The People on Buses and Trains

This is the first entry in City Mouse, a new column by Morley Musick. —eds

For several years I tried to be a journalist. But I didn’t like the constraints of the medium: the ledes, the nut grafs, the quotes, the obligation to tell the truth. What I really wanted to be was a 19th-century journalist, which is to say, hardly a journalist at all—just someone who wanders around a city recording trivial observations and inventing lies.

I can’t find it now, but in an old Irish newspaper that a friend once showed me, there was a seven-sentence-long story about abandoned dogs fighting on Chicago’s Clark Street Bridge. Most of the article is a description of the snow on the bridge and the river barges passing underneath. The article had a lovely atmosphere and concluded with a sober warning to readers: “Best to stay away from that bridge.” Now this was the kind of thing I had wanted to write. 

I’ll be covering a range of occurrences and cultural and political events in Chicago, New York, and other places. If there is an event you think I should write about, or anything else you’d like to say, I would be very glad to hear from you: musickmorley0814@gmail.com.

This past summer I was sitting at a bus stop next to a McDonald’s, heading west to see a friend. A pleasant and spry elderly woman sat down next to me and we started talking. She wore a T-shirt dress covered in images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dancing together and kissing. She had worked as a security guard in a bank building for more than thirty years and ran a nonprofit on the West Side, getting teenagers work mowing lawns and installing hoops on neglected basketball courts. She was from a town in Alabama where some of the roads remained unpaved. She had not been there in a decade and did not intend to go back.

When the bus arrived, she took a seat at the front and I sat in the middle, surrounded by an enormous family singing along with a YouTube video playing a song in Spanish. But I could still hear the woman’s clear, loud voice over their singing: she was laughing while discussing the day’s news with a man whom she had recognized and who also appeared to work as a security guard. India had just landed a spaceship on the dark side of the moon. 

“Astronauts land all over the place on the moon,” the man said. “And do you know why? Cause there’s wind up on the moon. The moon has a climate of its own.”

“Is that right?” the woman replied.

“Yes. Every time they go up there they find something new. We didn’t know what was up there. And we still don’t know.”


“Moon rocks. Ice. There could be stuff living up there,” the man said. “It’s a goddamn mystery.”

Immediately after he said this, an old, frail woman sitting behind them leaned forward and said, “Don’t cuss sir, there’s kids on the bus.”

“Oh, I’m sorry ma’am,” he replied.

“They don’t need to be hearing none of that,” she added. “You should stop cussing.”

“OK,” he said, smiling good-naturedly to his friend. 

The conversation then fell silent, and the woman from Alabama stirred in her seat. She was evidently straining to say something, and after a moment she did: “Miss, he can talk how he want and you can talk how you want. Wasn’t nobody talking to you. Don’t need to be telling him how he should talk because wasn’t nobody talking to you.” There was some back and forth on the subject and then silence. 

The woman then folded her hands and began staring out of the window, facing away from her friend. Silver rhinestones on her pants spelled out the word BLESSED. The word had not been apparent to me before because the rhinestones were not shimmering in the sun. The reflection of her face looked angry, perturbed. She seemed lost inside herself. 

After a time the man said to no one, “Imagine that. Indians in space.”

I had a Wednesday recently where everything went wrong, where I was the angry one on public transit. I woke up, finished something I needed to write for work, then lost my temper with my boss, who often calls my work “weak.” “I write something, you call it ‘weak,’ I write another thing, you call it ‘weak,’ over and over, ‘This is weak. This is weak. Weak arguments, it needs to be stronger,’ and never any feedback!” I said. He replied, “I say that because it is weak.” 

We argued some more and then resolved that I would take more time and consult more people in constructing my arguments. Afterward, I considered that I felt freer to get angry with him because he was not born in the United States and not saddled with the burden of over-politeness and self-repression almost everyone here imbibes in the ascendency to upper-middle-class life.  

Still fuming from the call, I took what I had written, asked ChatGPT to make it strong, and it made it strong. I turned it in, my boss said, “Great work!”, and with the extra time now opened up before me I wandered around in search of the book So What by the Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. I searched the NYPL, whose website said they had one copy at the Stavros Niarchos branch. I looked in the appropriate location, but the shelf didn’t have it. The librarians informed me that it might be a phantom copy. I asked whether they had any other books by him, and they said they had one other, called Never Mind. But, in fact, they didn’t have that book either. 

The librarians explained that the Schwarzman branch, across the street, should have a copy instead. I went to look, and found that they too didn’t have it. One copy was available at The Strand, according to their website. I went to look, and it wasn’t there. 

So What. Never Mind. Later I attended a reading that a friend had billed as a gathering of scholars who studied Sufism. On the way there, I sat snugly between two people on the train, and a woman lost her temper with me for sitting too close. She yelled, “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck is wrong with you? You crushed my leg! Say excuse me!” The man sitting next to her backed her up, saying, “You should have said excuse me,” though he was much more spread out than me, and taking up more space. I said, “There’s space here for three people.” The woman said, “But there’s four of us! What the fuck is wrong with you. Say excuse me.”

I sat in silence and did not move. I noticed that the vertical stanchions dividing the benches across from us were spaced out slightly differently than the ones on our side, so that while the bench she pointed to could only fit three people between the metal hand-bars, ours, which was located further down the bench, could clearly accommodate four. As the man got up to leave, he said, “You should’ve said excuse me, bro, that’s common sense.” I said, “Sorry. I made a mistake. Excuse me.” He replied, “It’s too late to say sorry.” Then I really lost my temper. I said, “Did I fuckin’ ruin your day bro? By sitting next to you? There was space for four people!” The woman said, “Oh my god he’s still going! Do you want me to slap the shit out of you?” I got up and moved to another car, feeling furious and childish.

Then I attended the Sufi gathering, not in fact a gathering of scholars, as it turned out, but a Muslim Students Association event with free packaged biscuits and a Zoom lecture from a sweet but doddering old man whom the undergraduates had invited to speak. After almost everything he said, “Very important.” 

“There are three layers. The breast, the abode of human life. That’s very important. The heart. The heart is in the Sound Heart Hadith. Remember this later, very important. Then there is the inner heart, very important. I will discuss it later.”

I was charmed by the way his gesticulations on Zoom would envelope the whole frame of the screen so that for long passages only his old, beautiful fingers could be seen. 

After the lecture, students read Sufi poems or works they felt were inspired by Sufism. These included one untranslated poem in Hindi, several very short Sufi poems, and then a meandering but fiercely delivered poem about the importance of hard work that someone had written in high school for a Muslim scholarship competition called MIST. Then a translator named Amir read a long and beautiful poem, first in English, then in Farsi, and I read some poems by Taha Muhammad Ali, the only ones available online. Amir told me that he had translated Ali’s Exodus into Farsi years ago. At the end of the readings there was a raffle with a digital wheel of fortune with the name of every person who had read at the gathering and I won. The prize was a pound of black tea.

Afterwards, on the train ride home, transferring from the 1 to the F at Times Square/42nd Street, my friends and I stumbled on a police robot, a huge hulking white creation, with cameras on all sides, which was itself surrounded by three policemen. After I went to look at it, a woman asked the police to take her picture standing alongside it. The cops vacillated, made excuses—“That’s not part of our job”—and so I hastily offered to take her picture instead. However, I was so absorbed in asking the police what this robot did, what its purpose was—it could not move, they said, it had to be guarded by real police so that people wouldn’t touch it, it only took pictures of people—that I forgot to take the photograph. The woman took back her phone and walked away in silence. My friends informed me what had happened, and then I ran after her to apologize—but she had disappeared. 

In December, I wanted to take a long train ride, either to a library or a small coffee shop I remembered visiting almost ten years ago. On my way, I was looking over Laszlo Kraznahorkai’s Spadework for a Palace—I had read it before, but could not remember the name of the architect that the narrator was always talking about—Lebbeus Woods, as I then found out upon rereading. Woods was more an artist than an architect, who used his training in drafting to draw monumental arks, rockets, and buildings composed of thousands of pieces of scrap wood and scrap metal. The depicted buildings call to mind children’s lemonade stands in Norman Rockwell paintings, but on a monumental scale—as if these Rockwell children were tasked with sending humanity to Mars. Woods’s work possesses the weird mixture of optimism and apocalypse this strained metaphor suggests.

After perusing the paintings on my phone, I continued reading this thoroughly delightful book, which unfolds in one long, mad sentence, spoken by a man named herman melvill (no relation). melvill is a hunch-backed librarian whose one dream is to open a “permanently closed library palace” with all of the NYPL’s 53 million books locked inside it. He revisits this dream endlessly as he walks up and down Manhattan in an attempt to retrace the steps, and thereby passionately appreciate the lives of Herman Melville, Malcolm Lowry (who was obsessed with Melville), and Lebbeus Woods, whose work he sees at the beginning of the book and which catalyzes his impossible dream. Woods’s art graces the cover of this very attractive book, which is part of New Directions’ Storybook Editions series. 

As the narrator grew madder and madder in pursuit of his dream l half listened, and then fully paid attention to, the train conductor, who was growing madder and madder at the people obstructing the doors at first one, then two, then three stops. At the third obstruction, the train conductor lost it. It was the second time in so many weeks that I’d been witness to a prolonged outburst on the MTA.

I could only catch her speech in small snatches, due to the MTA’s incredibly bad sound system. As the operator ranted, I noticed how similar the cadence of her speech was to the narrator of this book. She similarly seemed to carry herself into an elevated state of spiritual fury, by refusing to punctuate her sentences, so that each thought would not quite end, but linger and inflame the idea that followed.

A delivery man propped the door open for his friend, lugging a heavy bike wrapped in chain locks into the car.

“Please stand clear of the closing doors!”

Teenagers ran onto the train, holding it open for the other half of their group.

“Please stand clear of the closing doors!”

A man in a felt hat held the door open.

“Please stand clear of the closing doors! Passengers cannot obstruct the doors! I don’t know how  . . . people have to get . . . but that’s not your job, that’s mine, and you think . . . keep you at the station for . . . three hours? Some people, no! They want to do their own . . .

. . .

And I don’t know how you people think the train can move if someone is wedged half inside and half outside of it, how I’m supposed to lose my job, how I’m supposed to kill you because you wedged yourself in like that—because you decided, even if you didn’t say it, to say ‘I’m number one, and everyone else on this train is a zero’ and ‘I get to hold people up because I can’t wait another five minutes,’ or ‘Everybody has to wait for me, everybody has to be late to their job, their doctor’s appointment, their date, their inspection, their life—for me,’ just counting on us to say, OK we’ll wait, because I can’t kill you, with your body stuck halfway in the train, Mr. or Mrs. Important, stuck half in outside the door, one leg in, one leg out, one arm in, one arm out, half a woman, half a man, a half-woman half-man, cut in half, I won’t get into it, no one pays me to get into it, I’m not a politician, I know green means go, I know red means stop, I know that’s not my decision, it’s yours, and you’re decided, for everyone, holding the door for your ‘homie,’ who, let me tell you something, can catch the next train, or the next train after that—we run all day and all night—your ‘homie,’ who can text their boss, text their lover, ‘I’m gonna be late,’ to the club, the office, the courthouse, the penitentiary—I’m gonna be five minutes late to dinner, five late to yoga, five late to the christening, five late to class, five late to the affair . . . five late to the rendezvous, five late to the rumble, five late to the soiree, five late to the dance, five late to the lobotomy (you brainless motherfucker), five late to the afterlife (Dante-lookin-ass), five late to be or not to be (you Shakespeare-looking-head-ass-bitch), holding the whole goddamn line up and jamming the fuckin’ signal up and down the system from the top of the Bronx to Far Rockaway and beyond into the satellites that run the system so that when ETs come down to observe us they’ll shake their glowing heads in disgust at every motherfucker you made late, holding open the doors with your half-in half-out DUSTY, DIRTY, centaur-looking, IMPERIAL ASS. Passengers please stand clear of the closing doors.”

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