James takes the subway to the PATH, to one of the many places where the subway intersects with its corridors, where exiting the subway requires no stairs, just a pass through the doors.
He passes through a number of polished silver doors that separate the webs particular to each office and bank tower, and the webs that connect them. He enters a rather large space and recognizes, to his right, a tailor shop with racks of suites out front, and a suitcase shop with suitcase sets out front, and to his left, a bar-lounge, and ahead, a coffee shop, both with corridor side patios. He is reasonably sure the doors at the end lead to a subway station through which the polished and artistically lit surfaces of the PATH will change back to walls of a dingy tile in some 70s shade and stained, rusted floors.
At the end of a small walkway, which he first thought was simply an entrance to the bar lounge, James catches a glimpse of an opening. He turns, walks the thin space, climbs a set of five stairs, and enters another wide corridor. This space almost mirrors the previous one exactly, with the bar-lounge facing here as well, and another coffee shop further on, and a handbag store on the other side, neighbouring a men’s shoe store. There is one big difference though—at the centre is a raised fountain made of white marble and framed in limestone rocks. It’s not just a fountain, but a long, artificial stream, and the rocks are interspersed with beautiful foliage of fake plants and fake moss. It even contains two taxidermied flamencos.
James circles the fountain a couple times, exits the large space, and walks into a food court. It’s longer than it is wide, mostly white, more tile and fiberglass than marble and granite, but still glossy. It’s declared natural by the fake plants hanging from pillars throughout. Usually the food courts are a little difficult for James, as the expanded field of vision and added details, corners, and shadows will raise some slight fear and send him rushing through looking down at the floor.
This food court, at least today, raises no fear in him. James attributes this to the social equilibrium. There are twice as many people eating as there are people serving. The people behind the counters don’t look busy; in fact most are conversing freely with customers. The servers without customers are reasonably occupied, meditatively wiping and cleaning the counters, fending off boredom.
James walks through the food court, letting his eyes fall on the expressions of every person in the space. A bakery worker shouts in a cracked voice, “Hey big man, come over for a sec.” The baker is alone, putting goods from trays on to the shelves. He looks like a man in his 50s, but his movements are fluid, impressively youthful.
James veers off the walkway and stops in front of the counter, receiving a smile from the baker, and he sees that his face is wrinkly but very alive, the deepest wrinkles formed by the smile lines at the corners of his eyes. Gabriel would love a photograph of this man, James thinks.
“You’re a big fella, so I thought you’d appreciate this.” He dumps a tray of danishes into a paper bag and puts them on the counter. “My morning guy, he cooked way too many, and my doctor won’t let me eat ‘em. Go ahead, big man, I’ll throw them out if you can’t eat ‘em.” James grabs the bag. The baker laughs heartily and says, “Hey, before you walk away with those, let me ask you something. I see you in those corridors walking all the time, first time I’ve ever seen you in this food court, but in the corridors all the time. What’s the deal? Sometimes I see you with a smile on your face like you’re just enjoying the atmosphere. It’s the same smile I see so many people wearing outside when the sun and warm weather comes out for the first time in weeks, but that’s you down here, in the PATH, and I’m interested.”
James leans over the counter, as if people could be listening in on his answer, though he’s actually just leaning in to accommodate his deep voice which does not carry very well, and says, “I suffer from agoraphobia, fear of open spaces, or what I call The Fear. It’s quite debilitating. Heights, sights, and views can all send me into panic attacks, so I restrict myself to closed-in spaces.”
“Wow man! Well there’s definitely no heights, sights, or views down here, ha! But listen man, I know you’re not crazy. I bet most people avoid you; I know, you’re a big crazy looking guy, but I can spot someone harmless and that’s you. And anyway, I’ve seen security giving you waves and finger-gun-shots and such, so you’re just a guy who likes walking around down here. But I’m interested, really interested to know more. What about this food court, it’s a pretty big space?”
“Usually I have trouble with food courts, but not today, not this one, I think because everyone looks so happy and comfortable.”
“Ha! Isn’t that interesting. Well don’t let me stop you too long; I know you’ve got lots of walking to do.”
“Thank you for the danishes, baker.”
“No problem, big man. Come back and visit me again sometime and I might have some more for you.”
James rejoins the path. At the other end of the food court he turns left and eventually enters an immaculately designed foyer-like expansion. There’s a ridiculously long row of bank machines and a ticker screen that lines the wall opposite running stock prices. There are no shops or places to eat in this prime PATH real estate, but there are security guards standing on the floor, making their presence known. James is clearly in the central sub-ground section of a bank tower.
He sits on a bench, eats his danishes, and appreciates the décor: the light fixtures are not just stainless steel, but steel and crystal; the marble and granite, of which there are both, are not faux, but inches thicker than necessary, as is clear by the coldness of the stone to the touch; although the lobby is filled with people, James can’t smell a single organic cell, such is the power of the ventilation system. And the décor extends to the people as well, not just the suits, ties, and shoes of the bank employees, who could only be described as shiny, but the clothes of the security guards too.
The PATH is a heavily observed place, and a person can become familiar to the security network quite quickly, especially a person like James. He’s 6’7”, has the trunk of an overweight lumberjack, yet his hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and head seem somehow too big for his body, and yet still his beard, eyebrows, and reasonably trimmed down curls seem too big for his head. Had James possessed any ability for intimidation, or at least held some aggressiveness within his personality, his stature would worry any reasonable person, but the teddy-bear-ness that emits from James only ever draws the judgment that this is a large, top-heavy, and clumsy man.
The security guards develop only pleasant familiarities with James. Their terrain is a controlled environment, and the threat of barbarism, or more specifically the severity of the threat barbarism poses, in an underground environment makes them especially suspicious and on edge. They’re relaxed by someone they see at regular intervals doing the exact same thing every time, and in their repeated pattern show no threat to the public calm. That kind of predictability is a comfort to them, just as the easy interaction that never requires any real conversation is a comfort to James.
Sitting on the marble bench, munching on danishes with a flaky, buttery crust and creamy custard that does the décor of the bank tower no injustice, James looks to these people and sees that even their faces are something to appreciate today. He sees sparkling teeth through wide smiles and receives enthusiastic waves, thumbs up, and finger-gun-shots from bank employees and security guards alike. He sees equilibrium and it’s beautiful.
James enters the next subway station he comes to. He sits on a bench in the centre of the platform, contented and drowsy. Some time passes before he notices that no other faces are with him on the platform, or even on the platform across the tracks, and no trains for that matter.
Another length of time passes and it’s clear there’s a delay, but this usually results in a pile-up of people waiting. The complete absence of others has James feeling like there’s some piece of information he’s unaware of.
The waiting makes James feel very tired. He leans his head against the tile wall and closes his eyes. For a long while he continues to hear no subway or footsteps, just the sound and echoes of humming and occasional squeaks from the escalators. Soon James is not sure exactly how long he has left his eyes closed and feels compelled to open them. Immediately he notices something to his left, the direction which the subway should approach from, but this is not the movement of a train. He turns his head just in time to see a bird pass from the subway tunnel into the fluorescent lighting of the station.
Its wingspan is the width of a subway car, and the flapping has a deep muffled sound, like a blanket thrown flat over a bed. Even from half a subway platform away, James can see its beak curving down into a large and threatening spike. The bird flaps its wings three times, the deep muffled sound echoing off the tiled walls, and goes into a glide above the tracks. When James sees the body, huge and muscular looking, and the stability with which it glides, he knows he’s staring at a hawk, but no kind of hawk that James has ever seen. Her feathers are molted red, brown, black, and white, and this look of marbled colouring and this mass of muscle is so unlike any city bird James can imagine—pigeon, seagull, crow—that he wonders if he’s seeing an escaped bird from the zoo.
The hawk glides by James, and James looks directly into her black and yellow eye. The eye is so large that for a moment James sees his reflection staring back at him. He becomes completely transfixed by this beautiful bird of prey as she starts flapping again, flying away, the wings inverting and reverting through as much space as a subway train would fill, James watching and becoming relaxed like he’s in a dream, inverting and reverting, feeling drowsy and trance-like, inverting and reverting, when the metallic rumble and squeals of a breaking train startles him out of his trance by appearing directly in front of him. He flattens his back and arms against the tiled wall, watches the train whip by, feels the rush of air drawn with it. How did he not hear it approach, did the hawk have him in that much of a trance?
The subway comes to a stop and the doors part. An operator’s window in front of James slides open and a transit employee leans his head out. He looks both ways along the empty platform, then looks at James and says, “Need a lift?” James looks to his right, wondering what happened to the Hawk, but sees nothing. He is so shocked and confused that he wants to say something to the transit employee, but all he can manage is, “You’re late”. The man slams the window shut. Before he closes the doors and leaves, James boards.