“Follow that ramp to the D train,” my uncle said. Not the B, F, N, QB or RR, even though they stopped at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, where we stood. Only the D went to our stop in Brooklyn, he reminded me, even though he knew I already knew that. Only the D. I was 11 years old, and I’d already taken that trip more times than I could remember. But that day would be my first time alone.
“The D,” he repeated, as I nearly tumbled through the turnstile. Down more ramps and stairs than I’d ever seen before, I went from hazy yellow daylight to rows of pus-colored incandescent bulbs along the platform where the train of eight rust-colored cars rumbled into the station. The doors let out a whoosh and seemed to suck me into car number 8472. The walls inside were colored like tapioca pudding and the benches were painted battleship gray, all of it reeking of peanuts, sweat and cologne. “I’m on the D,” I said to reassure my uncle, even though he wasn’t there.
The doors closed in a rush of dank, yet dusty, air that filled the car before it lunged into the tunnel. The D is an express train, so I would see nothing but stray light bulbs floating by in darkness that would not end until the next station: West Fourth Street. The Village! Across the car from me, a man with white hair and leathery skin gazed into the Sunday News—the paper everybody in my Brooklyn neighborhood read. In the front page photo, young men with long hair jabbed the air with signs that read “Peace Now” and “Get Out of Vietnam,” and stockier men in uniforms thrust their riot shields at them. “West Fourth Street, next stop on this D train,” blared and crackled on the PA system as the train rattled and squealed from the tunnel a wall of dingy tiles and dim light of the station.
West Fourth Street. Above the station musicians played and other people played basketball, fought or simply hung out in the park. The park on the cover of a Simon and Garfunkel album; the street in one of Bob Dylan’s songs. Charlie Parker and John Coltrane probably made music out of that park and Fourth Street, too, although I wasn’t thinking about them on that day since I didn’t know about them yet. In fact, I hadn’t yet seen the park or the street: I knew about them only from the album covers and songs. In those days, nobody in Brooklyn talked abut those things. They also didn’t talk about the news—you were supposed to go along and get along—but even some people in my neighborhood were starting to wonder how they could do that when a war that none of them understood was sucking their sons, grandsons and friends away.
“The D train,” I lipped. My uncle didn’t have to get drafted; he volunteered for Korea. So did his friends from his block and school. Some of them didn’t come back. “Be careful; don’t get lost,” he admonished me. “You know where to get off.” Yes, I did. At West Fourth Street, in the Village.
Many years later, after graduating from college and living in other states and countries, I was in the East Village. It was Sunday; my aunt had called to ask me over for dinner. The day was warm and hazy; rows stone facades of townhouses grew darker and cooler, like a photographic negative of a Monet painting, along East Tenth Street toward the Jefferson Market.
Turn left, past storefronts closed for the day, to Eighth Street. Cross from the King’s Papaya hot dog stand to the Barnes and Noble bookstore. Neither of them were there when I got off the D train. A couple of doors down, to the pronged wrought iron surrounding the stairs down to the station. You can get to the West Fourth Street Station, to the D train, from West Eighth or West Third—in front of Simon and Garfunkel’s park—but not from West Fourth. My uncle couldn’t tell me why. Nor could anyone else.
Down the stairs to a turnstile that looked like a medieval torture device. Then I followed the ramp, again, to the D train. Only the D. The doors of car number 8472 opened; I got in. Only the D train.
Justine Nicholas lives in Long Island City and directs the Tutoring Center at York College. Her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of online and print magazines.