By David R Castro
The City that Doesn’t Sleep. That’s what they call this place, this city, three islands and the mainland of America that they cut into five pieces. New York City, the Big Apple, the jewel in the crown of the Empire State, they say it never sleeps. Maybe, but I’m less sure of this than I have ever been.
I’ve lived here my entire life, born in Manhattan, lived in infancy in The Bronx, then in Queens for the rest of it thus far. There’s more to this city than Manhattan, to it’s tourist traps and lights that beat back the darkness so well it hid the stars above. You move through Manhattan when you’re a kid from the ‘outer’ boroughs, somewhere between the haughtiness of the bourgeois Manhattanite and the open-mouthed wonder of the glass and steel of middle and lower Manhattan. We know there’s more to New York than ‘The City’, as we call it, and that this place has wonders and terrors that the tourists would die to see. Maybe some have.
They say the City doesn’t sleep, and looking at Times Square, maybe, but move away from the lights and shows and chaos, and when the sun starts to set, the streets seem to empty. After the moon rises high in the black void that is the starless night sky, there is a time where you can walk for blocks and not see another soul, where you can descend into the chthonic labyrinth that is the Subway and hear the breath of this place, slow and plodding.
It is here where I find myself, having left a gathering of friends one night, walking back to the staircase into this underworld, to take myself off this island back to my own. There were lights, of course, from signage to street lamps, from traffic lights and headlights of the few cars that passed, but there is something about the darkness in New York City that is, as all things born of this place, resilient. Even before true sunset, when the sun falls behind the monoliths that we build, the pace quickens, stores that had their doors open wide all day close them, sidewalk peddlers of goods pack up though there’s still people who may want their wares. People head for their watering holes and entertainments, music and noise a cacophony they hope is loud enough to beat back the nothingness outside.
The wind rose, whispering things not meant for my ears, and I zipped up the hoodie I wore underneath a jacket. A man, who wasn’t there when I was looking before closing myself to the wind, stood on the corning looking down at his feet. He was pale, the lack of a rosy coloration spoke to a sickliness about him. His hair, brown, was matted into dreadlocks, though such a way that I wasn’t sure if it was ironic intention or a lack of hygiene was not clear at that distance, and I didn’t want to get any closer. His face, neck, and hands had myriad tattoos that my eyes glanced over before averting my gaze completely. I couldn’t make them out, or my mind refuses to recall the words and images I saw on the man’s skin, either way, as I passed him, he muttered something under his breath, and after a dozen steps, began to follow me.
My pace quickened, but the wind rose again, twice as strong as before but this time it blew into me, an elemental will against my own, trying to slow me. The noise of the wind and music of the bars that I moved past kept his words, thankfully, out of my ears, but I don’t know how long that would keep up. The walk was not this long when I did it on my way to my prior engagement, was it? Four streets downhill after two avenues over, that was what it was before. I could see the turn, a left the first time, a right now, impossibly far away, the single block longer than any city block had any right to be.
At the edge of my awareness I could hear screaming now, calling to me, saying things that I didn’t want to hear. Words that shouldn’t be said about a person and more, words that didn’t sound like a person at all. I looked up, making my right turn, and saw the globes of light atop the staircase to the Subway in the distance. Between me and it, a large cathedral, one of many and one whose name I didn’t know. I made the sign of the cross, saying the few words that stuck in my mother’s Spanish.
“En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo, Amén.”
The wind died. The sounds of the bars remained, but the screaming was gone, and when I gathered enough courage to look, the man was no longer there. The street was empty, save for myself. It didn’t take me long to walk the two long blocks to the subway and make my way down into it’s depths.
The subway was one of the less central ones, not one near anything anyone cares about, so it looked its age, but it was well lit and the ambient smell of the underside of the city wasn’t too much. In the light of the platform, I went back through everything that happened. That I thought had happened anyway, because that couldn’t have been what happened, not really.
A crazy homeless guy, there were hundreds of them. That’s what that had to be. In New York you’re trained to keep your eyes down and pay them no heed, however terrible that may be. Maybe this one took offense to it, maybe this time was one time too many. Maybe he was just another man with hate in his heart for people who don’t look like him. That has to be it.
The wind gets channeled between the buildings, so it’s stronger there sometimes. It happens, nothing strange about that. It’s a thing that is common, so why did it make me shiver so hard?
The train at night takes longer to make its rounds, and I did what all natives do when waiting, I walked to the edge and leaned over the rails, peering deep into the inky blackness that is the tunnel. The darkness, the emptiness that I found there was complete and resolute, a wall that kept me out. I could feel it, a barrier that told me I didn’t just not belong past it, but that I was unwanted, that in that stillness there was something that would do me harm should I press my luck. I found myself shivering again.
Then I heard something, the wind blew in the tunnels before and after a train, and that wind picked up now. It whispered something and I couldn’t pull my eyes from the tunnel. No, if I was to be honest, I didn’t want to. The stillness of the darkness warned me away, but something about the wind, a voice in the noise, called me closer. I took a step, then another.
My eyes hurt, I wasn’t blinking and I didn’t care. I walked closer to the edge, towards the far end of the tunnel. I don’t know why, I still don’t, but I had to. I needed to know what lay in the darkness, what lives in the inky arteries of my city. I needed to know. I was so close, the raised bumpy yellow tiles that warned against just such actions hurt my feet through the thin soles of my Vans, but I kept on. There was a roaring, and I couldn’t tell if it was coming from around me our out of my own throat, and then there was a light and silver.
The train had pulled into the station, and broken whatever enchantment had befallen me. It slowed, and it’s doors opened in front of me. There were people in the car, and they didn’t acknowledge my existence, which is fine. The automated voice called out what station this was, and which one was next, and it took me a moment, a second before the doors began to close, to walk onto it.
I rode in silence, not looking at anyone, just at my hands. I found myself at my stop in Queens in no time at all, and ran the rest of the way home. I don’t know what happened, and I can’t say that it’s happened again, but I don’t travel in the City at night any more if I don’t have to, and I don’t look into the tunnel for the train either. I don’t want to know what it is that comes out when the City does go to sleep.