The Other Side of the Tracks

“It’s easier for a white man to sell his stack,” he said. “Especially in this city. The white man just has to put on a nice shirt with a collar and take the 4 train down to Wall Street. He can do his thing on the subway or in the streets. It don’t matter. But when a black man goes downtown they’re gonna search him inside and out. That’s why I do my thing up here. My uncle used to always tell me to stay above 116th street…just to avoid any problems.”

The style of his speech rang from the 1980s, and the hair on his face had curled into tiny circles along his cheeks. His eyes fixed on a middle-aged white man across the aisle of the subway car. The white man responded to the black man mostly with eye contact. Occasionally, though, he’d nod his head or make a slight wheezing sound, and that let the black man know he was understanding.

A bag of restaurant food sat between the black man’s feet, and he was holding a $100 bill. He’d folded it the long way so it looked like a tunnel leading through the fingers on his right hand

“I can go downtown for a $2 sale and risk getting turned inside out, or I can stay up here and make a $1 sale and then go home at night,” said the black man.

The white man wore a sweater vest, slacks, and wire-framed glasses. His brown hair had worn away, and the subway lights shone off the skin on top of his head. His right hand supported his chin as he listened to the black man speak.

“The other day I’m on the A train headed up to 168th,” the black man said with a smooth cadence. “As soon as I get on the car I see a police officer — a brother — so I put my stack under one of the seats and go sit down on the other side of the car. It’s not that the brother don’t know my stack is there, but he gives me a look and he lets it slide. He gives me a buck. I give him a buck. Ya know what I’m saying? That’s how things work up here.”

Then he smiled widely and laughed, “And I’m happy, man. I have 10 children. Nine of them have become adults and I think the 10th will, too. They’re all good people,” he said with a chuckle.

“I’m so thankful they all made it to be such good people.” He spoke through multiple gaps between his teeth, saying, “And that’s how I know there’s a man up there looking after us. He visits all of us at different times and in different ways, but eventually we all realize he’s there.”

Still with his index finger in the air, he said (in the tone that typically follows the climax of a story), “Yep. I’m happy, man.”

As the train approached 59th street, the white man leaned forward and prepared to get off at the next stop.

“That’s why I really appreciate you coming to this side of the tracks,” the black man said to the white man as the train stopped. “It means a lot to me and to my family. I know you’ve got a story just like the rest of us, and I know I’ll be seeing you again soon.”

The white man nodded and without expression walked through the open doors out onto the platform.