Metropolitan Transit Authority

by Nick Schiff

Urban Systems Lab
Feb 10 · 6 min read

My body floats down the putrid, black water pooled on the subway tracks, past surgical gloves and food containers, through miles of black canals strung with stations empty but for the sleeping, slumped on benches and against walls under the talcum-colored lights. When the trains pass over me I feel a faint gust, like a candleflame when the door is shut. I don’t know how I got here, or how long I’ve been here, or why. Is it due to some sin, like lack of money, or ugliness?

All I remember is this. Every year was hotter than the last, and no one had failed to notice the water getting higher on the tracks. One bright gray day I agreed to help a blind man cross the street. Bad luck. When we reached the far side he began asking me confusing questions. He backed me into a lamppost. A white monkey on a chain bounded down from a Halal truck and drove its fangs into my breast. Three men demanded money from me, incessant and yelling. I was losing blood and passing out. Then these vaults began passing above me, one after another.

At first, I thought the messages spray-painted on the walls were clues to my fate: “They gonna butcher & sell us.” “They gonna burn us all.” Some were longer. With time, passing hundreds, thousands of messages in the same script, I solved the mystery: they were the scattered fragments of an autobiography. Slowly — perhaps it took a year — I pieced the author’s life together.

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Pinhole Photographs by Zef Egan

He was born and raised high in a vast housing project in the far North Bronx. He ate six meals a day of oatmeal from a burnt pot. He was fascinated by his sister’s bathrobe, the nipples of their filthy poodle, and a TV show that showed pages of the Quran while they were being chanted. His mother beat him with a dedication difficult to understand. At 16 he escaped down the stairs while a fire burned in all four of the building’s elevator shafts. He slept in a park for several days, showering in church homeless shelters, until he met a woman in a bodega. She was in her 40s, an immigrant, aging but attractive. She told him about a locked room on the roof of a tenement in Harlem and gave him the keys. He walked up the back staircase of the building with an almost excessive slowness, climbed through a door in the ceiling onto the roof, and found the door to the room. Inside there was little more than a bed, a hot plate, and a lamp. One wall was made of dirty wired glass.

Once a week, the immigrant woman came in late at night, shared his bed, and left early in the morning. There was also a shelf stuffed with dark, greasy hardcovers. The Republic, Thomas Moore, Marx: the utopias. He fell into them for hours at a time. He ate rice, beans, burnt meat, and sugary coffee. Sometimes he’d leave the room and not come back until the next day, walking for miles and nodding off here and there. He coveted appliances but never clothes nor food nor money nor cars.

He claimed he began to see aliens around the city, disguised as men, and would sometimes talk to them. One alien, a man in his 30s, taught him how to spray paint in both Earthen and Venusian scripts. It was then that he began wandering into the tunnels late at night composing pages, wearing an MTA employee’s uniform to avoid difficulties. One day after he saw a story about his writing in a newspaper he stopped for over a year. When he returned the autobiography acquired a different tone, full of arrogance and sarcasm. The author claimed to know the secrets of the Quran, to have met Pythagoras and the prophet Ezekiel. He claimed the whole city was a festering inferno burning a whole in the map of a sacred nation. He had been around the world, he boasted, to Iran, Sudan, to Russia; he had conferred with guerilla generals in mountains and hotels; had felt hunger so intense he thought he would die; had indulged in endless palace feasts. This city, he said, is a village. It’s a prison. Beyond are strange wonders: apartment blocks where 1,000,000 people live and “hermaphroditic gods” provide ecstasies to a chosen few. After this the tone again shifted abruptly. The final pages concentrated on extremely quotidian details: the author’s minor health issues, whether or not he had made his bed on a given day, and detailed descriptions of the dawn.

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A dim awareness rose in me that I had seen each page more than once. Either the tunnels looped back into themselves or I had left the city entirely and the pages proliferated beyond its limits. Although parts of my body — my breasts and kneecaps, my nose and eyes — floated above the water, the rest of it was stained black by the oily sludge.

After a long stretch with no stations, I saw high above me the etched light of sidewalk grates. On the platform below stood a thin old man. He lifted me out of the water. Up close I could see he was old and a little blue-skinned. He wiped me down with felt rags and led me beside a huge metal box that gave off heat. He moved through the station with the freedom and confidence of someone who was used to being alone there, but his sad eyes, reflective like those of fish, never made contact with mine. From a brown bottle he fed me two spoonfuls of a black and silver paste. Muscle control returned to my limbs. I stared at nothing in particular for a long time.

At once I snapped my head toward the man. Pulling in one fistful after another he hauled up a net from the black waters. Four or five measly fish slapped against the platform. He turned to me and looked toward my feet. A hard fishtail twitched between his lips. In the small booth he retrieved a pair of scissors, approached, and motioned for me to stand. He worked quietly and carefully at trimming my mane and pubic hair, removing the greasy clumps, which looked worse than the contents of a shower drain. He ran his hands down my shoulders and ribs like a tailor fitting a suit. From his booth, he took a white blanket, discolored but clean, and wrapped it around me. At the end of the platform, he showed me a staircase. I climbed it, opened the door at the top and walked out behind a grocery store. The day was clear, both warm and cool, pricked everywhere by stilettos of sunlight. When my eyes stopped aching I began to walk. No one looked at me. Under a tree, whose leaves trembled as I did, I watched people enter and exit a giant stone building, pushing at the glass doors between its columns.

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A short, muscular man approached and asked to take pictures of me. In an alley, I slowly turned, squinted, cold under the thin blanket. He handed me a business card.

“I’m starving,” I said.

He led me to a diner. We sat in a sunny booth next to the pane glass windows. He smiled at me in silence and tapped his finger on the table while I ate a mountain of smoked fish and washed it back with diet soda.

Then I walked into the stone building. On the top floor I sat at a desk beneath a hot skylight and fell asleep with my face in a pile of books. When I woke up, my drool had turned the pages translucent. In the tiny black letters I read descriptions of all kinds of women who had disappeared from the world.

Nick Schiff is a writer of fiction and poetry, and a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His work has been previously published by InPatient Press, Ajar Press, Brooklyn College Review, and beyond.

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A forum for research, design, writing, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

Urban Systems Lab

Written by

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/

Resilience

Resilience is a quarterly publication co-produced by the Urban Systems Lab at the New School, providing a unique forum to share strategies in design, data visualization, and interdisciplinary scholarship on urban ecology, environmental justice, and sustainable cities.

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