She enters the train coughing.”Mary. homeless. cancer. money please.” Her stringy blonde hair sways with the small drags of her feet. Familiar to many of the eyes that dodge contact this morning, she makes her way through the crowd. A man writhes in discomfort at the thought of sharing the same air as Mary; his open legs spread a little more as he slouches further in the orange grooves made for two. Mary breaks that assumed distance between strangers as she nearly kisses the man wearing a red fitted in front of her.”Sir, can I sit there please?” Her voice vibrates with years of residue from too many cigarettes lit and often finished by others.
Bodies shift and one gets up altogether to make room for Mary Homeless Cancer Money Please. Irritated and with barely any energy left, she takes a seat. Ms. Please is at a point of recklessness where she spits on the ground as if no one else existed. Nearly invisible, attention is hard to get from those around her. Legs lined with varicose veins cross as she hunches over in a pensive state. Living is a fight she hasn’t been winning. Graying hair messily tied at the nape of her neck bounces as the 4 train darts through the tunnels. She crosses her hands and stares.
The gloss in her gaze reflects daydreams of a different life, one where her jaw is intact and the scar above her left eyebrow is nowhere to be found. “I’m hungry.” She drags out the simple phrase like the last night she spent somewhere safe and predictable. “It’s hard for me,” she mumbles. Difficult as it may be, it feels worse cuz her only guarantee on this ride is absolutely nothing, but silence. The lady next to her with the pink dress and patterned bowling bag drifts in and out of sleep.
Mary clenches tightly to her bag. Perhaps the remains of a past life and bits of the current one have found a home under the zipper of the worn fabric. She waits. Patience is something Mary seems intolerable of, yet has no choice but to embrace.
“42nd St-Grand Central Station”
Mary Homeless Cancer Money Please makes her way to the platform. The next train will be there soon.
“Where Children Sleep: stories of diverse children around the world, told through portraits and pictures of their bedrooms. When Fabrica asked me to come up with an idea for engaging with children’s rights, I found myself thinking about my bedroom: how significant it was during my childhood,…
With the hair on my legs rubbing against this new mattress, I was reminded of how I managed to buy a bed sheet instead of a bed skirt the night before at Wal-Mart. The increasingly familiar but illegible writing on the packages, signs, doors and streets of Nanjing are becoming a part of my every day life. Its 6:55 am and the lingering bouts of jet lag occasionally force me to wake up earlier than planned. It’s cold in here. I thought I had managed to decipher the characters on the remote for the air-conditioner well enough to set the timer, but it was actually on the whole night. Oh well. The combination of bad lighting in the bathroom and its low ceiling with grey and white stripes makes me feel bigger than I am in the morning. The silver streaks along the stripes glimmer with the little sunlight that peaks through the blinds from the window. The showerhead hangs on a curve like a wilted sunflower that still has some life left. The “study” smells stale as I pass the small pink iron over my blue button down shirt. It’s the first day of school and the next beginning of this beginning.
My mom mixed up the time difference and misunderstood that we wanted to skype this morning with her and my gramma, so the big flat screen displaying the one channel we have in English will have to suffice. Half a roll of semi-sweet and buttery bread paired with the grape juice I managed to buy purely based on the clear picture of grapes on the label is this morning’s breakfast. We have to go grocery shopping as soon as we figure out where’s the best place to get good food. There’s no need to turn on a lot of lights in the morning here. The huge windows all over the apartment let in plenty of light. I can get used to this. The open windows in the kitchen let in the screams, giggles and little stomping feet of the students running around on the elementary school’s track next to our complex. I think that means it’s time for us to go soon. Line 2 to Daxinggong and then take Exit 2. Katrina, one of our program coordinators, wrote down directions for us yesterday to make sure we wouldn’t get lost on our first solo attempt to school. Walter has decided to walk to his school because it’s a little closer but I’ll have to take the metro if I want to make it in time and avoid getting lost. Swipe card in hand, we close our first apartment door behind us and enter the small elevator down the 10 flights.
There are a few ways to make it to the back gate of the Kingdom of Jingling complex. We decide to take the route we took last night. Down the first path, make a right and take the first left. The paths are lined with tall trees that sway slightly with the occasional breeze, but most often stand still to avoid the stickiness of the thick air. As Walter passes his card over the sensor, the faux raw-iron gate clicks as the latch releases long enough to let us through. This street isn’t too busy but we still have to look in every direction to avoid the mopeds, bikers, cars and whatever else that may be making its way down the street. Shops are opening slowly and as expected, the stares have already begun. I wonder what our new neighbors must be thinking about as their pupils focus on us steadily. These are looks of curiosity and intrigue. Do our black, breathing, living bodies fulfill what they may have imagined them to be in real life? Another reason, we need to learn Chinese soon. The stand near the corner emits smoke that blends with the sun peeking through the trees. Nature’s arrows pointing to something good. Donuts? Churros? It’s not clear what the man is selling, but people crowd around as they stop on their morning commute to pick up one or two of these long pastry-like sticks. As we turn the corner, the salon isn’t open yet and the little shop that has no signs but tons of people pouring out of it at any time of the day is bustling again. Dim sum, tea, and all kinds of pastries are being hurled around by women with those masks tightly bound around their mouths and noses. We have to learn Chinese and figure out what this stuff is. Past the little shop are more little shops that haven’t opened yet. A DVD store, a few restaurants, some boutiques and the standard restaurants. We’re approaching one of those wide intersections and I can feel the anxiety and excitement creeping up on us as we see the build up of mopeds, bikes, cars and pedestrians. If there is one thing that we have learned in these past two weeks, it is that crossing the street is not for the weak-hearted. The experienced can cross the street and text while simultaneously avoiding a crash with a moped or being mowed over by a bus. We might get there in a few months. For now, we have to look in every direction as we make the 30-second trek to the other side of the road. I don’t think any one wants to crash; it’s more of an urgency to make it to wherever it is they need to go. That means turning when it seems safe, not necessarily when the light says so. Each crossing is a symphony of beeps, horns, conversations and brakes that curve, zigzag and swerve from street to street. Xinjiekou, the major metro hub is at the corner.
Walter needs to enter the underground to make it to the other side of the huge road. He can try to cross the street above ground, but tomorrow may come before he’ll make it. Line 2 to Daxinggong and then take Exit 2. As we exchange our goodbyes and good lucks, I follow the blue signs indicating “Line 1,2”. I have a metro card and am confident that I can put money on it. I press “English” on the touch screen of the metro machine and search for “Daxinggong”. As I confirm the stop and enter my 2 Yuan coins, I get confused. Three moving images appear on the screen. One tells me to enter the coins, another tells me to enter cash and another says to put in my metro card. I find an open slot and place my metro card in it. I try to force it in, confusing it for the machines in New York, but the card sits in the slot. I place my coins in and two royal blue tokens hit the bottom of the slot under the screen. A small woman, cleaning the machines with a raggedy mop looks at me with confusion. I didn’t need to speak Chinese to understand that I had made a simple process complicated. Simple to her. With my tokens in hand and a bit of a bruised ego, I made my way to the entrance. I stood back to see how people were entering and headed for the least busy opening. Nothing. I couldn’t get through the stupid entrance because I didn’t see a slot for the tokens. As I struggled, a young woman came behind me and grabbed the token. She placed it on the sensor that had a picture of a card on it and pushed me through. I mumbled “xie xie” (thank you) and made my way down the stairs.
Traveling is important for many reasons and one in particular is that it makes the world smaller. It allows you to see how often we are more connected than we believe. The platforms here reminded me of the fancy trains I saw in Dubai almost two years ago. Huge glass panels lined the edges of the platform and stickers on the ground indicated where the openings were when the train pulled up to the station. Unlike in New York where you can argue with people to let people off the train before you get in, here it seems you gotta make your way into the train no matter what. I forced myself onto the cart and looked for the little map of the train line. I had one stop to go. As “Made in America” played through my headphones, I smiled to myself. Sweet baby Jesus.