KR OnlineNonfiction

Tunnels

1
The women sitting behind me on the commuter train cycle through conversation topics: the stable where they both keep horses, their children who attend the same Waldorf school, the Paris vacation one of them took last fall, the rain that fell and all but ruined it. The women are white and boarded the train in one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest neighborhoods. I note both of these facts, even as I chide myself for doing so. Irritated by their privilege—irritated by my own irritation—I am already directing unkind thoughts their way when their conversation turns to—their voices dropping to a whisper—the tunnels.

“Colorful” is how one of them describes them, the underground pedestrian corridors that connect the subway stations in Center City and run for several blocks beneath Broad Street, tunnels the women resort to walking through—as do I—when the weather is too harsh to walk above ground, tunnels I am guessing we will walk through this morning given the whipping winds, the freezing rain. I have seen what they have seen: the extensive homeless population that seeks shelter down there—folks, with their belongings in bags or carts, sitting or lying on cardboard; bodies wrapped in dirty blankets or buried in sleeping bags; mostly men, mostly people of color, sometimes women, on rare occasions children; folks dealing drugs; folks buying drugs; folks doing drugs; once, a circle of six or seven people passing a needle. I have also seen a woman combing her daughter’s hair, humming; a man reading a beat-up Tom Clancy paperback; a man listening to the news on a portable radio and cuddling with a pit bull; a man unfolding, shaking out, and refolding his clothes, and placing them carefully into a soiled duffle bag.

It’s awful, one woman says. Sometimes you don’t want to see that. It’s been a long day. You just want to go home.

I don’t know whether to feel sad or angry, the other woman says. They could change their lives if they wanted to. It’s not easy, but they could change. Not all of them, but most of them.

It’s awful.

It’s sad.

They sigh, and then, their voices returning to normal volume, they move on to the next topic: the online clothing concierge website they both subscribe to.

My stylist is terrible. She keeps sending me loud prints. Do I look like a loud person?

That’s not you at all.

 

2
There is a moment, a moment that I have perhaps misinterpreted, a moment that maybe means something different than I think it means, a moment when we have gotten off the train and we are walking through the station, into the tunnels, and I am walking through a doorway and the women are just behind me and my tote bag gets caught on the door and I am stuck and I have to turn around to get my bag unhooked and there they are, we are face to face, and the women look—and maybe this is the part I am misinterpreting, assigning meaning that isn’t there—the women look, what? surprised? irritated? scared? to be face-to-face with a brown man they do not know and who has stopped and turned around in a doorway for reasons that maybe aren’t readily apparent to them? I don’t know if they are thinking any of these things. What I do know is that they do not smile, even when they realize—if they hadn’t already realized—why I have stopped in the first place.

 

3
Maybe I’m wrong. In spite of my gender, my skin color, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone feeling threatened by me. After all, the tote bag that got caught on the door is one that I sewed myself and has shimmering gold peacocks on the outside and, for the lining, hot pink fabric dotted with cartoon skulls.

Do I look like a loud person?

That’s not you at all.

But it is impossible to know what people might feel threatened by. It is impossible to know what people wish they didn’t have to see.

 

4
Later that day—despite the whipping winds, the freezing rain—I shuttle above ground between department stores, in search of a new winter coat. I find one I love. It fits perfectly. Is $250 too much to pay for a parka if it’s replacing a jacket I bought eighteen years earlier?

I look again in the fitting-room mirror. I see a man who is stylish, self-assured. The faux-fur trim on the hood frames his face, makes his eyes look brighter, makes his skin glow. It’s me, but better.

For much of the past six years, working as an adjunct college creative writing teacher, I have been hovering not far above the federal poverty level. This is based on income, although I know that income is only part of the story when it comes to true poverty. I have resources many in my income bracket do not, including generous, financially comfortable family members whom I can ask for money should I need it, who routinely offer me money even when I don’t ask.

Recently, my fortunes have changed, and I feel flush for the first time in years. I have a full-time teaching job and, at the moment, my salary is perhaps 30 percent higher than it’s ever been in my twenty-plus years of adulthood, although it is still probably less than a tenth of the household income of the women on the train. Still, I am more like them than I am like the folks in the tunnels. For now.

On the way to the register, caressing the luxurious trim on the hood, I think to check the label and realize that the faux fur is real fur, fox fur. I return it to the rack.

 

5
I am embarrassed by how much I enjoy wandering through the cavernous department store, sliding across the shiny, tiled floors, gazing up at the gold chandeliers. I stop to contemplate a cashmere throw. I am ashamed by how much I enjoy the deferential way the sales clerk asks me how he may help.

 

6
As a small child, I was terrified of tunnels of any sort. When my family took road trips and we had to pass through one, my parents would go to great lengths to distract me so I wouldn’t scream and cry. I don’t know what frightened me so much, but I’m guessing it was the darkness, how everything that had been there—the sky, the trees, the great world around me—was suddenly gone.

Now I marvel at the structures as feats of engineering, the way they burrow through hard earth, through mountains, underneath rivers, the way they bridge distances, connect people and places that are close but far away.

 

7
The next day, I will be walking through the woods—woods in which I twice have had what I would describe as a spiritual experience with a fox, woods I have driven the short distance to in a car my parents bought for me the year before. The weather will still be gray, even if the whipping winds and freezing rain are gone. I will be tapping out this essay on my phone while walking, and there will be a break in the clouds, and the flecks of mica sparkling in the stone and in the dirt will dazzle my attention away from my screen, and for a moment, for better or for worse, the women on the train and the folks in the tunnels and the department store with its shiny, tiled floors and the parka that was me but better will all vanish, and this moment will be the only moment: the sparkling mica, the silvery creek below, the birds I cannot see but can hear, though I haven’t learned their calls. I will finish this essay weeks later, one afternoon after teaching, sitting in a café in Center City; in front of me, beside my computer, a four-dollar cappuccino and a honey-gold canelé on a black porcelain dish; at the register, a man in Gucci loafers holding a chihuahua in a Louis Vuitton dog carrier, two more Chihuahuas at his feet on narrow leather leashes and in houndstooth sweaters; on a wooden bench next to the door, a disheveled, seemingly homeless man I have seen here before, trying to get warm. Below us: tunnels.