A NEW WORD
Growing up in the New York City had its advantages. For one thing, you didn’t need a car to get around—the city transit system blanketed each corner of the boroughs with buses and trains, and for a single fare I could ride from my house in the north eastern part of the Bronx to the southernmost part of Brooklyn’s Coney Island. And on each trip, no matter the direction or length, every rider would get to see the grand show that was New York outside the picture windows. As a teenager I took this all in stride, of course—this was a normal part of my 1960's life. As soon as I was able to cross streets by myself, I could be away from home, sometimes far away, and still be home for dinner.
On Saturdays during the school year or on a summer weekday, I might travel with a friend or two from my middle class neighborhood and go “downtown.” A trip to Manhattan was easy and fairly quick, but the train ride itself required a trip through the South Bronx. The South Bronx bore a sad resemblance to the bombed out acres of WWII Berlin—a huge chunk of real estate decimated by arson and populated by some of the city’s poorest residents. It was here in 1977 that then President Jimmy Carter, shocked at what he saw, stood on a pile of rubble and voiced an empty promise to rebuild it all. But in the decade before that, when I would travel through on the way to my downtown adventures, the South Bronx was, even to a seen-it-all city boy, a place to resist the reflex to stare at the blight. The area’s reputation for danger was rightfully earned. Our pulse always quickened during the ride from the East 180th Street station through to the bottom edge of the Bronx passed 149th Street and 3rd Avenue.
While our occasional trips were almost always uneventful, I do remember one trip in particular. At the time we were riding in the first car. The train wasn’t crowded and if you stood at the front end of the first car you could look out the window of the locked door and see the twists and turns and platforms and lights of the tracks ahead of you. It was a fun feeling, especially as the train would bob its head from the underground stations to the above-ground elevated stations and dive back down below ground again. From that view, the normal squeals and grinds and bumps and blinks were connected to the lay of the land outside the window. The anticipation of a quick turn ahead or a dive into the darkness of an approaching tunnel added that much more excitement to the otherwise routine, random shaky ride you got from one of the side seats. There was only room for one person to stand comfortably in front of that forward window—or for two close buddies each straining for the view. But when we entered the front car in hopes of standing in that spot we saw that someone else was already there. My friend and I sat in the closest seats to the front in case that someone got off the train before we did. We would take his spot instantly if he left it to us. But he didn’t.
After riding a few stops, he turned to us. I remember his face—a young, thin man with a cap on his head. His skin was milk chocolate brown and he seemed hairless. He asked us where we were going. No introductory remarks, no smile, just the question. We told him that we were on our way to our favorite music store downtown. He turned back to looking out the window. It was an awkward moment as my friend and I looked at each other each with a wide-eyed shrug. I was the brave one this time—I directed my voice to him. “Where are you going?” I asked. And he answered, “No where special. I’m a loner.” For me, it was a new word.
The young man said he was a loner, and I had never heard that word used quite like that before. I remember the blank look on my face as he said it again. “You know, a loner.” My friend was equally silent. We didn’t know what he meant. He was just traveling alone, we thought. Then again, I knew that wasn’t quite it. I pressed him further. “I don’t know what you mean. What’s a loner?” My honesty compounded my naiveté.
The young man looked at me deeply, trying to describe his situation to a couple of neatly dressed white boys riding through his world and into Manhattan. “I got no one, man, no one at all. It’s just me, nobody else. You see?” Our still-blank looks gave us away. “A loner man, no parents, no family, no job, no nothing. I just ride these trains.” And with that he turned back to the view out the front window. We sat in silence for a bit more. We had no words. But he finally said, “Don’t be alone, man, don’t ever be alone.” And soon after that my buddy and I got off at our downtown stop. And the loner stayed at his place staring out at the moving tracks as the doors closed behind us. We watched him speed away into the darkness of the underground. I had seen a part of New York City that I hadn’t seen before. And I had also learned a new word. A sad, new word.