Subway Systems and Sunburns

Every once in a while he got the feeling again. The one where his heart was trembling so deeply he felt as if it might all be lost, it could all be another shove away into the darkness like a wave pushing off the shore and he just really didn’t know about how secure he was. Do any of us? He was holding his coffee and sitting on the subway and he knew that it was coming, the impending doom that swayed and rocked against his mind. For a moment he paused to scratch the sunburn on the back of his neck, wincing and turning toward the woman sitting next to him as if she, too, could feel the pain. It’s odd how we look for sympathy in strangers who have never experienced our sunburns, but we do time and time again and that’s the particularly sad part about his life. He sat there and held his coffee on the subway, the most human moment he could ever even think to formulate, and yet not even the woman sitting next to him or the gentleman next to her could accurately feel his plight.

But even though there were those who could hear him and those who couldn’t, even though there was the way his eyes glistened over just before he stepped off into the path of the typical righteous and out of the underground, his sense of doom vanished into conformity with his first breath of city dust and he was off down the road. It is always some sort of love story, isn’t it? A romance between the unusual and the usual, the gentle pull between the people who matter and those seemingly who don’t, between the typical winter day in New York City and the unique wonder of an Italian beach. The want and the need and the I-don’t-know-but-it’s-so-wonderful. The push of everyday life into a canister of hopeless dreams and odd dollar bills and pennies shoved into the back of your sock drawer.

But he isn’t one of those dreamers, despite his moments on subway systems when he feels so entirely normal. No, not the Yankee stadium season ticket holder who waltzes into his office in June and leaves sometime in May. He makes things that are and so he is. And isn’t it absolutely spectacular: this American tragedy walking by as if he in fact is grasping between his teeth the golden lottery ticket of tomorrow and the day after that with nothing really but a suit jacket and a contract, and doesn’t everyone look into his eyes with a pleading sadness screaming out, “I wish it was me, I wish it was me, I wish.” And these poor souls go on wishing inside of their cardboard box houses while this man dines on avenues of silver sunlight and all the other fancy language you could imagine.

He walked inside of his office and let his half-finished coffee rest upon his sleek black table before taking a seat in a leather, plush, upholstered, massive thing, swirling it to the back to gaze out the windows that covered the entirety of the back wall- a scene out of a movie, a scene out of a pricey trailer that makes you think “wow” half expecting Leonardo DiCaprio to pop around the corner any moment and when he doesn’t, you sit there slightly disappointed by the enchanting man in the massive leather chair.

He was the man that men warn their daughters about on blue sky days while they read their novels, already formulating their ideas and dreams on life. And the fathers try so hard to put in their wisdom, inject a bit of realism and truth into the labyrinths being carved into these young women’s heads by commercials and weddings and TV shows and arches and billboards and modern art and modernism. But there is no avail: time after time the daughters will pluck up his suit from the carpet and iron it out and hang it to dry from its martini gorged life and maybe they will have dreamed long enough to love it, but chances are they did not.

He sat there for a moment before turning back toward the door and the blank walls, cracking his knuckles and then picking up the receiver. His name was Harvard Willis, a first name that was a bad joke between his father and boyhood friends by a river bend in Mississippi, his last a misinterpretation at Ellis Island.

There has to be some sort of sympathy for Harvard past his sunburns, but there isn’t. It’s ridiculous, actually, how well off Mr. Willis really is, so well off that most middle class workers don’t even wish to think of it.  And you can just barely picture the red line exposed on his neck as he stooped down to work, still moist with aloe; you can just feel the itch on the tips of your toes as the burn rubbed against his collared shirt, and the relief he felt as he loosened his tie. That is the farthest one can feel for Mr. Willis, because he is, in fact, an absolute stranger, even to his own kind.


This piece was inspired by a drive I took through Brooklyn on my way to Providence, RI, with a twist of modern “Mad Men”-esque themes.

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