The 1 Train
Running down the subway station stairs with an injured German Shepherd in my arms would be a lot easier if there weren’t so many damn people rushing with me. You would think the middle of the week would be slower but New York City in the summer is smothered with tourists; it’s not the heat that suffocates you, but the pulsating crowds of backpacks and cameras, the air filled with car honks and foreign languages.
Tourists are the exact reason why I was making my way to midtown when the accident happened. It involved three rented bicycles and one of those damn yellow cabs. And Rex.
The turnstile is a challenge, as is pulling the wrinkled MetroCard from one of my many pockets. Rex is yelping in my ear, and not the cute, soft yelps that he makes when he wants more of my morning croissant, but a high-pitched screaming that somehow sits perfectly between human and beast.
“I know, I know,” I say, shifting him up and over the metal bars, pushing my hip into them so that we get through in one piece. This station – 66th and 9th – is the cleanest on the 1 line, the only line I’ll take when I deign to ride in the subway cars. I’d rather walk.
Walking, though, is not a choice today. We’ve only gone ten blocks and already my arms are aching from Rex’s limp weight, his fur making my arms slick with sweat so that when I readjust his body, I’m in danger of losing my grip. There are a handful of others waiting for the train but they’re just objects in my periphery. As I sink on one of the wooden benches, Rex finally quiets to harsh whimpers as I stop moving, but when he breathes it sounds as if he’s choking. As if he’sswallowing water when I know he’s not.
“You’ll be okay,” I tell him through quick pants of my own. “We’ll be fine. We’re just going to get down to Drew and he’ll fix everything, won’t he? Yes, he will.” Talking doesn’t help calm my nerves but I do it anyway; I can feel the other people on the platform staring at us. I’m wearing a blue and silver backpack that is so stuffed it’s making me lean forward so that the waistband of my jeans digs into my gut. “You’re heavy, bud,” I say and Rex’s ears twitch, tongue out the side of his mouth, hot breaths making my already sticky skin even more gooey.
Rex’s blood is on my shirt and now it’s on my pants too, soaking into the denim like acid, burning me in more ways than one. I wipe the blood from his mouth with the hem of my shirt, trying not to let my racing heart get the better of me. This dog has been at my side for two years and now he’s bleeding out on my lap. Every couple minutes his body heaves and he hacks up blood, letting it drip from his lips before I get the chance to wipe it away. There’s something wrong with his back legs too; the cab must have done something to his spinal cord when it swerved to avoid the bikers and clipped Rex. Now he’s like Warren from 51st Street who was paralyzed in the Korean War and spends his days like I do – begging for money without trying to look like we’re begging. Except that Warren is stuck in his rusted out wheelchair and I get to walk around.
“Yo, what’s wrong with it?” There’s a kid in front of me, a teenager really, at least ten years younger than myself. He nods to Rex with his face scrunched up, a gold necklace gleaming on the outside of a plain white t-shirt. He’s got a backpack too but it’s probably jammed with school supplies, not the only belongings he possesses. I curl even further around Rex, as if this can shield him.
“He got hit by a car.”
“He don’t look so good.”
Thank goodness for the rattle of the train approaching. I stand, jostling Rex again, who yelps, and the kid jumps away, which annoys me. It’s not like my dog is going to attack him; he can hardly move, and yet I’m the one being glared at as a man in a business suit waits beside me to board. To my surprise, the kid waits
for everyone else to get on and then he holds the door for me so it won’t shut on Rex. The 1 train isn’t usually crowded but this car is pretty full and there’s nowhere to sit down. Panic swells in me just as the train lurches into motion like a racehorse from the starting gate. The rude kid from the platform grabs my elbow as I almost topple over.
“Yo, this guy’s dog is dying, let him put it down!” First my elbow, then my whole body plus Rex follows him as he tugs me over to one of the full benches. “Look at how pathetic that is,” he says, gesturing to me. “A homeless man and his dying dog, you ain’t gonna give up your seat for that?”
One young woman stands up quickly and moves to the other end of the car. The other two – a man and woman – relax when she leaves, but it’s not good enough for my new friend. “That’s it?” he says. “One little seat for all this? C’mon people where is your compassion?” They move.
“Thanks,” I mumble, keeping my head down because as nice as it is to have some help, animals aren’t allowed on the subway and I don’t want to draw unwanted attention. As I arrange Rex in my lap, my stomach lurches when I realize the sharpness sticking into my arm is coming from Rex. I look down to see something white – not something, I know what it is – protruding. I gag.
“No problem, man,” the kid is saying. “I’m Tyrone, but you can call me Ty. My sister has one of those teacup poodles, ya know? Stupid thing doesn’t shut up when the doorbell rings, but man, she loves that dog.” Without warning, he reaches out a hand – a matching gold bracelet loops around his wrist – and pats Rex’s head. The dog whimpers but sticks out his tongue. “Aaayyy,” Ty crows even as Rex leaves a streak of blood on his palm. “He likes me!”
Rex likes just about everyone, but I don’t tell Ty that because the kid is the only thing keeping people from bumping into me. Ty stands in front of us like a prison guard, his eyes up and searching for potential trouble but his voice friendly. “I’ve seen you around,” he continues, glaring at a red-haired businessman who is eyeing the half-open seat next to me. “You come up here often?”
“Every day,” I say. “Rex and I get our morning coffee and head to the park, then start downtown for the day.” Downtown because only sympathetic tourists give money to the homeless, and no matter how clueless and ignorant they can be, I survive on their generosity. To every person who hands me a pocket of change or a dollar, I want to explain I wasn’t always this way, that the drink got the best of me just like my father. Instead, I nod and keep my eyes to the ground; they seem to expect that anyway.
“He looks like one of those police dogs,” Ty says, nodding at Rex. “Like the ones that chase down the perps on TV. You know, they climb fences and shit.”
“Not Rex,” I say, sinking a hand into the warm fur and massaging the space between Rex’s collarbones, the place I know he loves the best. His muzzle is lying in the crook of my elbow and he sighs just once, still panting while my breath has returned to normal. “He was my dad’s dog.”
“That’s cool,” Ty says, and then raises his head as the subway stops. “Columbus Circle, you getting off?” I shake my head, rolling the thick fur in between my fingertips, trying to gather calmness in the familiar sensation.
I’ll ride this train almost to the end of the line, where I’ll get off in the swanky celebrity neighborhood of Tribeca, because that’s where our only chance of hope works. It might seem dumb for a homeless guy to have an animal, and trust me, I’m the last person who thought I’d end up with an eighty pound German Shepherd at my side, but that’s the way life went. My dad died and I sold everything to pay the debts, everything except Rex. He’s the only thing I kept and that’s because he was already so old that no one else was going to take him.
Plus, he kept following me around at the funeral, pawing at my nicest pair of jeans like my pockets were full of hamburgers.
It’s just him and me against the city.
Now it’s him and me and Ty.
The kid has made it his own personal mission to make sure no one bothers us. “Move along, move along,” he tells the Columbus Circle folk as they stop and stare. “No seats over here, just a man and his dog.”
“No dogs on the subway,” an older woman with a bright orange scarf grumbles. This causes Ty to puff up his chest.
“Well, this ain’t a normal dog. He’s dying. What if your dog were dying, huh? You gonna just walk him downtown to the vet? Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Scarf-lady mumbles something under her breath, but glances away and when we stop at 50th Street, she gets off and moves to the next car over.
“Man, people are rude,” Ty tells me. Yeah, so says the guy who keeps announcing my dog is dying. I lean forward to check on Rex; he hasn’t yelped lately and his breathing has quieted some. I’m hoping this is a good sign, but when I see his eyes closed, dread pools in my stomach like rainwater. And even though I’m pretty sure his spine is broken and you shouldn’t even move injuries like that, I shake him. Hard.
“Rex, come on bud,” I say, voice soft as I bend towards his ear. “Stay awake.” I slide him onto the two seats next to me, his front paws scrabble for purchase on the plastic seats. Grabbing onto the thick fur around his neck, I hold tight. “Don’t you dare,” I say, whispering now because I don’t want everyone to hear the splinter in my voice. Guys don’t cry over dogs. Especially dogs they didn’t even like a couple years ago and dogs that belonged to their drunk of a father. As if he heard, Rex turns his chocolate eyes on me and nudges my chin with his nose.
“Yeah,” I say, smiling through lips that feel too dry to stretch. “That’s right.”
“Hey.” Tyrone is squatting next to me. “I got a question. Why you going all the way downtown to a vet?”
“I’m not going to a vet, I’m going to see Drew.”
“Is Drew your man?”
“Sure,” I say, even though I don’t know what that means. “Drew fixes things.” Drew’s just a doorman turned friend that will sometimes give me a place to sleep on his hotel steps, or drop off a plastic bag full of supplies when he knows I’m running low.Then we’re at 42nd Street and the tourists stampede like wildebeests being chased by a lion, as if this is only train for the rest of the day, as if another one isn’t going to show up in two minutes. These people are bogged down by shopping bags and exhausted feet, slouching from the heat but exhilarated all the same because hell, they’re in New York City, The City of Dreams and all that shit.
If they only knew.
Ty stands up, prepared.
“Yo, we got an injured dog over here,” he says, flashing me a smile as if to say ain’t I good at this? “So if you all could respect the space, I’d appreciate it.” This time the smile is for them and it does the trick; the series of awws that resound are plentiful, and the bustle stays away from me. Away from Rex.
His eyes are closed again, but this time I don’t shake him, just trace the point of his ear with one finger, let my hand slide down and cradle his paws that have grown rough from constant pavement contact. The warmth has seeped from them and the pads are cool on my palm. It’s painfully ironic that the one who usually keeps me warm is now so cold. I squeeze and let go, staring at the delicate eyelashes I’ve never noticed before. I didn’t even know dogs had eyelashes, but Rex does; they are golden and perfect and goddamn, these eyelashes are going to make me cry.
This dog was the one by my side when my wife threw me out and he was by my side the first time I had to sleep outside. He’s an extra blanket in the winter, an extra pair of eyes to watch my backpack, the only pair of eyes to guard me while I sleep. Now I am kneeling on the floor of a subway car while he melts away from me, slipped through my fingers as easily as water over rocks.
There’s a hand on my shoulder and I know it’s Ty, because who else would be touching me, and yet I can’t bring myself to look up. Rex’s breathing is all funny now and I know. I know, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Dude, dogs are man’s best friend.”
Tyrone – just a random kid I met half an hour ago on a subway station – probably isn’t trying to sound all philosophical; he probably said the first thing that popped into his head. All the same, a part of me not present at the moment appreciates his gesture, even if I can’t show it. I’m too busy stroking Rex’s muzzle, rubbing the spot over his nose that always made his tail wag. Today it lies as limp as the rest of him.
I haven’t been homeless that long, not compared to some, but I’ve known what it feels like to be alone since practically forever, and never once have I cried about it. Tears don’t solve anything, that’s what my father used to say, and he’s right: they don’t. But there’s a pressure in my chest now, building right behind my ribs and making it hard to breathe, making it hard to even focus on anything except how soft the fur under my hand is. How soft and how still. Somehow I’m packed in a train full of people and yet no one else is here.
So even though guys don’t cry over dogs, I do.