There is a certain peace to riding the NYC subway at four o’clock in the morning. Walking from the first car to the last , it’s rare to encounter a single soul. You can detect a ghost of the day’s crowds in the smells and stains left over from a busy spate of passenger commuting. And the energy is still there, charging the air with the faint static of human worry and elation. I got to know the subway at this hour rather intimately in my youth when I was working the late shift hostessing at an all-night diner in Manhattan.
When my shift would end at 2:00am I would then be free to claim my staff meal, discard my stained, greasy-smelling apron and change into my street clothes. There was no way I would leave smelling of dirty dishes and deep fat fryers. Then it was a short walk to the subway and a seemingly interminable wait for the train. Sometimes I would be boarding the train as the first rays of sunlight crept over the top of highrises, fading the night’s blue black to periwinkle, and from there into the sunrise’s peculiar color combination of purple and orange.
I can remember the first time I saw the sad lady, although I do not recall the exact date. It was more an impression of a moment suspended in amber--time grinding to a halt as realization dawned. It was this suspension of time, I am convinced, that enabled me to see her as clearly as I did.
She wasn’t on the train when first I boarded. In fact, no one was.The ride started off in an ordinary enough fashion: I paid my fare at the entrance turnstyle and walked alone down the empty stairs to an equally empty train platform, the heels of my sensible shoes beating a startlingly loud tattoo on the concrete. Only the days’ smells lingered here at this hour; that, and a faint buzz of energy from the days’ travellers.
The only other sound on the platform was an intermittent “tzzt” of a dying fluorescent light somewhere in the station. I had made the same trip at similar hours dozens of times by this point, and I thought I had become well accustomed to the eeriness of the silent platform. Tonight, however, I felt a chill run up my spine as it hit me how strange it was to be alone in a big city train station. I had been delayed in leaving work as my replacement had been running late, and the train I ordinarily had to wait a long time for arrived quickly, and surprisingly quietly in the waiting gloom.
Doors hissed open in the first car only, and I hurried to board the train, as I didn’t want to wait 60 to 90 minutes for the next one. It was summer and approaching sunrise, and the first car was already unbearably stuffy; it seemed its air conditioning wasn’t running. This proved to be a recurring issue, as the second, third and even fourth cars were all just as stifling. As I reached the fifth and final car, cold air finally poured forth from the vents. I did not encounter a single person on the train. Feeling safe and bone-tired, I curled up on the bench as comfortably as I could and closed my eyes. I soon fell into a deep and dreamless sleep, secure in the knowledge that I would be on the train for the better part of an hour, and as I lived at the end of the line in Astoria, the cars would sit for a while at my stop as they waited for their return trip.
I don’t know how long I slept, but I was jerked roughly toward wakefulness by the uneasy feeling of being watched. Sitting upright with a start, I suddenly realized I was no longer alone. Seated across from me and staring openly but placidly at me was a heavy-set older woman, her dark, curly hair partly hidden under a colorfully-printed floral scarf. There was a glassy look to her eyes, as of unshed tears, and a melancholy set to her small mouth. Outside the moving train, dark stretches of underground track were barely visible. I couldn’t remember the doors having opened since I’d boarded.
Nervously, I tore my eyes away from the darkness to find her still regarding me. The lady’s gaze seemed to me to be rather weighty, but I didn’t feel the censure of her intense regard. Instead, it seemed as if she was looking throughme. My sleep-numbed mind struggled to shrug off its fuzz, and I pondered whether this was actually a very vivid dream. As I returned the woman’s stare she furrowed her brow and her lips puckered, as though she were trying to speak and couldn’t find the right words. Just as I thought she would surely begin to speak, the train began to groan its way upward to the elevated portion of the line and the dawn sky. As the sun’s first rays fell on the woman she began to lose substance; as the sun fell directly across her seat I could see the light fall through her.
By the time the doors hissed open at the next stop she had disappeared completely. At that moment a jocular trio of men in cleaning uniforms boarded the train, their laughter and lighthearted banter a jarring incongruity with my recent encounter. Something urged me to dash out of the train and onto the platform even though this wasn’t my stop. I didn’t know what motivated me and had no idea where to look, what to do next.
The train pulled out of the station, revealing a large shaft of early morning sunlight falling diagonally across the tracks. My eyes followed the shaft of sunlight, which ended at a noticeboard at the very edge of the station. I hadn’t seen the board until just then. I walked toward it slowly, hypnotically drawn. Drawing closer I could see that it was covered in the remnants of years of old notices and flyers.
I could see the ripped and ragged corners of various different colored papers. I reached out to brush the edge of a protruding blue poster and a little ripple of certainty coursed through me: I knew I was supposed to tear it away at just that spot. Underneath the blue I could see the edge of a photo, and I began to carefully tear the bits of old flyers away to reveal the notice underneath. Above the photo in bold were the words “Memorial Service for Ana Krstovic.” and below the photo the words “We gather to honor her memory on the 10th anniversary of her disappearance. June 11th, 1971 is the last day anyone ever saw our beloved Ana.” The photo in between the two announcements showed the woman from the train, smiling.
Since that day I have seen her three more times and she has never managed to speak to me. She wants me to do something for her. I wish I knew what it was!