PLAY BILL

They didn’t even know they dwelled in a landscape laced with caves – some of them running right under the campus. As a geology major, Leon Cody could have explained the workings of this underground. As a geography major, Dikran could have related the importance of flowing waters to the human condition. As a transportation major, Bruce could have linked underground energies to great subway systems. Indeed, had they effectively put all their studies together, there would have been a tremendous convergence. They held the potential of redirecting society, any way they united.

The ’oozers could have learned a lot from Leon’s collection of geodes, the bumpy brown rocks he collected in the surrounding countryside; they often appeared ugly, even repulsive, until cracked open with a geologist’s hammer. He always hoped they’d be hollow, their interior cavities filled with crystals that would appear even more wondrous when viewed under the ultraviolet “black” light. The ’oozers could have estimated people like geodes, anticipating whether they would be stone cold through and through or whether their heads and hearts would glimmer and astonish.

“Sometimes girls can be like that, especially when they’re both constantly on the go. They’re only roommates,” Mitch would have retorted.

Or females, beginning at the other end with Spencer’s mother. How far could you trust an old-boys’ network?

“See what you’re missing, Love!” her son whispered, betrayed by his own feelings of being left out of a movement that simultaneously disgusted and seduced him. He had buried too many yearnings – too much life force – for too long.

“Intellectualism is merely extensive rationalization,” Nita shrugged. Teak-wick! “The library is just footsteps and bells.” Teak-wick! “Did you catch the spring buds when they were taut, cracking in rainfall?” Teak-wick! “Gray branches exploding in bloom?” Teak-wick! “Earthworms mating on the rain-washed sidewalk?” Teak-wick!

~*~

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ALL PART OF THE MYSTERY

She was about to sweep away shards remaining from his high school crackup – more precisely, his breaking up over romance in his senior year. Ever since, his heart and skull had continued warring, sometimes erupting feverishly into a death mask mirrored in his own hands. Despite later dates and embraces, the artistic and social projects he retreated to whenever that suffocating midnight grip loosened, the self-therapy of hunchbacked miles along thunderstorm’d sidewalks, the scalding showers, exhausted jogging, throbbing woofers and shrill tweeters, hours of dreamless sleep – the kid had never fully eluded that gigantic amoeba. Disconcertingly, in trying to withdraw, he rolled back to his own deficiencies time and time again. The most painful message in all this, perhaps, was that he could not conquer everything he set out to accomplish; many things would remain beyond his range or his abilities.

In that brief, disastrous infatuation he had sought validation. Having a beautiful, charming, intelligent girlfriend would be a sign of completeness, of fulfillment. He believed that something in the mystery of woman spelled salvation, which is, of course, a terrible weight to place upon anyone. How could he burden his beloved with his own suffering? Any American boy who isn’t an athlete is handicapped – especially in the nation’s heartland. He wasn’t sturdy enough for football or even basketball, swift enough for track or cross-country, forceful enough for baseball, at least for the success he demanded of himself. He knew these activities weren’t “play,” despite usage, and believed only victory would compensate pain and exertion. His strengths and speed lay elsewhere.

But he remained loyal to people and institutions. Adolescent birds leave nests and stake out new territory. He yearned for loving, a special acceptance.

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LOVE POTION TUMBLER FIND

True love doesn’t hit that way, the kid thought. No, he argued, it starts slow and builds over years. He envisioned Tessa Logan in Grindingle and wondered what could possibly be better. But Mitch had called, to say he needed a place to stay for the weekend. Said he had found the love of his life. And so, practical concerns pressed.

“I’m not sure. I’ll hitch down Friday, don’t know exactly when I’ll arrive. Depends on the rides.”

The kid, meanwhile, needed to discover there’s nothing more glorious than the many manifestations of intimacy. Mitch said he had to get away from his campus a bit.

“Of course. So what’s the big deal? Is your ex-prima donna, prima mamma after your tail with a pitchfork?”

“No, no, nothing like that. It’s simply that Nita attends Daffodil, just like you.”

Which is when the kid realized he’d been indoors too long. When, in being set up for a magical introduction, he entered a lobby where any wait would feel like an eternity. Getting an elevator could take eons.

Didn’t matter. Rather, the spirit wrapped in strawberry and Dublin-colored suede a step behind her caught his attention. The soft voice had him hoping to capture each syllable. Whatever pierced him at that time would affect his memory forever, even if he could remember next to nothing of what was actually said.

~*~

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WOBBLIES ALONG THE TRACKS

A soft-spoken eighty-seven-year-old Subway Hitchhiker told DL about the hazards of working on the tracks back in the good old days. “You shoulda seen the machinery,” the old-timer insisted. “You were lucky to keep your fingers and hands attached.” Which was why he had joined up with the Industrial Workers of the World, the wild Wobblies of labor infamy. Better wages were also, he allowed, a consideration. But whenever they heard of a labor strike anywhere, they’d do all they could to lend their support.

The Kings County Sheriff had other ideas. He was one tough hombre, vowing that no rabble-rousing Wobblies would ever cross into his Brooklyn.

At first, a few leaders tried to slip in individually or in small groups. No dice. They were hauled from their trains, clubbed, and even cut up.

When they realized their small approach wasn’t working, the Wobblies dispatched a larger delegation. When those forty-one men, too, were yanked out of their subway car and, as DL hears it, “forced to run a gauntlet of cudgels, sawed-off billiard cues, billy clubs, blackjacks, and even pistol butts,” the battle line was drawn. So much for the Sheriff’s system of justice. The Wobblies heard a higher calling. “We didn’t know it, of course,” the old-timer explained, “but the American Federation of Labor, one of our archenemies in those days, wasn’t doing any better in crossing the river the other way. Back in those days, a man’s beliefs were everything to him.”

Bruised, beaten, and bloodied Wobblies decided to use power in larger numbers. They filled an entire ten-car subway train and headed off to confront the Sheriff, only to be halted while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. “He held one hand in the air and I heard his words. ‘Who’s your leaders!’ he bellowed out. And from every window of every car of that train came the united response: ‘We’re all leaders!’ And he says, ‘Then you can’t cross here!’ and somebody else yelled out, ‘The hell we can’t!’ The Sheriff turned, like on a signal, you see, and then a volley rang out. Oh, it was terrible, I’ll tell ya. People ran to the other side of the cars to escape the gunfire, and that caused the train to list, you know. It spilled untold Wobblies to the river way below. To this day nobody knows for certain how many died. ’Course, some of us was armed, jes’ in case, but nothin’ like what we run inta. I know this much: they fired at us first, no doubt about it.”

Official reports, which are extraordinarily difficult to locate, say five unionists were killed and twenty-seven others injured, while two peace officers were mortally wounded and twenty more suffered hurt.

“But I’ll tell ya, there was lots more casualties. Yessir. Lots more drowned in that awful river.”

DL wondered why he had never heard that story in American history class. Why none of the New York newspapers covered the Great Subway Massacre, either.

“But it did happen,” Holly insisted later. “My great-uncle was on that train.” He was the first to instructed her in esoteric practices she maintained so well.

The IWW’s revenge came several decades later, when the proposed Cincinnati Subway System came to a screeching collapse. Somehow, in constructing tunnels too narrow for any possible style of subway car, the city had made a fatal miscalculation. Millions of dollars went down the drain.

When DL failed to understand the connection, his elderly fellow-traveler broke out in the weirdest grin. DL wanted to inquire about the fate of the Wobbly movement but decided to forgo it. Then gum-lips spoke: “T’weren’t long after that massacree that there was a huge rise in the number of Subway Hitchhikers. Can’t blame ’em for not wanting to ride regular. That’s when I got my start. Wasn’t any older than you.”

~*~

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EXPLORING HOBO JUNGLES BY THE RAILS

They can be smelly, noisy, frightening, dangerous – to the point of being traps where thugs prey upon the hapless or a Bernie Goetz incongruously becomes hero, victim, vigilant, and villain rolled up into one. They can be crowded and unfriendly, where sexual fantasies find unexpected play in the pack of rush hour. They can be lonely and forbidding. Or, in newer manifestations, they can be squeaky clean and efficient to the point of sterility. Much of the same, however, can also be said of the sea, where so many people head for vacation adventures.

At the moment, an electrical fire is hitting a midtown train. Many will be injured, and traffic delayed for hours. It goes with the territory.

Unlike a monorail, this journey requires at least two continuous rails. For instance, innocence runs beside sophistication. Eros parallels Thanatos, as do passionate loving and death. There are Yin and Yang, light and dark, good and bad, man and woman, sun and moon, land and sea, earth and air. Add a third rail, the power of the subconscious, and you embark on the world’s greatest epics.

~*~

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HITCHHIKING HALL OF FAME

Somebody, someday: “Why’d you do it? Risk your lives for a wild ride?”

Hopalong Dextrin: “We were young then. Didn’t know any better.”

Greene County Duncan: “Cheap thrills, a free ride. Doesn’t every emerging generation do that?”

Watermelon Dikran: “To experience life, riding way out at the edge for a while.”

Thunderbird Kid Dowie: “To explore everything. Besides, we vowed we’d never become zombies like our parents.”

Tumbleweed Dreyfus: “It made a brutal system a little more humane.”

Super-straight Doris, wherever she went after Lonesome DL’s high school disaster: “You’re on a false trip, DL”

It was colorful and it was drab. Daring, yet in its own way, orthodox. There were a thousand unvoiced ways one was expected to conform. This generation rejected authority and then embraced a weird conformity that became far more dictatorial. Ultimately, their revolution ended up White Middle Class, stuck on sofas and TV sets. It was hardly a free ride, especially when many parents continued to foot the bills.

The subway tracks ran up a huge power bill daily.

~*~

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UNDERPINNING BUILDINGS ALONG THE LINE

As if by design, the City of Humanity and the City of Inhumanity overlap. What happens if any of the System breaks down? A power failure, where neighbors don’t know much less trust each other, results in looting. Anyone who tries to go it alone, who relies on your raw sexual energy or uncurbed power, ages rapidly. In turn, cannibals are eventually eaten.

DL perceived rainbows and sandstorms in the tunnels. After all, the tracks run both ways. In every crowded subway coach, an unassuming Bible reader is transported through prophecy and faith. In many stations, a shoeless wino asleep on the bench awaits the Great Grape to come wheeling down the line. So that was what that old man was thinking back in that faraway Laundromat!

DL stumbled upon the IND Subway Library. Nearby, he spotted the Subway Department Store, Subway Supermarket, Subway Softball Field, Subway Fire Department, and Subway Telephone Switchboard. There were IND fire hydrants and a very small IND national park, where a hot blues band from Chicago performs all year. At the Subway Hero stand, there was a special on chili-dogs.

There was more sweltering energy than DL could calculate. It was too hot for thermometers and spinning too fast for speedometers.

~*~

For more from my THIRD RAIL collection, click here.