This One Time, 9

This one time I was sitting on the train getting my work done, and by that I mean I was sleeping. The job I get paid for, which is not work at all, consists of sitting in a little room for eight hours a day with a stack of books and magazines — no music or movies or television or anything else that makes noise — and an endless stream of coffee or whatever it takes to stay awake for the entire time listening to a particular channel on a particular radio that plays a particular brand of static, and, when a particular light comes on, I have to write down with a particular pen on a particular pad of paper whatever I hear and then take a pill which, I am told, will only make me sleep and screw with my short-term memory enough to make it unlikely I’ll remember any of what I wrote down.

I am not allowed a phone or a computer or any method of writing even to work crosswords or stuff. I am strip-searched twice every day, once on the way in and once on the way out, and they even check my nails to make sure I keep them short and look me over to make sure I haven’t scratched anything into my skin.

At first it was demeaning, but what demeaning means drifts a bit with familiarity. Demeaning is when I can tell that the people looking me over aren’t paying attention to every detail and treating it like it’s important. Demeaning is when I take my clothes off and their minds are elsewhere and I can tell I that was when I could have gotten away with something. But I’m not allowed to talk to anyone or even to complain or answer questions, but every day I am allowed the opportunity to take the special pen and mark a special square on the special pad of paper that says, “I QUIT”.

Eight hours a day of that, one AM to 9 AM five days per week, and the one thing I’m not allowed to do in there is sleep.

My commute is backwards, but due to the shift I work, I head back into town with the B&T crowd commuting in. A car drops me off at a shopping center. I catch a shuttle there to the train back to town, and take another train to the end of the line, where I get off and walk to an apartment where I can’t goddamn sleep because the neighborhood is noisy and bright and I live right next to a primary school, where the kids come out in shifts like inmates at a prison into the recess area/exercise yard right under my goddamn window.

The trains aren’t very quiet either, but for some reason I find it easier to doze on the train headed home than in my apartment, even with earplugs and a sleep mask. I’ve perfected this wobbly “I’m about to throw up” look that gets me a seat in even the most crowded cars most of the time, and I’ve never been hassled in the twelve years I’ve been doing this, but even with all the practice and the rocking and the warmth of nearby bodies, sleeping is work either on the train or in my apartment, and if I don’t do enough of it before I have to go back to the place where I get paid to basically do nothing all day, then I’ll sleep there and get fired.

So this one time on the uptown train, I’m trying to work and I wake up because something isn’t right. I think maybe we’ve stopped too long or something’s broken down and we’re about to be asked to get off and wait for the next train or something and, whatever, that kind of thing happens every now and then and the commuting-to-work crew, most of whom are actually on one of the downtown trains by the time we hit Central Park North, so guaranteed I’ve got a seat by now… Where was I? The commuting-to-work crew doesn’t take it so well when we have to stop.

But anyway, the train hasn’t stopped, but it’s the quietest it’s ever been on a moving train, or maybe that’s just how it seems, but the tunnel outside the windows are the brightest I’ve ever seen them, like maybe they’ve got workers in the tunnels, or cops, or what have you. I’ve never seen it before, though. If there are workers or cops in the tunnels they shut down the trains. Like you’d imagine. So I turn and I look out the window and it looks like we’re in a huge underground switching station, with maybe twenty sets of parallel tracks and cars of sorts I don’t even recognize dotted about the landscape, not normal MTA cars from any line I ride.

It’s not quite daylight-bright out there, maybe somewhere between indoor/office and snowy-day overcast. It’s a huge yard, maybe a few football-fields long. I look out the window across from mine to make sure it’s the same out there. It is.

And everyone else on the train is either asleep or just looking at their feet or laps or reading or stuff. I’m the only one looking out any of the windows.

And then the train operator’s voice comes on, and in a voice backed by static but still very understandable, he says, “I said close your eyes.”

I scrunched back in my corner and bowed my head, looking at my hands and trying to calm down, trying to figure out where the hell we could be, where we could have been. The next stop was Central Park North, which I was sure we had gone through already, and the rest of the ride was normal.

I was too shaken to sleep, but I managed a few hours after I got back to my apartment. By the end of the day, when I was headed back to the job, I had convinced myself that I had dreamed the whole episode, a kind of waking dream from a screwed-up sleep schedule. I thought very strongly about checking the “I QUIT” box, but I never did.

That night I went to work normally, but I woke up in my bed while it was still dark, like maybe six AM. I was extremely confused. But on the night stand next to my clock was a single sheet, torn off the special pad from you-know-where, and it said, in huge block letters, “GOOD JOB. THANK YOU. COME BACK NEXT SHIFT.”

It was my fourth one of those, the fourth in twelve years. I put it with the others. My only souvenirs from the job.


January 9, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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