People say that the city never sleeps. Granted, the streets seem to pulse with an incessant stream of life. During the morning—the busiest part of the day—businessmen, students, and the occasional cluster of tourists flow down the sidewalk, converting the cement pavement into a one- way stream of bobbling heads. It stems off of the adjacent river of cars, trucks and bikes in which even more people travel untiringly until they arrive at their destination: a soaring building off to the side.
Most return to their apartments around the 5 o’clock rush, and the cacophony of horns honking and wheels grinding against the asphalt transforms into a faint roar that lulls city natives to sleep; however, the city is kept awake and alert by ambitious, type- A workers. Their office lights stay on well into the midnight hours; from the streets, their windows are artificial stars that illuminate the sky.
College students take advantage of their newfound freedom and return to the streets for an unpredictable night out. Hours later, some of the college kids stumble out of the clubs, young and foolish and drunk on either life or alcohol. Yet, simultaneously, they harbor such an ineffable aura of invincibility—or as close to invincibility as a mere human can attain.
But most of the people on the streets in the nebulous hours between dawn and dusk are not leaving a party or a work office nor progressing towards home; they wander because they have no home. They wait on doorsteps or on street corners for the sun, which will lure the rest of the city out once again.
Seemingly, the city never sleeps.
Yet, part of it lays dormant at night.
I am one of the students whose head can be seen weaving in and out of the morning throng, and occasionally, I’m one of the blithe college kids leaving the club with my arms linked around my friends’ elbows. I navigate the streets with ease and can successfully hail a cab. After almost four months in the Big Apple, I have integrated myself into the vivacious city atmosphere. Like I thought, I have a propensity for the city life. I was made for New York.
But as much as I try to blend in, I have the eyes of a foreigner—and this enables me to see the parts of the city that natives unintentionally overlook.
My phone buzzes in my bag, and I dig through my books to find my phone. I give the screen a cursory glance. A picture of my mom smiles back at me. Without hesitation, I press “ignore”, and continue my brisk walk to the train station.
With what seems like the population of the whole city, I finally descend into the metro station and flood into the train when it screeches to a halt. I’m sandwiched between an exhausted mother with a child clinging onto her legs and a stereotypical businessman, attired in a formal suit and Rolex. The businessman laughs boisterously into his phone. “Yes, I had to work pretty late tonight. My latest project has kept me busy. But don’t worry; I’m taking the next few days off so that I can be home in time.” On my other side, the mother tries to quell her querulous son with promises. “You can have all the pie you want when we go to grandma’s, but no ice cream right now.”
Each time the door opens, cool air blows in and people trickle out of the subway like sand out of a sieve. Eventually, the jolly businessman exits the train at one stop and the mother with her child at the next. The lively shouts and laughter, the constant honks and beeps leave with them. The warmth leaves with them. I’m left with the empty, robotic whirring of wheels against the track. It’s a sound that the others on the train—the natives—don’t even register because it’s become like background music to them that plays throughout their day; however, I am very familiar with it.
Slowly but surely, I watch part of New York City fall asleep.
I share the subway with one lone, elderly man. Although he can’t be past sixty years old, his face is long, wrinkled and worn. In fact, his whole presence feels tired; he slouches and hangs over his clasped hands as if he long lost interest in looking others in the eyes and carrying himself with dignity. He wears a double- button pea coat that could have once been impressive and quality but is now shabby around the edges. The bottom button is missing, like the eyes of an old, dear stuffed animal that has been forgotten about long ago. His neatly combed salt- and- pepper hair seems like a façade—his halfhearted attempt to conceal his weariness.
“So, have you any plans for this Thanksgiving?”
I look away from him, startled that he caught me in the midst of my examination of him, and then slowly look back. This time, his head is raised towards me. The garish lights cast long shadows and emphasize the folds in his face and bags beneath his eyes. I smile politely. “No, just staying in the city.”
“Well, why aren’t ‘cha going home?” The man’s voice is gravelly and almost echoes in the train.
I rashly toss aside anything I learned about not talking to strangers. “What makes you so sure that I don’t live here?”
He lifts a long, bony finger at me. “Your sweater, miss.”
I look down to check what I’m wearing, and blush when I see my NYU crewneck. Half annoyed that this man soiled my efforts to fully assimilate to New York City so easily, I pull my coat over my sweater to hide the outfit I chose in the 6 a.m. darkness.
“Excuse me for asking, but why aren’t you returning home for the holiday?”
I cross my arms, my annoyance growing. The man’s questions begin to feel like an interrogation. “I have my own personal reasons.”
He stares at me before finally returning his concentration to his intertwined hands. They look like a knot of gnarled roots. I avoid his eyes until he clears his throat. “I know a boy who had big dreams.”
“What are you talking about?” I consider the fact that I might be talking to a maniac or an insane homeless man.
“Just listen. I think it’ll do you some good.”
I pause. I’ll only be on the train another few minutes at most. “So, what about this boy?”
The corner of his mouth tugs up into a slight grin. “Yes, the boy. Well, he was a dreamer. Oh, he strove for the stars since he was born and never set his eyes anywhere else. When he was just a little kid, he dreamt of being an astronaut like all other boys. When he grew up though, he kept dreaming. This time, he wanted to be a film director. He was given a camera one Christmas, and well,” he chuckles and smiles wistfully. “He locked himself in his room for the rest of the day. He made a stop motion video using his action figures and RC cars. He was so proud of that video.”
“Sorry,” I intervene. “Is there a point to this story? Like a moral or lesson?”
He stares at me pointedly. “Just listen.” He holds his stare, and I lower my head in resignation.
He continues, but his pensive tone has faded. It’s melancholy. Frail. “But his father crushed his dreams. He was so persistent and stubborn about his son following in his footsteps. He was part of a law firm. Very successful lawyer, and he was also extremely cocky about being a Harvard law school alumnus. Obviously, his son didn’t want to be a chip off the old block. Even as a high school senior, he still had his sights on going to Hollywood to pursue his dreams. His father forbade him. Told him that he better study law. If he left for California, he wasn’t welcome home. Well, after finishing senior year, he was off on the first plane to Hollywood, leaving his family to wonder about what became of him.”
The man draws his story to a close and once again I can only hear the low whistle of the train wheels. I stare at him again, this time not looking away when he lifts his chin. He no longer seems like a rambling old man—rather, he is teeming with knowledge. His numerous wrinkles are indicative of old age, but of hardship and experience. After hearing the whole story, my irritation melts into a sense of connection.
The train stops. We finally reached the end of the line.
I find my wallet inside my bag. I only have a twenty dollar bill, and I’ll need it tomorrow, but I pull it out anyways. “Here, sir, I want you to take this.”
He looks at the outstretched bill with surprise and pushes my hand back. “No need to call me ‘sir’; just call me Teddy.”
Seeing that he won’t willingly accept the money, I place it in his lap. “Sorry for being so rude earlier; I really enjoyed your story. I hope you have a good Thanksgiving, Teddy.”
I turn to leave the train, but balk just short of the sliding doors. After some hesitation, I face the man one last time. “I can’t leave without asking you something.”
His expression of surprise hasn’t left his face. “Go right ahead, miss.”
I subconsciously squeeze my hands into fists and think of the last conversation I had with my mom. “Do you ever regret leaving your family? Just cutting them out from your life,” I look anxiously to the old man for an answer, “even though they disrespected your dreams?”
He plays with the string that once sewed a button onto his pea coat. After a thoughtful moment, he finally answers. “I wouldn’t know,” he says, “I was the one left behind.” He stands up, and for the first time I notice something behind his legs. It’s a slim briefcase with words engraved on it in the bottom right corner:
- THEORDORE B. MULLIGAN
MULLIGAN AND ASSOCIATES
He presses my money into my hand. “I appreciate the thought, but don’t rush to assumptions; Harvard law, remember?” Picking up his briefcase, he nods at me. “This is my stop, and I’m quite sure it’s yours too. Now, be safe in the dark, miss, and rush on home. Enjoy your Thanksgiving.”
After he leaves, I stare at his back until it disappears. Finally alone on the train in the midst of the one sleepy part of New York City, I pull out my phone from my bag and bring up my call history. My mom first called two weeks after I arrived at NYU. As I continued to neglect her calls, her attempts became more frequent. Eventually, I felt no guilt from clicking “ignore” each time. She was as angry with me for leaving as I was with her for preventing me from doing so. I planned on supporting myself. I saved a good amount of money before coming to New York and was going to look for some work right after arriving; however, plans are hardly ever that simple.
I step out of the train, close my eyes and exhale before clicking “call”. The button brings up her photo ID. In the picture I have of her, she’s smiling so genuinely and her eyes crinkle at the side. The sun reflects off of her wavy brown hair. I remember that day pleasant spring afternoon; she had been working for a good hour or two, so I brought out a glass of cold lemonade for her. She laughed, pleased by my surprise, and I pulled out my phone and captured that joy in a photo. Each time she called, I saw that smile, frozen in time. Never before did I imagine her actual face on the other side of the phone line after I hung up on every call.
The other end clicks, and I quickly bring my phone to my ear.
“Hello? Avery, is that you?” Relief drips from her voice.
I walk out of the train station and back into the bustling night. People push past me, not giving me a second glance. They navigate the city streets like a map, so focused on reaching that “X- marks- the- spot”.
Looking up, I notice that a few stars have broken through the darkness and thick layer of city pollution; they’re the first I’ve seen in four months. And in that moment, I think about how they’re brighter than any skyscraper’s windows could ever be and how some nights I can’t fall asleep to the sound of traffic and how utterly and intensely I crave my grandma’s pumpkin pie.
Grace Shen is a high school sophomore in Cherry Hill. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and drawing. She plays piano outside of school and clarinet for her school’s band and also partakes in other clubs such as student government, the school newspaper, and her school’s Science Olympiad team.