This was originally published in 14 parts over Holy Week last year. I am re-publishing in a single post this re-imagining of the Stations of the Cross along a modern subway line for Good Friday.
I was speeding on the subway
Through the Stations of the Cross
Every eye looking every other way
Counting down 'til the pain would stop
-"Moment of Surrender" by U2
The train pulls into the subway station with a prolonged hiss. Businessmen, hipster couples, young families, and tourists rise up and make their way to exit the car. The doors slide open and people burst forth into collision. As one mass jostles to get out, another fights the tide to get in. Every eye is focused, steeled to push through to some goal past the throng.
Two eyes are wide. They belong to a young man. Fifteen, maybe sixteen years old. Backpack. Gray sweatshirt with the hood up. Headphones wrapped around his neck. But those eyes. They're wide as the night. A potent mix of anxiousness and fear fill his pupils. His face is not held forward, but swivels to every body that knocks into him.
He finds himself a seat on a bench. The doors slide to a close. The train creaks. The window behind him show tiles, then blur, then darkness. His knees begin to bounce. Up and down. Faster and faster like pistons. The wide eyes shut then seconds later fly back open. They dart back and forth and then fixate on a stained spot on the floor; as if that spot holds the answer to whatever is plaguing his mind.
He's afraid. Is the fear because of where he's been? Where he's going? The journey in between? Perhaps it's some combination of the three. His knees continue to pump. His fingers lock together. Then he brings his hands up over the top of his head, dragging them over his hair before resting them on his neck.
His lips begin to move. There's a rhythm to it; nearly in time to the bouncing of his knees. At first it seems like he is mouthing the words to a song. But he isn't listening to a song. The headphones are still draped around his neck. Looking closely, you can see the words repeat. Three words. Over and over again.
Please, God, help.
Two guys, probably in high school, stand near the door. Each has an arm bent as he holds the rail above. There is an animation to their conversation. You can't hear the words, but you can see it in the deep laughs, the back and forth rhythm, the spark in their eyes. You get the sense that they have been riding the subway together for years.
Yet one of them, wearing a heavy winter coat, says something and the rhythm misses a beat. The other stiffens. Heavy Winter Coat slouches awkwardly. He tries to make a save, maybe a joke, and his friend laughs a little. Crammed together on the subway, the comment reveals a distance between them.
Then Heavy Winter Coat sees something over his friend's shoulder. His eyes briefly widen. He pulls out his phone. He points to the phone and then jerks his thumb back over his shoulder. Confusion washes over his friend's face. They exchange an elaborate three or four step handshake/hug. And just before Heavy Winter Coat darts into another car, you notice that he slips a plastic bag into the pocket of his friend's red jacket.
A minute later, a police officer enters the car and heads straight for the abandoned friend. He speaks to the young man. Fear, anger, and bewilderment all pour out from his face. He tersely shakes his head. The officer says something else, bringing himself to his full height so that he towers over the teenager. The young man vigorously shakes his head again and you can read the word "Never" come out of his mouth.
The officer returns volley. The teenager stares back for what seems like ten minutes before he finally answers. This time you can hear what he says from across the car.
The tone of his voice speaks loudly that this is anything but fine to him. The officer looks through the boy's backpack. The teenager stands there with his arms crossed defiantly. Finding nothing in the pack, the officer points to the jacket. The young man lets out an exasperated sigh as the policeman searches one pocket. Nothing. Then the other. His eyes light up as he pulls out the plastic bag.
The young man's eyes flood with horror. The train begins to hiss and squeal as it pulls into the station. The crowded car stirs to life as people prepare to exit the car. The scene near the door barely registers for most. From across the car you hear snippets of the young man's plea.
I swear...never...it's not mine!
He's agitated. Scared. The officer doesn't believe a word. The train pulls into the station. The kid says something that fills the officer with rage. He slams the young man against the subway door, turns him around, and presses his face against the glass. The doors open. Humanity pours out. Humanity pours in.
The train begins to pull away and there on the platform you see this innocent kid in handcuffs. His eyes red and puffy. Tears streaming down his face. He grows smaller and smaller. Then there's tiles. The blur. The darkness.
The car continues to hurtle through the tunnel. A bench over sits a teenage girl. Like seemingly every other person in the car, her eyes are cast downward; focused on a small glass screen. Her face is contorted as if she is searching for an answer that eludes her. Her fingers fly as she furiously taps on the phone.
The car sways and a tear falls on her screen. She pulls her sleeve into her hands, wipes the screen, and continues to tap. Not wanting to eavesdrop, your eyes return to the floor. But you hear a deep heave; a sob she's trying to keep from escaping.
She types one more time. Waits and stares at the screen. Within seconds her eyes well up. She slaps the phone down on the empty spot beside her and buries her face in her hands. The train squeals as it pulls into the station. The passengers begin to jostle for position. The young woman glances at the route map above the door and wipes her eyes with her palms. She takes a deep breath and quickly releases it.
As the doors open, she makes her way to the exit. You notice the phone is still beside her seat. You grab it and call out to her. But she doesn't hear you over the din of the crowd. You try to fight the boarding crowd to give her the phone, but the tide is too strong. The doors slide closed a few steps before you arrive. You watch as she disappears around a corner.
Glancing down at the phone, you see the source of her pain is still on display. It's a group message. One girl accused her of stealing a boy. The young woman swore it was not true. Another said that she saw them on a date last Friday. The young woman said the others could ask her friend; she was with her the whole night. But the group wasn't having any of it. The first girl wrote slut. And it got worse from there. Insults plastered the screen.
You don't want to see any more. You slide the phone in your pocket wondering if she left it there on purpose. You grab onto a rail as the car begins to pull away from the station. You look out the window. The tiles. The blur. The darkness.
Nah, I've never seen that guy before.
Seven words casually uttered as a group of friends slips into the stream flowing out of the car. "That guy" is frozen to the spot where he was standing. He's stunned. Confused. Angry. Wounded. Seven words casually uttered about That Guy. But in That Guy's eyes, you see those seven words might as well have been a knife.
Three minutes ago, That Guy and the Utterer of Seven Words were flipping through a comic book; excitedly talking and gesturing at the pages as the superhero defied incredible odds to vanquish a villain. They flipped to the last page and they let out a simultaneous squeal of glee. It made you smile because you often don't see kids that age express that kind of unbridled joy.
Then a group weaved their way through the crowded car to the dynamic duo. Three guys. Two girls. Seven Words saw them and his entire demeanor changed. The childlike joy froze into a practiced cool. That Guy was still looking at the page. Though his friend was still beside him, he was unaware that Seven Words was no longer with him.
Seven Words nodded his head at the guys in the group. He exchanged eyes with one of the girls and then asked what they're up to. They were going to see a movie at the next stop. Does he want to come? By this time, That Guy has heard what's going on. He stammered to say something.
The car squealed as it pulled into the station. The biggest guy at the group glared down at That Guy. Who're you? Everyone lurched as the car came to a stop. Before That Guy could say anything, Seven Words nervously laughed and directed the group toward the sliding doors.
You weren't hanging out with that dork, were you?
Nah, I've never seen that guy before.
Seven words like a stab in the back. The doors close. The car pulls away from the station. And That Guys stands there in frozen shock. Watching the tiles, the blur, and the darkness.
Across the way sits a businessman. Salt and pepper hair. Rimmed glasses. Neatly pressed suit. Not an unusual sight. The thing you don't see much of anymore is the item in his hands: a newspaper. In a world of tablets and smartphones, it has a presence. Not only is the newspaper so much bigger, but it announces its existence. There's the crinkle of a turned page. The thwap as the reader jerks the paper to get a better look at some article.
You glance at the front page. In bold letters the headline reads: Mayor Washes Hands of City Poverty Spike. You caught the press conference on TV this morning as you grabbed breakfast. City Hall announced that it was slashing funds to various shelters, job programs, night classes, and other services offered to the poorest living within its jurisdiction.
The mayor did not seem to like this decision. You could see the tiredness etched in the lines on his face. Yet his final statement rang out when you glance back at that newspaper headline:
I believe we have done all that we can to aid these citizens of our fair city.
Sitting next to the three-piece suit with a newspaper is a woman. She is probably middle-aged but it's hard to tell. Her hair is unkempt. Her face is covered with a layer of grime. A dirty gray sweatshirt hangs loosely over her frame. A handful of plastic bags languishes around her feet. She is tired, weathered, and worn.
You have to stop yourself from staring at her because you can't believe the juxtaposition. And you think about the businessman and the headline. You think about the mayor saying he has done all he can and whether he would say that to this woman. Would he look into her weary, bloodshot eyes and say, "I'm sorry, but we can't help you anymore."
The brakes hiss and she stands up to exit. The businessman takes no notice of her. He likely has trained himself to render people like the woman invisible. The mayor, the businessman should do something. Righteous angers swells in you until you realize that you did nothing either. You noticed her, but you did not say a word.
The doors slide closed. You and the businessman sit in the same place. Both of you having washed your hands of the poor—washed your hands of this woman—just like the mayor. Yet you realize that your hands aren't clean. You see her lumbering up to the street as the train pulls away. Then you see the tiles. The blur. The darkness.
Still thinking about the homeless woman, your eye catches a man sitting on the platform of the next stop. Hunched over, he's wearing a military-issued camouflage jacket. A wool cap with loose change sits in front of him. His face is long and punctuated by a scraggly brown beard. The beard curls at the end like a question mark. It's a question that appears constantly on his lips.
Any change? Can you help?
The sound of two crowds colliding bursts from the sliding doors. Yet you remain transfixed on the man. Is he a veteran? How did he get to this point? Does he have any family? Friends? You are staring so intently at him through the window that you don't notice a trio of men stalking up to him.
The color drains from the man's face. He knows these men. The first tries to snatch the wool cap full of change, but the man drops his body down on the cap like a trap. The second member of the group kicks the man in the chest. You leap to your feet. The door exiting the car has already closed.
The three are now on top of the defenseless man. They are raining down kicks and punches. Their eyes flash with malice. You keep hoping that someone, that anyone will intervene. But people keep shuffling by the violence without seeming to notice or care.
The man's back is on the ground. He tries to shield his face to no avail. You notice a growing stream of crimson running down his cheek. The train begins to pull away from the station. The leader of the group swipes the wool cap of money off the ground. He delivers one final blow to the crown of the man's hand. Your final glimpse of the shrinking scene is three men giving a mocking salute to their victim crumpled on the ground.
Then you see the blur. Then the darkness.
The young woman slides through the door sideways. Her arms are outstretched. Large bags are draped all over her. She appears weary but focused. Almost determined. As the crowd exiting for the stop thins out, you spot the source of that determination. Wrapped closely to her chest is an infant.
The mother looks for a place to land. But there is no seat to be had. There is not even enough space on the yellowed tile floor for her to lay down the burdensome bags. Standing from across the car, you see desperation quickly flash across her face before it hardens into a steely resolve.
She hunches her arms up so that the baby bag and grocery sacks inch their way up the shoulder. The baby begins to stir. The young mother tucks her head down near the child's ear and gently hums. She sways back and forth. The weight of the bags appear so great that you worry each swing of the pendulum will throw her off balance. Yet she stands firm.
Looking at her weighed down but unbowed, you wonder how she could bear such a massive weight as she traversed this city. And you marvel at how she does not unravel when her obvious needs only meet a cold silence from the strangers in that car. For a moment, you are bewildered. What is the source of such strength?
The tiny head of the infant lifts up and her eyes meet her mother's. The young woman beams. It is love that allows her to carry such a great burden. It is love that helps her press on through the weariness. It is love for that child that allows her to hold it together even if inside she is falling apart.
In that fragile moment, you see the spark of something beautiful beyond words. And for the first time in many stations you do not notice out the window there is the blur and the darkness.
The baby begins to cry. Most of the passengers cast perturbed looks at the young mother. She tries to dodge the eye daggers by leaning in close to the infant's face. But the child grows exponentially more upset. Nothing seems to work. The woman's steely resolve begins to melt as the tears form in her eyes.
Please. We're almost there. Hold on just a little longer.
A middle-aged woman gets up out of her seat and steps over to the mother. She puts a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. She smiles gently before speaking.
Here, sweetheart, let me help you with your things so you can feed your baby.
Gratitude radiates from the young mother's face. Her Good Samaritan lifts the bags off her arms and shoulders. The mother finds her way down to the bench. Her hand bracing beneath her almost as if she expects the seat to be some sort of mirage. She drapes a cover over her child and begins to nurse. The screaming stops almost immediately and a breath of relief escapes the mother's mouth.
When the infant has finished, the mother gets up just as the train pulls into the station. She looks at the woman who has helped her.
Thank you so much. This is my stop.
She reaches for the bags. But the other woman shakes her head vigorously.
This is my stop too. I'll carry it for you a bit more.
The mother smiles even as she holds back tears. The two woman exit the car. People pour in. People pour out. The doors close. Then you see the tile. The blur. The darkness.
The train pulls into another station. The crowd pours out. But as they land on the platform, their path is diverted. Standing there is a group of seven or eight women. They are all dressed in black. Each one of them is holding up a picture of the same smiling teenage boy. And your heart drops.
You have seen the picture before. It was on the news. The boy, a high school honors student, was killed in the subway just over a week ago under suspicious circumstances. Gunned down by a man who claimed the teenager robbed him. Yet eyewitness accounts and security video footage cast doubt on that story. Still the shooter had yet to be charged.
The women holding the picture are silent. Their faces resolute and yet heartbroken. You get the sense that these are mothers, aunts, grandmothers, neighbors. They had bandaged his scraped knee. They had cooked dinners for him. They had helped him with homework. They loved him. Their hopes and dreams became attached to him.
And then one day he was gone. Their love could not save him. It could not protect him. Their hopes and dreams flickered out with his life.
The woman in the center began to yell. Her dark curly hair billowed as she passionately cried out.
What happened to my son! What happened to my son! Tell me what happened to my son!
The doors to the subway car closed. As the train pulled away, her voice grew louder and louder. It continued to echo as the window gave way to the blur and the darkness.
Across the car, passengers begin to tense up. Their eyes dart to their right before trying to return again to their home. Yet like a magnet, the eyes are drawn back. Then their heads turn in an open stare. You look to see what it is, but cannot tell for the crowd.
Then you hear what sounds like a hornet's nest. A cacophony of noise on the other end with a pair of men in the middle. One towers over the other. Muscular, burly. He wears black t-shirt, jeans, and a beige coat. The other man cowers beneath him. He wears glasses. His dark beard is neatly trimmed. He has wears a button up shirt and slacks. It looks like he's of Arab descent and then you hear that is what the entire commotion is all about.
I said, "Why don't you go back to your country?"
This is my country, sir. I have lived here for nearly twenty-five years. Ever since I was a boy!
Yeah? And how do we know you haven't been waiting all that time to blow us up? Just like your jihad brothers?
Sir, my religion finds that kind of violence completely unacceptable...
And what is that religion?
I am Muslim, sir.
Your kind wants all of us dead. You hate our way of life!
That's not true, sir.
I say we take the war to you before you take it to us!
A small mob was gathered around. In horror, you watched as they roared in approval. They begin to shove the man. His glasses were knocked off. Shouts filled the car; drowning out the squealing of the brakes. When the door open, they carried him like a wave to the platform. The man tried to scream but nothing came out.
The angry mob pressed him against the wall. They stretched his arms above him. The interior continued to beat and kick him. The exterior fought off the few that dared try to help their victim. You tried to press through, but the crowd is too great. The door slides shut and your eyes meet the man's through the window. There is no anger. He is broken, defeated, resigned to his fate.
You return to your seat as an uncomfortable murmur moves through the car. You put your head in your head. You don't see the blur and the darkness. The darkness is playing out in your mind over and over like a terrible move. And across the way, you hear the man who was praying. The one whose knees were pumping like pistons.
God, have mercy.
The subway car rattles and sways. It is nearly empty now. A handful of people are scattered along the benches and a disturbed silence looms. A haunted look is in every eye. Each is trying to forget the last station, trying to forget the mob scene.
A few seats down, a whispered voice cracks into the rhythm of the rails.
The man's head was low but was peering across the way. His eyes were level at a companion sitting opposite of him. Her arms were crossed.
I have done a lot of terrible things. I was only thinking about myself and I hurt you. Those mistakes are going to plague me the rest of my life. But I'm sorry.
Her demeanor softened ever so slightly. The train began to decelerate as it pulled into the station.
Please forgive me.
Every ear was now turned toward the conversation. The only sound was the whoosh of the opening doors. The man's companion rose and walked across the divide. She stood there for what seemed like ten minutes. Finally, she reached her hand down and finally spoke.
Let's go home.
He took her hand and they left the car. The car began to fill up again and the doors closed. And there was the blur and the darkness.
Three passengers sat on a bench in the car. The young man was gripping the straps of a large duffle bag sitting at his feet. His other hand was held tightly by an older woman at his side. Her eyes were transfixed on his face with a mixture of pride, love, and concern. She was his mother. To the other side was another young man of roughly the same age. He nervously chatted with his friend.
The PA system announced the oncoming station which included the train terminal. The young man began to stand up, but his mother pulled down at his shoulder.
Mom, this is my stop.
We haven't stopped yet.
The son conceded and sat back down. When the train hissed and squealed at the stop. He stood up and embraced his mother. His friend stood awkwardly at the side.
When will you be home?
Hopefully at Christmas. Hey, mom?
The young man gestured at the friend standing behind him.
Take care of him.
Always. I love you and I'm so, so proud...
Tears cut her off. The son's eyes welled up and he nodded. They hugged again.
I love you too, mom.
He turned to his friend. They clasped hands and then hugged with their other arms.
Take care of her.
Of course, man.
With that, the young man picked up his bag and slowly exited through the doors. After the doors shut, he stood on the platform and waved to his mother and his friend until he disappeared into the blur and the darkness.
Her eyes were full of life. Her bright voice echoed through the car. Every person that took a seat next to her was greeted as a friend. Her name was Francine. She was 84 years old. She had lived in the city since she was a little girl. Her husband George had passed eighteen years ago. She had four children and thirteen grandchildren.
Anyone who sat in the car for more than a few stops could have told you all of these facts. The leisurely cadence of her voice became a pleasant white noise. As hellish as the ride had been, there was great comfort in the sound.
You hadn't noticed that her rolling conversation had ceased. She was across the car. But then another voice punctured through.
Francine? Francine! Is anyone here a doctor?!
Every eye swiveled over to the corner in which Francine had been sitting. She was slumped over against the wall. A small crowd rushed over to her side. One man was a nurse. He took her pulse and immediately began to perform CPR. He pressed on her chest and called out to her.
Come on, Francine! Hold on! You've got to see your granddaughter's graduation!
Another person had informed the train's engineer. An EMT would be waiting at the next stop. The nurse was uncertain if they would be able to do anything, but he persisted in his efforts to save her life.
The train sped towards its station. As the car hissed at the stop, the nurse took Francine's pulse one more time. His shoulders slumped.
I'm still not getting a pulse.
You stared into Francine's eyes. Once so full of life, they were now vacant. You thought about what those eyes had seen for 84 years. The hopes and the joys that had filled her vision. And you imagined all of the women and men who had been ignited by her presence over the years. In an instant, the light of her eyes was gone.
The people standing around her bowed their heads. The doors parted open and everyone stepped back so the EMTs could lift Francine's lifeless body up on to the stretcher. And she was gone. The door closed. Dazed, you stumble back to your seat. One more stop until you're home. And all was blur then darkness.
Home. All you want is home. You have seen too much pain and loss on this neverending commute. You remember their eyes: the tears, the fear, the betrayal, the resignation, the life vanishing. You have seen love and compassion as well, but brokenness has been too much. Your mind is frayed and your spirit is raw. You want to see the sky and the sun. You are tired of the darkness and harsh lights of these underground caves. You want to go home.
The train leaves the last station before your own. You see the blur and then enter the darkness of the tunnel. You exhale a sigh of relief and lean your head back against the window. You close your eyes for a moment. You hear the murmuring prayer of the young man who has been with you from that first stop.
The train lurches and your eyes shoot open to see the fluorescent lights flicker then die. The train groans as it comes to a stop. There is a crackle from the PA system. There was a mechanical failure. They are working on it, but passengers should expect a lengthy delay.
You hear a passenger swear while another lets out a sigh of exasperation. Emergency lights flash on and cast eerie shadows all over the car. You look around. Everyone looks pale, ragged. The young man praying sits across from you. His piston knees are pumping harder than they have before. Then the emergency lights fail.
You are not going home. You are trapped underground with the ghosts of all the day's heartbreak. There is no light. There is not even the blur. All is darkness.