The subways in New York have been described as miserable. Crowded. But there is something beautiful about them. There is so much life concentrated in one place. Energy, activity. Even with the jostling and shoving, there seems to be a rhythm to the movement. To me, it was like music with heavy background static. When you got past the initial layer of sounds, smells, and grime, there was something simple and melodic about it. It was routine.
After the first week of taking the 3 train from Harlem to Times Square, it became a fixture in my life. There was a man with brown hair that stood in the same spot by the door every time. He had a rotation of his ties. Navy, black, teal, grey. Navy, black, teal, grey.
There was a woman with dark red hair and diamond-drop earrings who was always tap-tap-tapping her long french-tip fingernails on something. Her purse, her speech notes, the frames of her cat-eye glasses. She walked with a purpose.
There was the blonde girl with hair that seemed to jump wherever it wanted. She always had an overflowing tote bag with paintbrushes and colored tubes. Her grey eyes constantly scanned in every direction. There were little specks of paint on her denim jacket, which had a little American flag pin stuck haphazardly on the unfolded collar. Her shoes had sunflowers painted on them. She shifted from foot to foot and practically skipped off the train when it reached Times Square.
Other people came and went, but those 3 were always there on the train. I wondered whether anyone observed me, as I observed them. What patterns did I have?
Another few weeks passed. The man with brown hair had upgraded his rotation to include a dark purple tie. The woman with the tapping fingernails now wore a little name tag with her name on it. Isabella Zatrinski. Her head seemed to tilt a few degrees higher.
The painter girl remained mostly the same. Dark circles appeared and disappeared below her eyes, but her sunflower shoes stayed bouncing from foot to foot.
Another week and another fixture came to the 3 train. This was a tall and thin boy with blue hair that flopped in front of his eyes. A permanent smile seemed to be affixed to his freckled face. He was usually talking on the phone, laughing. One day he had spoken to the blonde girl.
“What’s your name?”
“America Salem Sawyer.” she had replied, a little quieter.
“Can you paint, America Salem Sawyer?” He asked excitedly.
The corner of her mouth wiggled slightly. “Yes.”
“Can you paint me?”
She shrugged and then nodded a little. He ruffled around in his pockets for a second and then gave her a crumpled 20 dollar bill. America Salem Sawyer put the money in her sunflower shoe and skipped off the train at Times Square.
The next day, and in fact for a few days after that, the boy had asked her every day,
“America Salem Sawyer, is my painting done?”
And every day she would reply, “Not yet.”
Finally, she had replied by handing over a rolled-up canvas to the blue-haired boy, who decided to unroll it immediately. The people on the train, who had slowly become invested in the situation, all seemed to move closer to see it. Under the perfect replica of the boy’s face, all in bright colors, were swooping cursive letters spelling out “America Salem Sawyer.”
Someone started clapping, and all at once the entire car was filled with thundering applause.
The brown-haired man, wearing a navy tie today, produced a crisp folded $20 bill and said,
“I would love it if you could do a commission for my daughter.”
She looked surprised. “Do you have a picture?”
The man took out a small card from his wallet and handed it to her.
She still looked shell-shocked.
“It’s her birthday in a few days…?” The man added quite unnecessarily.
America nodded and took both the money and the picture, putting the picture in the bag and the money in her shoe.
The next day the blue-haired boy was gone. America had looked around, the question seemed to be stuck in her mouth, waiting to burst out. After about a minute, she shook her head briefly as if to clear it.
Another few days passed and the blue-haired boy had not returned. America had distractedly handed the painting and picture card to the man who was now wearing a purple tie.
The woman with the diamond-drop earrings - Isabella Zatrinksi - had also asked for a painting, and another $20 bill was now in America’s sunflower shoe.
The seasons changed. Early summer had already morphed into early fall. The blue-haired boy had never returned. The brown-haired man had expanded his collection to seven ties. Isabella Zatrinski’s fingers now tapped exclusively on the back of her phone case as she took call after call. Yet still, America wore that same paint-spattered denim jacket with the tilted flag pin, and she still carried that overflowing tote bag, and every day she nervously shifted from foot to foot in her sunflower-painted shoes.
On the last warm day of that year, America gave me a rolled-up canvas right before she got off the train. I had never paid her. I had never asked her. I had never even spoken to her.
“Good luck on your novel,” she said as she bounced away on her sunflower shoes.
I came to the train the next day with money ready in hand. But she didn’t go on the train that day, nor the day after. I searched for her everywhere in Times Square. I never saw her again.
Isabella Zatrinski must have risen past the need to take a train out of Harlem. The brown-haired man? His tie count had increased so much that I couldn’t track the rotation anymore, and he, too, stopped taking the 3 train.
The painting America gave me hangs on the wall of my apartment. To this day I don’t know what happened to her, where she and her sunflower shoes went, why she didn’t ask for any payment, and how she knew I was writing a novel. Sometimes I wonder as I look up at her signature whether America Salem Sawyer was just as observant as me.