His dark hands are gnarled. Ashy skin flakes from his twisted nuckles. The thick, blackened fingernail jutting obstinately from his thumb is nearly torn off, leaving jagged ridges of nail behind. He catches me looking at his dirty fingernails and instinctively curls them tightly around the pole, back into his hand.
He had shuffled smoothly onto the subway at 34th street. By smoothly I mean to say he didn't frantically hurtle through the turnstyle, like most folks do when the operator warns straphangers to "stand clear of the closing doors, please."
The old boy paid no mind to the overmodulated voice of the conducter crackling through the speaker. He continued to shamble steadily toward the sliding doors, dragging a black Hefty bag stretched to gray transluscence, and a backpack that had seen better days. Hell, this pack mighta seen better decades.
I watched, curious to see if he'd make the number one uptown train I was riding to work. As the seconds ticked by, his pace didn't quicken although anyone who has ridden the subway more than once knows when to give it a little giddyup or else miss the train. He knew it. But he didn't care. I guess it wasn't like he had an appointment uptown or anything. The train was just another way to pass the time, the cold night. If he missed this one another one would be along shortly. That's the nice thing about trains. Reliability. You can count on 'em. There's always another one coming.
The doors were seconds from banging shut. I was certain they would close before he made it, or worse, close on him, as they sometimes do, like a giant mouth hungry for humans. Then, embarrassed for him, we'd all have to avert our eyes while he struggled to shove them back open.
But he pressed on, ultimately stepping onto the train a split-second before the doors clamped shut behind him, narrowly missing his garbage bag. The whites of his eyes were tinged pink, his lower lip jutted out like Bubba the shrimp guy in Forrest Gump. But this man was handsome once. His scraggily salt and pepper beard belied the aristocratic plains of his Hershey bar colored skin.
We stand together, he and I, clinging to the pole while the train jerkily negotiates the underground of New York City. Other riders turn their backs, slink to other poles. Giving the man space, I assume, because of his disheveled appearance. That makes me sad. He seems almost tranquil. At peace with himself. In a better place than the rest of us whose minds are cycling through work trauma, relationship drama, money woes..
I wonder who he was before he arrived at this point, before life got away from him and time began it's dirty work, eating away at his once handsome face. He is a son, probably a brother, maybe a father.. That makes me sad too.
Slowly, as if a result of being jolted by the train, I slide my hand up the pole until the top of my hand is touching the bottom of his. I can feel his warm, dry skin graze my own softer skin with each bounce of the train. Although there is plenty of space to move his hand away if my proximity makes him uncomfortable, he leaves his weathered paw where it is. And begins to sing. A low, warbling lullaby, just loud enough for the two of us to hear.