality and self-reliance. I wanted to crawl inside her mind and take a look around. I reached in my bag, and she watched me out of the corner of her eye, with rapt attention and feigned indifference. I thought maybe she’d bolt back into the tunnel, but she didn’t.
“Here.” I handed her a hummingbird that I had crafted by spinning an endless loop of copper wire. One long strand, a series of tiny loops, starting at the tip of the tail, and ending at the beak. “I made it.”
Looking at the bird, her cheeks flushed, filling the sickly grey palette with a wash of color, like a spot of blood dropped on dirty snow. Suddenly, she looked feminine, like a girl, for the first time. Without reaching for it, she said, “That’s ugly. But cool.”
She clearly wanted me to react to the “ugly,” but I agreed with her on all counts. “Thanks. You can have it.”
Taking the hummingbird from my hand, she ran her finger over its beak and gnarled legs, and then looked at me, really looked at me. In less than a second, she assessed my clothes, my shoes, the nascent lines in my face, and something in her expression softened, almost imperceptibly. I wore my favorite pair of jeans, frayed around the edges, faded to perfection, but fitted enough to show my tight little form. I was tiny, but I had the requisite curves. They were just more subtle than the norm. My tight black T-shirt featured the logo from the band “Kiss,” which suddenly seemed to me embarrassingly kitschy. Over the t-shirt I wore a blue leather motorcycle jacket, on which Den’s eyes lingered for a split second. And her gaze paused obviously upon my necklace – a jade koru, from New Zealand (Representing growth and new life, the koru is supposed to be a powerful Maori symbol. I loved the necklace, although I can’t say that it ever catalyzed any spiritual “growth”). Den’s stare confused me – I couldn’t determine whether she approved of me, or coveted my clothing, or judged my demeanor - but she was clearly interested in what she saw.
She said, “You’re a weird girl.”
“Maybe.” I was proud of the compliment, hoping it was true. I thought my abnormality would endear me to her. I wanted to touch her face, to see if she was a mirage, but my limbs had frozen. “I think it’s cool that you live here. I won’t tell anyone.”
She brushed a lock of hair from her face, coyly, and looked off into the tunnel, her profile striking me with its delicacy. Her skin, despite the soot and strain, was still soft and young, her delicate nose upturned perfectly. I leaned back from her slightly, and in my slight, expressionless way, said, “You’re beautiful.”
She almost smiled, but did not, and instead, raised her chin, avoided my gaze. “Yeah, they tell me that.”
“I don’t know how you survive here.” I managed to break the spell, wrench my massive eyes from her face, stare at my hands, upon which I suddenly perceived several old cuts, and dried cuticles, and clumps of dirt under my nails. Not the hands of a lady.
Credenza sneered, wagged a finger. “I’m fine. I’m the runner. Without me, nobody eats. I’m useful, so nobody lets anybody mess with me.” Throughout the tirade, her New York street accent swelled, cutting off random consonants, so “runner” became “runna” and “with” became “wit.” I noticed that her chin cradled a tiny cleft. “Can I come see where you live?”
With a manly wave of the hand, “No way.”
A pair of eyeball-headlights poked out at us from deep inside the tunnel, and a wash of hot infected air blasted over us. The subway wheels screamed madly. Our hair waved, the train stopped, a couple of people exited, nobody looked at us, and the train dropped back into the darkness. Credenza handed me a wad of string, and picked up the groceries.
“Nobody calls me Credenza. Call me Den. Thanks for the bird. See ya.” Flashing a wide and dimpled smile, she flew down into the tunnel, without looking back.Stunned and suddenly desperately lonely, I looked down at the wad of string in my hand. It was a thin long strip of leather with a piece of smooth colored glass bound in the middle - a necklace.
Full book can be purchased here, in Kindle/iPhone format (99 cents) or paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Swans-Laura-Thomas-ebook/dp/B0056C414I