It was a Monday morning in November – temperatures had begun to slowly fall which meant that the vagrants of the city will return, once again, to shelter in the warmth of the subways.
The amount of riders increased with each stop as it made it’s way up McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn towards Manhattan and then to Queens. One of the passengers was an older lady sitting towards the front of the car. She was just as invisible as the other riders until she began to speak. At first she was simply conversing. Some thought she was speaking to them and they pulled off their headphones to listen, only to realize she was in her own world. Others just thought she was talking on her phone.
That is, until the conversation was in full swing and the world surrounding her began to merge with the world inside of her.
She was carrying on a full conversation, along with gestures, laughter and strategic pauses. She was dressed in clothing possibly from twenty or thirty years ago once worn by another woman who considered herself “Fashionable.” She had on way too much makeup – as if applied by a child playing “dress up.” Her hair is hidden beneath a woolen cap as her earrings dangle beneath the black rim.
Her looks do not suggest her to be anyone other than a harried commuter on a Monday morning. Her looks betrayed nothing of the life she has lived nor her age.
A man dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue tie walked on the train and sat across from her, oblivious to her presence. He was listening to music on his phone and was on his way to falling asleep for the next 45 minutes. He noticed her as she began to gesture wildly, he assumed that she was speaking on a bluetooth headset on her phone. She was acting quite manic and he paused the music on his phone to hear what she was saying.
“I understand that the cabbie did not want to drive all the way to Little Neck, hell even George the horny dog, wouldn’t go that far for a piece of ass, especially her smelly ass.” She began to laugh in an exaggerated manner which sent chills through him.
His eyes popped out when he heard what she said. She was speaking in a manner that suggested a failed attempt at a British or Irish accent.
She was gesticulating with each word now, her arms in the air and her words being spoken in manic speeds.
“I could not understand why the son of a bitch ignored me. Didn’t he know that I was Irene? Claudine and Albert Johnson’s daughter? He couldn’t purchase me, rent me or borrow me! Souse me up like your typical whore so he could take advantage and then leave me in the street with just a blanket from the hotel room.”
He realized now that she was talking to herself. But he was curious to hear what else she had to say. She looked his way and began to speak towards him.
“Even you know he was guilty of raping me.”
The man in the suit, whose name was Max, was lost for words and didn’t know whether he should speak or not. He kept quiet.
“Your silence speaks volumes, dear, volumes.” She then put her head against the steel arm rest and closed her eyes as if being powered down electronically.
He sat there and tried to imagine what she was talking about, but then he heard the train announce his stop and he jumped off.
The train kept filling up and seemed to provide a boost of sorts to the lady in rags. She woke up with a start.
“Aha!” She pointed to the ceiling as if catching someone in the act of some mischief. The commuter who was the recipient of that gesture jumped in shock.
“What’s your problem, lady?”
She smiled, closed her eyes as if once again powered down and disappeared into her past, which was forever her present.
Prospect Park through Broadway Lafayette
There was dust on the floor of the ballroom where Irene had once danced with the high society in a world which no longer existed. She was wearing an evening gown, standing up straight, high heels and her red hair all done up for an occasion. She was the daughter of Albert and Claudine Johnson, residing in Greenwich, Connecticut. The Johnsons presumably had royal lineage but to whom no one ever knew.
She was walking through the ballroom and could hear the music playing. It was 1925 and she was a promiscuous 16 year old, playing chess with human hearts; using them as pawns, breaking one at a time. She loved her scotch neat; even in the hottest days of summer she would place her lips on the glass or a bottle and feel the heat making it’s way down from her mouth through her throat and then dispersing throughout her chest. She also loved both men and women; her reputation had spread mansion to mansion in her hometown and to the summer resorts where she spent most of July and August.
The lady in rags awoke with a jump startling the people who were standing around her and sitting next to her.
“Don’t leave, father, don’t leave. We can do without – we can do without it all. Please.” She was screaming now and flailing her arms as if trying to stop something invisible from leaving. Her eyes closed and she was silent.
In 1929 her father had lost every last penny he had accumulated throughout his lifetime. He owed money he would never be able to pay back again. His business was finished, his portfolio was burnt and all his properties were lost. Even his study, in his house in Greenwich, where he had entertained so many was lost. Rented out to a college student for the semester. He had no more options left. His pride, his joy and his reason for living was over. He was a failure and he could not face his children as a fallen man.
It was Irene, as a child, who walked in to see her father lying in a pool of blood beneath his desk. Irene was never the same after that night. The visions of her father being wheeled away with her praying it was all a bad dream only to wake up to an even worse reality.
“Don’t leave, father, don’t leave. We can do without – we can do without it all. Please.”
Jay Street Metrotech
Irene moved with her siblings and her mother to their grandparents home in Brooklyn. It was there that her mother met and married a single father of four boys. She was 19 years old at that time and was always reading stories about the Flapper girls. She had a job as a factory worker during the weekdays and at night she would waitress in a small diner three times a week. She dreamed of meeting the man who would sweep her away from Brooklyn and take her away from the stepfather and brothers who each would come to her bed at night.
When she turned 20 years she moved out of her mother’s home and into a boarding house in lower Manhattan. It was there she met Margaret.
“I loved her more than anyone should love anyone.” The lady began to cry. The lady next to her tried to console her but Irene was violently inconsolable. So consolation came in extra space in a very crowded train. Margaret made it a habit to give her a flower each time they would make love and Irene would keep it with her as long as the flower lasted.
Irene and Margaret would drink together, go out to parties, speakeasies and lived a life of freedom. They would come back to the boarding house and retire to their room. They worked together, slept together and shared men together. They saved money and were planning on moving to California when Margaret began to cough.
She looked over at the woman standing close to her and said, as if in mid conversation; “She left me in 1936. She was coughing blood. We stopped drinking, smoking and whatever just to get her better. We went to church and the Father said she was doomed to die because of her sins.” The lady nodded in recognition as if she was in on the story. She didn’t speak or understand a word of english.
When Margaret died, on Christmas Eve 1936, Irene screamed at the priest who gave Margaret her last rites. Margaret’s parents were there along with her siblings. They didn’t speak or look at Irene.
As the train rolled into Delancey Street Irene screamed, “Love is never a sin – it’s judgment and haughty behavior that will doom you all.” She then powered down as the train stopped and the commuters left the train.
The old lady opened her eyes, saw a man carrying a box and jumped in her seat and spoke.
“It wasn’t her death that killed a little bit of myself inside, it was Father Coughlin who judged us and threw our souls into the fire along with the murderers and the thieves.”
The man who was carrying the box, dropped it and was spooked. He picked up the box and walked away from her towards the other end of the train.
World War Two followed and she found herself living in North Carolina in 1941 outside of Fort Bragg. She had taken a lover in Frank Coleto; he was the owner of the Diner where Irene found work. He was 50 years old at the time and she was 42. She went to the Doctor afte feeling sick for a couple of weeks and found out she was pregnant. Frank was not a happy man when she told him. He already had three grandchildren to go along with four children.
Thirty Fourth Street – Herald Square
As the train rolled into 34th Street she jumped up and screamed, “No, I will not kill this baby – i’d rather kill you.”
The man standing in front of her was waiting for the train to stop so he could get off, he jumped and pushed his way out as soon as the doors opened.
She left Fort Bragg on an overnight train to New York City. She moved into her sister’s house in Brooklyn slept on a couch in the basement. She gave birth to her daughter and named her Margaret. During the birth the doctor needed to perform a C-Section – she was in bad shape for several days and was kept in the hospital for three weeks. In the meantime her sister brought home Margaret and stopped visiting Irene. She took legal custody of the baby and had Irene admitted to a mental hospital. Irene never recovered from the betrayal and ended up staying in the hospital, sedated for the next twenty years.
It was 1971 when she finally met her daughter. Margaret. She was working at a Diner in Brooklyn, living in a studio apartment on Ocean Parkway and repressing her past so she could live in the present. He daughter was a single mother of 3 boys; her husband had gone on a business trip and never returned. Irene’s sister was dying and had confessed to Margaret that she was not her actual mother. It took some time but she found Irene, who was living around the corner from her the whole time.
A crazy snowstorm hit New York City in January of 1977 – it was that night that Margaret and her children were in a car accident and were in bad condition. Irene could not handle the stress and jumped in front of a train on Kings Highway. Fortunately for her a good samaritan grabbed her and pulled her to safety. She was sent to a mental hospital where she remained until a month or so ago.
She had no recollection of meeting her daughter or her Grandchildren; they came out of the hospital and kept visiting her. The majority of the times when she was cognizant of her surroundings and who she was – was during the night. She would lay awake, try and figure out where she was and then she would remember. Several times they found her by the side of the road trying to hitch a ride; by that time she was back to being in the dark once again. She would need to be sedated and brought back to her room – content in her oblivion.
How she found her way out of the Bronx hospital and into the subway system is still a mystery. She was in her own world and never hurt anyone; although she did seem kind of threatening at times.
They found her sleeping on the train at the Jamaica–179th Street station when the conductor went to make sure all the passengers had disembarked. They brought her to the hospital and Margaret had arrived within a couple of hours.
“Mother…” She watched as her mother slipped away and was forever in a suspended state of time. Her fist was closed tight – but Margaret saw that there was a stem extending past her fist. She pulled open her hand and a flower fell from her grasp, onto the ground and in pieces – petals spread and stem into dust.