On a downtown Q train headed from to Canal Street from Union Square I watched with some subway bemusement as a young hipster, late teens I’d say, wearing a denim jacket and a pair of stretch pants whose lycra limits she clearly was testing, as she ate a fistful of beef jerky straight from the bag. She ate the thin, wide pieces with enthusiastic abandon. One piece fell from her fist onto her leg and watched her, wondering when she’d notice. She leaned down—I thought at first to get the jerky, but instead she was stuffing her jerky bag into the baggy purse held between her legs. Her face disappeared into the bag for a deep moment, then she raised it—I’d say she was Hispanic, she wore thick brimmed glasses, after the popular fashion, and her upper lip was darkened a bit by unattended hairs—the piece of jerky fell from her leg to the floor, she lowered her face to her bag again. Seemed like the jerky show as over. I walked down the car a bit to a better door, my stop was coming up.
Leaning on the door, I noticed a passenger was reading Cat’s Cradle, a book I’ve had an intense on and off relationship with for sixteen years. I walked back over by my original spot on the train to see who was reading it. A young lady but not a young young lady. Back at that end of the train, I caught another glance of the jerky girl, rooting around in her purse, it was occurring to me that she looked a touch out of it. As the train slowed for Canal street I pulled out my notepad to scrawl “hipster jerky” for future remembering. I stepped out of the car, Cat’s Cradle was right behind me, but she hung a hard left when she got off the train and ran to the nearby conductor’s compartment at the head of the train. She tapped on the window urgently. Funny, I thought, she doesn’t look like she’d need directions. The conductor lowered the window, I heard the woman exclaim “There is a girl on the train who is huffing! Huffing. Inhaling something.” Between each sentence she looked more intensely at the conductor “Isn’t that a problem?”
My jerky friend. Of course. I looked behind me at the car, there she was, face in the purse again. I heard a muffled airy hissing sound that hadn’t registered earlier. I realized I had heard that sound over and over on the train. Didn’t really know what to make of it, I walked up the stairs to the J platform. I looked back down the stairs, the train was still there. I heard the recorded voice over the PA announcing that the train was being held momentarily. I felt like I should be involved in this, wasn’t sure how. I went back down the stairs. Were the cops going to be there?
Riders remained on the train blank faced, people waiting for an N train lined the platform, and I saw the jerky girl slip off the train just as the doors were closing and it was pulling out of the station. She was not well, there was a weakness in her knees and she walked in a very wide, loose swerve down towards the other end of the platform. I trailed her, maybe 8 feet behind, tensing up every time her sine wave course brought her back to the yellow edge of the subway platform. A white knit scarf fell from her bag, someone grabbed it and handed it to her, without paying a bit of attention the jerky girl took the scarf back and slung it over her shoulder again. She raised an aerosol can wrapped in a magazine to her face. I thought of boys with bags of glue I had seen in Mexico. She was getting so close to the edge. Her butt was so big. Her hair was so greasy. Her clothes looked so normal. I glanced over my shoulder for maybe the Cat’s Cradle woman or anyone else with an eye on this girl. Didn’t see anything that looked like either.
The jerky girl reached the very end of the platform, looked for a moment like she was going to keep going—Is she a mole person?!—I thought to myself—Returning to her lair?—on not-nimble feet she pivoted and hunkered down on the floor, first with her legs and feet sticking out over the edge—in my mind I saw a train taking them clean off—after one more bag-immersion she tucked them under herself, Indian style.
I looked at her. I needed a cop. I headed upstairs and down the too-long hall of the Broadway side of the NQ station at Canal, through the turnstyles, shouldn’t there just be a cop right around here? The station was empty, an MTA worker was inside his booth. He looked up as I approached.
I told him there was a girl on the tracks, very close to the edge, getting high, huffing—On the tracks?! he asked No, the platform. I could tell he knew that’s what I meant, but was just checking. He asked me to describe her, he copied my words down on a piece of brown paper bag in a private shorthand, “In her twenties?” He asked “Ehh . . . late teens . . . wearing a denim jacket, leggings, she has a white scarf” My voice was quivering? My voice was quivering. “White?” He asked. I looked at the MTA worker’s brown skin “Hispanic, light skinned Hispanic . . . hipster looking.” He wasn’t losing his cool but he was with me, he was listening. “I’ll call it in” he told me. I thanked him, stepped back. Would she still be there? And does it mean he’ll “call it in”? Didn’t know what to do so I swiped my metrocard and headed back to the platform. A train hadn’t come yet. She was still in her spot. I stood close by with a pillar between us, she huffed. She was more mid-teens, now that I had a better look. We both heard the squeal of an approaching train. She turned herself around and stood, uneasily, slow to straighten out her knees. Her butt was over the line, sticking out into the subway’s path. I noticed that the tunnel turned sharply as it arrived at the station, I could see the train’s lights on her butt but couldn’t tell how close the train was, in my mind I saw the train take it clean off. She stood. The train arrived. She’d had plenty of time.
Are police coming? I wondered. I looked around for police. She headed to board the train, I put a hand on her shoulder, “Are you okay?” is what I said, I didn’t know what I was going to say, apparently my brain chose the least useful thing “I’m fine” she said, like a disgruntled teen that doesn’t want any help from their guidance counselor. She stumbled aboard, dragging her white scarf but wearing a darker scarf. I didn’t remember the other scarf! Was my description going to throw the authorities off her trail? She sat down, nearly fell into her seat, the other passengers gave her a look. I stood and watched. should I be getting on this train? The next stop is in Brooklyn. The doors closed, there were no cops on the platform, the train rolled away and I watched her pass by.
Her mom wishes I got on that train, I thought, turning for the staircase.