When I was 14 years old, my friend Jonny and I chased a homeless man into a subway station and I’ve been waiting for Jonny to come back ever since.
We were cutting school; that’s the type of assholes we were. We did that just about every other day. It was June and we’d been ditching school all year. The day was blazing so we chose to ride the subway. It’s not like we had anything to do, but not being at school was a good enough reason.
The subway platform at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue was emptier than usual; there were five or six midday straphangers ambling about. It was our usual meeting spot. I was coming out of Queens and Jonny was coming from the Bronx, the N to 4 train connection. Manhattan was great because back then it was white people central. Nobody fucked with us, save for the cops. Maybe it was how we were dressed, jeans sagging off our boney butts and all, or maybe it was our skin color - mira mira or yalla yalla. No one fucking with you, also meant no problems, save for the cops. I had my portable CD player in hand, and headphones around my neck. Jonny and I were trying to figure out what we would do next. Maybe we’d try to head downtown and chill around Washington Square Park, but damn, the city was too hot for that loitering shit. Maybe we’d go to the movies. I knew this guy, O, who worked at the theater and would let us in for 5 bucks-- we’d meet him around back and he’d escort us in. Unseen. We were just talking shit. Maybe we could score some weed, but we’d have to go back uptown for that.
What kind of assholes were we? We did all kinds of stuff, nothing too bad. We smoked weed, drank alcohol in class out of sports bottles, and cursed out teachers who called us out on our shit. That kind of stuff. We got mixed up in a handful of fistfights, nothing too serious--except for that time a hammer got thrown--nobody got hurt. A couple of times we got nabbed by the police, got brought back to the school building. One of those days, Jonny stole a stack of passes from the dean’s office.
So we’re leaning against the wall, not giving a fuck about shit, at that age you operate on eternity mode. Shit ain’t gonna happen. That shit ain’t gonna happen moment is exactly when shit happens. That’s when this homeless man, probably a junkie, snatches my CD player midstride. With my headphones still around my neck, the motherfucker shoots off like he was qualifying for the hundred meters. While he’s already planning what he’s going to do with the money once he books it the fuck out of there, Jonny and I deliberate with our eyes. We looked at each other, silently communicating a desire not to pursue this asshole, but that CD player was mine and I wasn’t going to just get the money for another one. So I start moving and Jonny speeds up.
I was bigger than Jonny by about six inches and forty pounds. Back then I was tall for my age. Jonny was little and scrappy, but he had a heart that could power a brontosaurus or two. And boy did anyone have my back. This is where my memory gets fuzzy, so stay with me, but Jonny passes me, now he’s in front. Sometimes I think I let him pass me because, chicken shit. It’s easier to believe he passed me with that brontosaurus heart strapped to those little velociraptor legs. Either way, he’s in front.
As we were closing in on the man, his soiled green trenchcoat flapping like a fucking cape, the dude leaps onto the subway tracks and runs into the tunnel and this guy was running in the wrong direction. Where the fuck a homeless man finds the calories to do all that running, I still don’t fucking know. That’s when you start thinking all kinds of shit, you cost-benefit your motherfucking CD player and think nah. But before I could process any of that Jonny was mid-flight like a kid launched from a swing set, perfect landing. Did I say Jonny was crazy?
We were always running somewhere. A couple times we had to run from building superintendents who caught us on their roofs, smoking or throwing water balloons. Like one time, when Jonny got into a fight, and a whole crew showed up and I’m all looking at Jonny like “we’ve got to boogie” and we did, hurdling turnstiles like gazelles on those nature shows. Always running from shit, rarely to shit.
He ran into the darkness without looking back, he knew I was right behind him.
Only I wasn’t.
After Jonny went in, there were policemen and firefighters. Days later his mother’s church sent a crew and detectives accompanied them into the tunnel. The train line was all fucked up. There were subway announcements and posters like milk cartons in all the five boroughs. Seeing his face everywhere was weird, like he was famous or something. The mayor said things on TV. Church basements trembled with lamentations and prayer and holy ghosts. For a few days, the yellow subway warning line was respected. People shuddered when a shoe was found in the East River, the shoe matched the pair Jonny was wearing that day. A pair of blue and white Air Jordans. But they were the wrong size. Some other kid.
I wish I remembered exactly how it went down. That police asked me for details. Had I seen where he went? Had I seen what happened? Why were we chasing the man into the tunnel? I saw Jonny’s mother at the police station. She gave me a grim smile. I couldn’t tell the police the why part. We just were, I said. That’s usually the answer, isn’t it? We just are.
My parents decided to hold me out off school the rest of the month. They figured it was best I start my summer vacation early.
Sometimes I remember hearing Jonny scream. Sometimes I remember him disappearing into the light of an oncoming train. If I think about it too much, I confuse memory and speculation. Maybe the man we were chasing took him captive. Maybe the rats got him or it was gators. Maybe he never ran in. Maybe we both did, but only I came out.
The building we lived in was big. A lot of families didn’t let their children out of sight for a while. They clutched them tighter. The little pop-up churches were busier than ever. You could hear wailing and devotions and incantations -- the ay dios mios and sangre de Cristos rang out into the street. Mom said to avoid walking by them.
I saw Jonny’s mom a few more times, in the building. The last time she had a suitcase in hand and when she noticed me, she shot me the same grim smile. I thought maybe she hated me and gave me one of those smiles people give their enemies. I didn’t know what to think. I still don’t. No one did. I remember overhearing one of the church women who lived on my floor, the kind that can’t help but open their mouths, tell her Jonny had passed on to a better place. She, his mom, looked ready to explode just then, but she held her tongue. Sometimes all people can do is hold on.