Here in New York an unprecedented decision has been made, to shut down the subways each night from one to five a.m. It’s the first time this has happened—there have been temporary shutdowns in the past, for a day or two, but not in this particular way, which flies in the face of how New Yorkers perceive their city as a place that is unique in the world and never stops.
I actually miss riding the subway, which is strange because typically I spend most of my time there imagining I’m somewhere else. I guess it’s more the ability to go anywhere in the city that I miss; also the experience of taking the Q over the Manhattan Bridge on a nice day. And the occasional camaraderie with other passengers that can result from train delays. Once when that happened I met a woman who was carrying a massive package of lox; turned out she worked for a smoked fish distributor and was bringing the package to clients, but now had to get rid of it because it wouldn’t be at peak freshness. Another passenger was happy to take it off her hands.
Anyway, in honor of NYC public transit, today’s poem and story both take place at least partially on trains. I like how the poem begins on the subway, moves to a place of yearning for a distant island (the author was born in Jamaica), and then fully transports us there. And in the story, some of its most exciting action unfolds on a commuter train from the city to Westchester, but not, as the protagonist hopes, to safety.
Far down, down through the city’s great gaunt gut
The gray train rushing bears the weary wind;
In the packed cars the fans the crowd’s breath cut,
Leaving the sick and heavy air behind.
And pale-cheeked children seek the upper door
To give their summer jackets to the breeze;
Their laugh is swallowed in the deafening roar
Of captive wind that moans for fields and seas;
Seas cooling warm where native schooners drift
Through sleepy waters, while gulls wheel and sweep,
Waiting for windy waves the keels to lift
Lightly among the islands of the deep;
Islands of lofty palm trees blooming white
That led their perfume to the tropic sea,
Where fields lie idle in the dew-drenched night,
And the Trades float above them fresh and free.
Who is this guy?
Born in Jamaica in 1889, Claude McKay showed an interest in literature from a young age and was taught by his older brother, who was a teacher, and a British neighbor. He published his first books of poetry in 1912, one of which received a financial award; McKay used the money to travel to the U.S., where he spent time in the south before moving to New York. There, he began writing poetry that addressed the racism he encountered in the city. After two years of travel in Europe, he returned to New York in 1921 and continued writing while engaging in anti-racist and pro-worker political activism, and cemented his reputation as a leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He also wrote novels and short stories, and later in life became a teacher. He died in 1948.
The Five-Forty-Eight (excerpt)
Blake sat back abruptly in his seat. If he had wanted to stand and shout for help, he would not have been able to. His tongue had swelled to twice its size, and when he tried to move it, it stuck horribly to the roof of his mouth. His legs were limp. All he could think of to do then was to wait for his heart to stop its hysterical beating, so that he could judge the extent of his danger. She was sitting a little sidewise, and in her pocketbook was the pistol, aimed at his belly.
“You understand me now, don’t you?” she said. “You understand that I’m serious?” He tried to speak but he was still mute. He nodded his head. “Now we’ll sit quietly for a little while,” she said. “I got so excited that my thoughts are all confused. We’ll sit quietly for a little while, until I can get my thoughts in order again.”
Help would come, Blake thought. It was only a question of minutes. Someone, noticing the look on his face or her peculiar posture, would stop and interfere, and it would all be over. All he had to do was to wait until someone noticed his predicament. Out of the window he saw the river and the sky. The rain clouds were rolling down like a shutter, and while he watched, a streak of orange light on the horizon became brilliant. Its brilliance spread— he could see it move—across the waves until it raked the banks of the river with a dim firelight. Then it was put out. Help would come in a minute, he thought. Help would come before they stopped again; but the train stopped, there were some comings and goings, and Blake still lived on, at the mercy of the woman beside him. The possibility that help might not come was one that he could not face. The possibility that his predicament was not noticeable, that Mrs. Compton would guess that he was taking a poor relation out to dinner at Shady Hill, was something he would think about later. Then the saliva came back into his mouth and he was able to speak.
“What do you want?”
—John Cheever (read the whole story here)
Who is this guy?
John Cheever, known as “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” was born in Massachusetts in 1912. A writer from the start, he won a short story contest sponsored by the Boston Herald as a high school student, but was otherwise uninterested in studying and was expelled from his private school. After selling a short story to the New Yorker in 1935, he worked for the WPA, married, and enlisted in the Army; his first collection of stories was published in 1943 but apparently Cheever despised it and tried to destroy copies of it. Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s he published several story collections and novels; he died in 1982. You can read a fascinating article about Cheever’s tortured personal life here. I’ve been making my way through his collected stories and it’s crazy how consistently excellent they are.
Write a story, scene, or poem that unfolds while its characters are in transit—however you want to interpret that phrase.
Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to firstname.lastname@example.org