Apr/May 1999 Poetry

Red Line

by Seth Abramson


Red Line

Twenty-two strangers in a metal box,
hurtling through darkness. Sometimes more,
after a Sox game, whenever the microchip men
are gathering at the Hynes; sometimes less,
on the last train of the day, the echoes of screeching brakes,
lights flashing on and off without pattern, scaring
the old hobos, who think they're having a seizure.

This is the Red Line, from up Alewife way,
with suburban teens in caked-on makeup
and three-inch soles, all the way down
to Mattapan—you have to take a special connection—
with dark-skinned youths wearing winter hats
in July and stomping around in unlaced army boots.
In between is the city's exotic exhale; Harvard Square,
funk wafting from the new arrivals, with drawn faces
and unwashed hair. Kendall, the home of the great technologists,
where pencil-protectors are always making
a come-back, and half the riders hail from Beijing
or Nagasaki. Then there's the Park Street everyman, bustling
off to the hair appointment or power lunch, the courtroom
or the barroom, eager to escape the hub of the underground
in the city which proclaims itself
The Hub of the Universe.

Inside the 6:53, foreheads begin to melt—
the AC is broken again, and the MBTA makes
no promises. By August things will be running smoothly,
heat pulsing from hidden vents. When the salt
isn't stinging, the urban still-life comes into focus:
sharp primaries, eyes looking out at the false night
whipping by. No one wants to see you.

The Armani cheese have misplaced their
cab fare, this is their once-a-year on spare change—
they avoid inhaling too deeply; a woman sprouts
plastic bags from every pocket, sometimes full
of sticky cans, sometimes pitifully deflated. The tourist,
slicked-back hair and American Tourister tag
a red-and-blue beacon, intently reads an airport novel
on his way to anywhere else. He isn't sure
what to make of it all, he'll take a cab in the future.
Some freckle-monster reads the advertisements, asking mom
to explain ESL or mouthing the words "Living Fit
and Loving It!-Save 50% now!" in wide-eyed wonder.
Then the conductor is there, laughably, drawling
into a waxy ear, spitting up phlegm and directing passengers
to "Please Take Your Belongings" and "Have a Nice Day." In D.C.
this is an automated voice; in Boston you actually hear
how little he cares.

These icicle forms, dripping in heat and hardly
twitching, will soon be in motion, excusing themselves
as they brush past another frozen face, stepping over
an umbrella dropped by a senior citizen. For now
they are placed, not willful, seated on black vinyl
patched with duct tape. Someone will be Hispanic,
Spanish-only, trying to find another face
in the silence, never seeing the sign at the end of the train
which begins "En El Caso de Una Emergencia…";
when the train begins to lurch his stomach will plummet
along with the rest, thinking that this is it, this was the wrong train,
the one that ends in a heap of serrated metal on some corner
of this Atlantis complex. Someone will speak
to no one in particular, someone will be courting tinnitus
beneath blaring headphones. There will be irony, paradox,
and hyperbole, swept beneath the whirl of lights
outside the window, as people watch one another
through reflections; on the red line, someone is always eating
a sandwich, and someone's stomach is always snarling.


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