We had to ask people for directions. The train had the same chemical scent that the buses had. Tired-looking people sat in them. Working people with their train passes dangling around their necks. They were the ones who rode this train regularly. We would come to know the look of them well. They rode the same routes five days a week. They slept with their arms crossed and their chins tucked into their necks and would wake up seconds before their stops. Like clockwork, they would catch those minutes of rest before they had to bring themselves up out of the plastic and polyester seats, out of the train, and into the world again.
Then there were the teenagers. Dressed to the nines in their Jordans and their big t-shirts or their tight jeans and shaggy hair. They traveled in groups of at least three and their laughter and joking filled up the entire train with life. It was hard not to watch them. Some seemed like they didn’t even notice that they were on a train full of people, some of whom were looking at them with judging eyes. Others acted out and laughed freely, but I could see in their eyes that they were performing, in a way. That they knew they were being watched and meant to send out a specific signals to those who saw them– sometimes it was I am here, and desirable, and you want me, and sometimes it was I honestly don’t care at all what you think of me right now. The youths had a hardness around their edges. The ones we saw were the ones who had to take the train. Whose parents didn’t buy them cars because they couldn’t. They were the ones who sat on the trains with the urgency of wanting to one day no longer ride them. They were the ones who sat on the trains and took every drop of their youth seriously, who meant to make the most of every moment because they knew that one day, they would be on these trains, with tired eyes, riding these routes in the early morning and at night five days a week, and they wanted to have fond memories of a time before the train became a moving prison.
The thing about this city is that there is so much more than what we were shown about it. What we were always shown was the violence and the hate or the excess and the ridiculous. We were always shown that this place is different from anything we’ve ever known. We were shown that these people would be incredibly different from us. We were shown that if you were not being killed by drive-bys and gang violence, that you would be killed by your own success, drugs, partying.
We found that there was so much in-between. Eve always knew. Of course she always knew. She was the one who chose this city. She was the one who wanted to find out for herself what it was like. She was the one who could not allow herself to believe everything she was told about it. She never believed everything she was told. She had a filter for the lies. She knew that there was something more. She was always aware that there was something more to find.
So it was her who had first asked someone on the train how to get to where we wanted to go. I strained my eyes and my mind staring at the routes on the wall, trying to figure it out. I had a vague idea by the time Eve leaned over to the older, gray-haired black man sitting in front of us and asked him how to get to downtown. He smiled and told us.
It was so easy to get lost with her. So easy to trust people. She had a kind of trust for others that most people reserve for people they have known for longer than a minute. A kind of trust that some people never have, even for those closest to them. She was never afraid, though she was cautious. She always seemed to find the right person to speak to.
We got on a train heading northward. The occupants were equally as tired as the people the previous train, the previous bus. There were more of them, it seemed. We watched the skyline come closer and closer. And suddenly we had arrived at another platform and we were inside it. We were in the city.
Eve, ever adventurous, decided when we should stop and get off the train for the evening. By that time, dusk was settling in and the only thing that pushed back my anxiety was the fact that together, we would find a place to stay for the night. Our bags were a bit heavier and I was beginning to get tired. Eve still had her eyes bright. She took my bag, too. Slung it over her shoulder and took my hand with that smile that always convinced me everything would be alright.
She didn’t exactly know where we were going. I followed. Our eyes darted everywhere. The buildings were taller here. There were a few trees along the street. Cracked sidewalk that showed that the roots were trying to rise up through the concrete. Traffic lights and cars. Fenced-off construction sites here and there. She chose a direction and went.
We walked for a what felt like a long time. The feeling of the streets changed after a few blocks. We found ourselves on a theater-lined street. Their lights were old, still hanging on after decades of being mostly ignored. Most of the shops were closed. There were a few neon lights offering liquor to the weary to help them forget their day, their worries, their lives. The men outside smoking barely noticed us then. No catcalls. One man asked us what we were doing, where we were going, some concern in his face. Eve smiled at him and said we were fine, and we walked swiftly past him.
We kept walking. We found ourselves in a part of the city which was less worn down, but felt older. Eve stopped us abruptly again in the middle of crossing the street. She stood at the center of the crosswalk. We looked north. We looked south. The buildings rose up around us. It felt good. We felt small, and it did not frighten us. There were lights on.
Again came the sense that we were on the edge of discovering what we had come looking for. There were some people around. Some walking out bars. Younger, carrying with them the sense of worldliness that came from dwelling in this part of the city at night.
We saw a tall, old hotel that boasted furnished apartments with weekly rates. We had what felt like not enough money to stay there for very long. Eve did not worry. She said that we could stay for the week, learn more about this place, and eventually find someplace that we could imagine staying for longer.
We walked into the lobby. There were a few newspapers strewn along a table against the wall. A security guard sat bored by the door, his eyes alert. The man at the counter was surprised to see us. We must have looked a sight, two girls holding a couple of over-stuffed bags, in clothes that clearly broadcast that we were not from anywhere near the hotel. Bright fluorescent lights buzzed above us. We filled out the forms and Eve handed him a credit card. We went up into our new apartment with no expectations.