Ridin the E train
We were both young, hip, twenty something musicians on our way from Queens to plunder the riches of New York.
The city in the 70s was a snarky, graffiti ridden hole, crime ridden and crumbling, but there was still some gold to be found underneath all the grit and grime . We hopped on the E train in the old neighborhood, on our way to the museum, during one of my frequent visits to “town,” as Jim liked to call it.
A simple background check:
Jim was a fundamental Achilles – there is a line in the sand that cannot be crossed. He never had a problem seeing a clear ethical or moral divide and resolutely taking a side. Choose your destiny and stick to it.
I, on the other hand followed the steps of the wandering Odysseus, hungry and eager for new experiences, but capable of shifting gears, or changing shape and slipping away chameleon like, if the situation called for it.
Our subway ride started simply enough. We held the overhead handles, balancing and rocking ourselves, making musical small talk. The train screeched and rumbled to a halt, the doors let out a great exhale and three young gents stepped aboard.
The doors closed again, and the car clanged and clattered, slugging its way up to speed. The crowd around us buried their faces in newspapers and cheap paper backs or lost themselves in idle staring as the train raced on.
One of our three new traveling companions, clearly the head man, causally lit a cigarette.
This challenged my brother’s inner Boy Scout and he instantly and eagerly rose to defend the common good.
"Hey, there’s no smoking in here. Put your butt out. We don’t want to breathe that crap.”
Our fellow citizens, who Jim had taken it upon himself to defend with such public minded zeal, froze. Backs stiffened, noses buried deeper into books and papers, idlers stared into the great beyond, while at the same time the corner of each eye riveted to the unfolding drama.
On the edge of our tobacco friend, his two henchmen glared. Our suddenly surprised and surprising new acquaintance spoke.
"Screw you man, I can smoke here if I want. What are you going to do about it?”
I stared hard at my brother, with a mixture of the pleading vulnerability of a little brother, the mortified fear of my mother and the startled shock of my father. He ignored me.
The crowd behind us stiffened even further and began to plot their escape.
Mercifully, the train pulled into the next station and sank to a halt. I looked up at my brother hopefully. Not to be outdone, he stepped out of the car with one foot, bracing the door open with his outstretched hand, and shouted up the platform, “hey conductor, there's a guy smoking back here. “
Our friend the inhaler blew out a last drag and hurriedly ground the butt into the floor, all the while letting loose a raging torrent of curses and threats, his face a pulsing rage. His two henchmen looked out menacingly, shifted their weight imperceptibly and leaned forward. The crowd behind us stared longingly, as the doors closed, and we ramped up to speed again. Jim glared at the gang of three and they glared back. I thought,
"Oh my god, we are going to die on the E train.”
The suddenly reformed tobacco smoker offered us a prompt parley– Friday night: 7:30, 78th street park - Corona. We could bring who we liked and any tools we felt like we needed to enliven the fun. How would this end? Rapiers? Brass knuckles? Pistols at forty paces? Or something more alarming.
My brother stood tight jawed and ignored them. I trembled in my skin and glanced at the crowd of wide eyed onlookers, wondering if it was too late to join them and get lost in the crowd. The subway walls raced by.
The train ground to a halt one more time and the doors seized open. It was our stop- 7th Ave.
I tried not to bolt for the door. "Walk calmly, I thought.” I had learned that much growing up as a city kid.
My sigh of relief was audible as the doors closed behind us and I looked back and saw we weren’t being followed. Like an ancient hero or one of the Roman legions, Jim had done his job. He was satisfied.
We glanced at each other, hearts pounding, as another train rumbled overhead. Then we tore up the stairs to catch it, making our way uptown.
A few days after our excitement on the E train, I left the city with a story to tell, in search of another adventure, and Jim took up his shield and rejoined the battle for New York.