His puffy red coat pressed close against my ratty corduroy jacket; I could almost believe I heard a sigh coming from his sleeves, as I crowded into the tiny space beside him. It was an early morning on the D train, running express over the bridge to Manhattan; I’d won the daily joust for a seat and was watching others spar for a clear space to stand, for room enough to check their phones as soon as the train went above ground because G-d forbid we miss anything even for a moment. I clutched my backpack on my lap and unzipped it, taking out a mint-green paperback, dog-eared and broken-spined.
The boy beside me glanced.
As the fireman said:
Don’t book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.
New York is full of these intimate non-intimate moments, these pressings up close against a stranger—maybe closer than you’ve been to a friend in years, maybe closer than you’ve been to a lover. In winter, the barriers of fabric keep us safe from actual skin-on-skin contact, but we take up so much more space: There is no boundary left between me and you, we’re just a single being inside the belly of a moving train, knowing each other’s business for a few minutes without even trying.
I flipped open my book. I put my finger underneath the line I was reading. I dragged it across the page. I read very slowly.
The boy beside me glanced.
As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won’t shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if you’re climbing out of yourself.
If you’re going to smash into the sky.
Reading poetry in public is not the radical act; reading poetry at all, however, most certainly is. It can take a few pages to become fluent, the language swirling and shifting before snapping into place in that secret inner-inner-ear part of your brain that seems to read things aloud to you without you needing to open your mouth. It’s quite possibly one of the most intimate things you can do, one of the most vulnerable and raw. Doing it in public simply strips away another layer of clothing, but at that point you’re already so close to naked it doesn’t really matter.
The voice pressing against that deep silent part of me was speaking of New York, was whispering about the places around me, speaking of my fears and angers and lostness in the city. Speaking to me about death and dying. I paused to stare out the window at the sky as the subway clacked across the river. I closed the cover of my book for a moment, my finger pressed down where I was reading, protecting my place.
The boy glanced over.
Many times I’ve gone past
the fifth floor,
but only once
have I gone all the way up.
small plants and swans bending
into their grave.
The train slunk back into the darkness of a tunnel; I opened to the poem and continued.
The boy took out a notebook and a pen. He cocked his head slightly to see the cover, the title, the author of what I was reading; he wrote on a fresh page, in tiny letters in the corner.
Floor two hundred:
mountains with the patience of a cat,
silence wearing its sneakers.
Floor five hundred:
messages and letters centuries old,
birds to drink,
a kitchen of clouds.
I glanced at him, watched him writing.
Floor six thousand:
skeletons on fire,
their arms singing.
The car nosed to a stop, and I stood up, closing the book and hitching my backpack over one shoulder. I turned to him as the doors swiped open, and a stream of people behind me squeezed their way out of the car.
“Here,” I said, handing him the book. “Enjoy it.”
I turned and walked out into the mysterious perpetual damp of the Canal Street station. As the train pulled away, I looked back into the car; he was already reading the first poem. He was already learning the language.
And a key,
a very large key,
that opens something—
some useful door—
“Riding the Elevator into the Sky,” by Anne Sexton