Will you search me?
I want you to search me.
We were rushing across the platform towards the express, and got on just as the door was closing. It was nearly empty but he remained standing, holding the overhead bar.
Why do you want me to search you?
Because you said you would.
I can’t search you; you’re a woman.
Oh, I didn’t know that. I paused and looked down at my book, then back up at him. Will you train me?
I want you to train me.
Look, I have to get off here.
I repeated my request. He mumbled something, scribbled a number on the last page of my book, and slipped out between the closing doors.
I just got in from working the job. I met him at 6:50pm in front of district 30 station. His body is small, stocky, and egg-shaped on the bottom. His eyes are brown with yellow. He has a few scars running through his eyebrows, short but deep cuts that have healed into thin white lines where the hair no longer grows. Maybe they happened when he was working on transmissions at his father’s car joint in Jersey. He works on his two cars there—a red Ford and a white Nissan, they’re both crap on wheels but the red one gets great gas mileage. Right now it’s parked outside the station, on the corner of Hoyt and Schermerhorn.
We were stationed in the booth at Court Street for four hours. It’s at the far end of the platform, south side, at the mouth of the tunnel that will take you from Brooklyn to Manhattan. The booth is popular. You can’t request it. It’s not OK to request where to be posted, but it is OK to swap with one another. But no one will swap you the booth.
The booth sits in the blind spot between the cameras. In-side there is only room for a blue swivel office chair and a desk. It has one drawer containing two ketchup sacks, a Smithsonian catalogue, a Chinese menu, and two scented candles. Underneath is a mesh of wires. On top sits a monitor and two phones, both black. There is a small heater on the floor. It was hot when we got there so he turned it off. The floor is steel, with a surface like the rubber tread on mountain bike tires. You can turn the light on but we
didn’t, same reason I didn’t use the flash—the natural, or rather, unnatural light of the tunnel is better. There is a record book. It has log of who’s worked when, their time in and time out, their shield and district numbers. I asked if I could sign in too, but he said no. The sergeants really check it.
Inside the booth, on the monitor, the trains look beautiful. He says they’re black and white but they’re not. It’s subtle, but they’re pink and green and yellow. I love the stability of the cameras and how the trains become colored disks and flares inside them. I ask if I can take the footage. He says no but I know that, eventually, I’ll get it.
His friends told him not to trust me. They’ve met Friday nights to play cards ever since they were in high school. One works at a nursing home in the kitchen—it’s hot in there—Kenny works at the post office, and the third one I cannot remember. Two of them date Asian girls. He told them—because he always tells them about work—that a girl came up to him at Jay Street and asked him about searches. She was a really pretty girl and she came up to me. Pretty girls don’t come up to me and ask if they can work a shift with me.
I asked if any girls do at all, or anyone else for that matter.
No, and I’ve never heard of anyone saying that someone did. My friends think you’re setting me up.
I don’t know, he laughed. I don’t know you very well.
I asked him to bring me something to wear for the shift. He brought me his shirt. Some of the buttons are missing. It’s short-sleeved and has the official patches on the shoulders. It is hanging on a hook against my bedroom wall. I am not supposed to wear it in public.
He prepared our story. You were dizzy. You asked to sit down and rest until you felt better. When the sergeants came to check on him he told them the story, and that he’d bought me a salad and a coffee. They did not believe it, but he did.
At 11pm we were supposed to transfer to Bedford-Nostrand. I don’t know if he was planning to let me come along. He told me he would be in the station’s mezzanine, sitting on a tool-box. It’s filthy and next to the ticket booth. I didn’t like that image—not that it was filthy, but that it wasn’t like the booth. The booth is quiet and the trains come out from nowhere, they suddenly flow past in opposite directions, crisscrossing one another. You wouldn’t believe the breeze. All the gum wrappers and paper cups get in a stir and your hair flies all over. Not his, he shaved it today and it’s very short, with grey sparkles as if it was black and just rained on.
He has never been to an art museum.
What for? What’s there? Pictures on the wall? No, art is not my thing.
How do you know if you’ve never been?
I am not into art and I don’t have time for it.
He was sitting in the booth and I was standing in the doorway. The relieving officer had not come yet and he was on the phone. I stood very close to him. This was just after I had been filming his face. The energy was soft and permissive, as if the relief not turning up had created an in-between off-duty/on-duty space where the rules were calmed. As he spoke I grazed the camera over his hands, his neck, and his face. He let me. It was like touching—we could pretend that it wasn’t physical because he was on the phone and it was only a lens. I kept photographing his hands. His fingers are thicker than you’d expect from the rest of his body. They are clean, without much hair, just enough to make them masculine. His nails are cut short and round, with just the slightest white moons. He wears a thin gold wedding ring that in the light of the subway looks silver. His turtleneck was down low and not folded over twice, so the NYPD logo was inside out and backwards. I said your shirt is on backwards and he said, No, see? The turtleneck just isn’t pulled down right.
You should not stand close to the edge when the trains are coming. The conductors get nervous. He pulls me back each time.
He introduces me to Costella. Costella is the guy who has to ride the cars back and forth through the tunnel. He goes from Brooklyn to Manhattan, Manhattan to Brooklyn, con-tinually through the night.
13 MONDAY 11:53PM
I am in the apartment; he is beneath me. Beneath the whole city. I wonder if he is at the mouth of the tunnel, somewhere on York, or at his favorite station with the green columns. If he won’t go to see art, maybe I can get him a security job at a museum. I should try the Met first. I would like to choose which room he guards. I would like to hold his hand, in front of the paintings, and at the mouth of the tunnel inside the booth. I know he doesn’t trust me. I bet as time has passed since last night he trusts me even less. As for me, I like him even more.
I am going to make tuna sandwiches and bring them to his post.
Imagine being in the museum at night, on guard in front of the paintings.
I’ve been fantasizing about wearing the shirt he gave me—barefoot, bare legs—on the platform. He would be so mad. I would get locked up for impersonation. Melle thinks that is what I want—to be locked up—but I don’t. I want the footage of those trains.
14 TUESDAY 12:04AM
He called me. He was at my corner. 10:16pm, half an hour earlier than planned. I worried he might see where I live when I came outside to meet him. He didn’t. My building is in a blind spot.
You’d be so easy to stalk.
It is nice in the car. He keeps it so warm. Now I have been in both of them, the red one and the white one.
He must log all the offences in black pen. I made sure to bring my own so that I can write them for him.
He has a black book like this one. I wonder what he writes in it. About being underground, about the stations—what they feel like, what they look like. Does he write about what happens—the arrests, the fights, the criminals, his plans? Is he always practical?
I wish I knew what was up here, he points to my head, and what you write about in your black book. See what is going to happen? I will get used to seeing you and then you will go away.
And you will miss seeing me. You will get used to it. Just enjoy it.
It’s hard to.
I will work with him tomorrow night; tonight I am tired. Tonight he has Franklin. He hates Franklin. It’s too busy and the sergeants always check.
He calls me at 9pm as promised. I feel the call before the ring. I’ll be parked in the same place as last night. I leave Grand Street at 10:11pm and walk south, then take the C from Canal Street and exit at Hoyt-Schermerhorn. I see the car, but he does not see me. His seat is back, the engine is running, the radio is playing. I open the door and get into the passenger seat. My back is against the window. He opens his eyes, looks at me, and closes them again. He does not sleep; he rests.
When he gets bored he names the presidents in order. He recites them on the platform. The world is the way it is to-day because of them. I ask if he ever does anything without a reason, just because. No, he says. He has never done anything because of the sun or the moon.
I study his face with his eyes closed. He has a scar on the eyebrow closest to me. It crosses his brow at an angle. There is another one below his jaw-line, perfectly in line with it. It makes him nervous when he looks at me and I am looking at him. He closes his eyes again.
I brought him a picture of me in his shirt and two tuna fish sandwiches. He called me the next morning; he’d eaten them both.
You’re wearing something under this, right?
Yes, you can see the shirt.
It mixes in with your skin.
I cropped the picture, but left a small part of my thigh showing. If he studies the picture he might notice. And he might see that his pictures cover the wall behind me.
I will go to sleep now and he will be awake beneath me. I feel safer.
16 THURSDAY 11:16AM
He was supposed to call in the morning when he got back to his car. I got dressed and put on makeup. I worked at my desk and waited for the phone to ring. At 10:45am I went downstairs to see if his car was still there. It was gone.
I called him.
He thought I would come at 10:30. When I didn’t, he left.
Tonight he will be on the N/R platform at Dekalb. I should walk to Bond, toward Schermerhorn, pass it and continue up to Fulton. Bond ends where Dekalb begins, and then I go down. He will be there, somewhere on the platform.
3029 is the code for Dekalb Station.
I’ll introduce you to the others.
Don’t worry. You are my main guy.
What do you want me to do?
I have ideas.
There are others that are more interesting than me. One is younger; he has a lot of stories. You’d like him.
I want to wear his shirt, and only his shirt, on the platform. I don’t need anyone to see me do it, but I want him to know that I did.
I meet him at Nostrand Station. I get off the subway on the south side; he is on the north side. He waves and gestures for me to stay. He runs up the stairs into the city, over the street, and comes down the other side. He is outside the turnstile and motions for me to come to him. I do. We go up to street level and into a deli. He knows everyone. He gets tea; coffee gives him heartburn.
17 FRIDAY 9:49AM
He just called me from Nostrand, same place I left him last night. He will be off at 10:30am. In forty minutes I will go down, get us coffee, and sit inside his car. I am going to ask him to get me the practice book so I can take the officer exam.
The Secret Service hires people like him or people from the military. They hire other people too, but you have to have had some experience with that stuff. When he first got the job they did in-depth security checks on him. It’s not so important for his particular job, but very important for those in the Secret Services. They found out that he had punched his boss fifteen years ago. He pulls his arm back and makes the thrust of a punch. Right in the face, I clocked him. They went and got depositions from all the employees who worked there. They wrote, and he makes his body like he is writing and looking closely at the paper, that the boss was an asshole and that they hated him. His face becomes red and his eyes get smaller, his white straight teeth all vis-ible, including the one that is grey. I did what everyone else wanted to do. Apparently, this makes sense to those checking because he got the job anyway.
I’m an even-tempered person, not like my wife, man she can yell! But when I get really mad I can definitely show it. Now that he is so severely sleep-deprived his patience is getting shorter. He hopes he doesn’t snap one day. He has less and less patience for the black people getting off the trains. And the stupid stuff. He has become more racist on the job. They are animals…animals. They give him a real hard time. He’s been hit with a cane, harassed, called names and gibed at.
It makes me hate them.
Right away he knew I was one of those liberals. I could tell, you’re an artist, you have ideas, you read the New York Times—that liberal rag—so of course you’re against the war in Iraq. Maybe it’s nice to see art when you are retired, but it’s leisure and in this time in the world, there just isn’t time for that. Clinton took all the money from the military, he appeased everyone, and now Bush has to beef it back up. As for Iraq, they should level the whole place. They should have done it years ago. Maybe go in and take the children, then take the whole place down.
I wanted to hate him when he spoke about black people, and about Iraq, and about the death penalty.
Why should we waste a dime of America’s tax money to pay for the guy who brutally mutilated his girlfriend—you know about that, right?
I saw it on the cover of the newspaper you read, but I did not read the whole article. I don’t know exactly what he did to her—
Well I do, I can tell you all about it.
An eye for an eye. Touch someone wrongly and get your hand cut off. I would love it if life were like that.
Yeah, but you punched your boss.
I never punched anyone for the wrong reason.
He watches me closely and examines my reaction.
We are on the express platform. He is standing. I am sit-ting on the bench beside him. It’s way past 11pm; the train’s stopped running on this track. The local continues below us. See, look at the people coming up those stairs. A black man in an orange knit Rasta hat, a bright pea-green sweatshirt, and lots of gold necklaces comes up from the local. He stops at the top of the stairs and watches us.
Can I help you?
‘You tryin’ to get your groove on?’ he asks it in a wave, like a song. It’s hard to understand.
The man asks it again. ‘You tryin’ to get your groove on?’ I look up at him beside me. He keeps a small tight grin. I can see the wrinkles around his eyes.
The man on the steps continues, ‘Is that your wife?’
Yes, he says, this is my wife.
I have never heard anyone say that about me.
‘That ain’t your wife.’ He shakes his head, turns his back on us and begins to walk away. He continues to call back to us as he walks towards the exit. ‘That ain’t your wife, you tryin’ to get your groove on. Your wife is home in bed.’
Train duty is when you stand in the front car with the train conductor and watch the tracks. You make sure anyone who is on the tracks is supposed to be there, and arrest anyone who shouldn’t be. You ride back and forth and stare at the tracks. You go from the last station in Brooklyn to the first station in Manhattan and then the last station in Manhattan to the first station in Brooklyn, all night for ten hours. You can get out on the platform and check the exits. Walk up to the street, check the exits, and get back onto the train—like a whale comes up for air.
Tell me about the kind of train duty when you ride in the cars with the people, not when you stare at the tracks.
That doesn’t mean anything. What is nice about it? Do you look at the people? Do you stare into space? Do you get bored? Tell me the details.
Come on, it’s nice.
I am going to read you something.
He looks at me, confused. I pull out the book in my camera case and begin a passage by Alain Robbe-Grillet: “On the polished wood of the table, the dust has marked the places occupied for awhile—for a few hours, several days, minutes, weeks—by small objects subsequently removed whose outlines are still distinct for some time, a circle, a square, a rectangle, other less simple shapes, some partly overlapping, already blurred or half obliterated by a rag.” I look up at him.
He can’t follow.
OK, I will read it again.
I followed but I don’t get it. It’s boring.
That is the kind of detail I want to know. That much detail.
We’re so different.
There are birds in Nostrand Station. Lots of them. They sing loudly and their song fills the station. I can’t work out where they come from. They glide along the ceiling and swoop down onto the platform. The station smells like piss and is full of birdsong.
JILL MAGID is an artist and writer based in Brooklyn.