A Number

I decided to name the man who muttered numbers Chuck because of the navy-blue Chuck Taylors he wore every morning on the subway. Before that, and before he was the man who muttered numbers, he was just another passenger, a detached presence with whom I’d share space for a time on my morning commute. It was impossible to determine the exact point we first passed each other – we might have taken the same route for days, weeks, or months prior – because, to me, he didn’t really exist until I happened to hear him mutter the number 89.

*             *             *

At the beginning of the year, shortly after making my way to New York, I got my first job. It should’ve been great news and for the most part it was, but my financial situation, inability to understand the housing market, and my skillset landed me an apartment and employment in different boroughs, on opposite ends of one another.  While unemployed, I tried to avoid taking the subway as much possible (I hate being underground and tight spaces) but the universe had decided that it was time I get over it. By the time March came around I was a full-fledged commuter, aware of the taboos of spoken word, occupying excessive space, and keeping my backpack on.

I’d learned to tune out my surroundings, developing a meditative state in which I’d reflect on life while simultaneously trying to ignore the fact that I was completely at the mercy of the train conductor and mechanical state of the large metal cylinder I found myself in. You’d think that there’d be a kind of camaraderie between myself and the other passengers but it was so incredibly different from my previous lives, both at school and at home, because I found myself not knowing or even recognizing a single soul. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, it just felt like we were never really there, passersby whose physical bodies had yet to catch up with the minds that were already at their destination. Occasionally my isolated concentration would be broken by those who would dare to challenge the rule of silence, but these were few and far in-between, and I’d slowly been learning to tune these people out too.  It was before I’d perfected this ability that I heard Chuck.

*             *             *


I glanced over toward the source and expected the sitting man to be speaking to someone. It immediately became clear that he wasn’t. He seemed to be staring listlessly, eyes gazing upward at the fluorescent lights with his hands on his knees. He looked like he was in his mid-30s, short thin build with medium-length black hair that went just over his ears. He had on circular wire-frame glasses, a white button-down of an undiscernible brand, a black leather watch, and a pair of tan slacks held up by a black belt. The most distinguishing feature of his outfit were the aforementioned Chucks which seemed to clash with the business casual look but I suspected he might have another pair of shoes in the bag he kept by his feet. Though others were beside him, nobody seemed to have heard or at least they paid him no attention. Not that he wanted it, he spoke so softly that it was probably a remark intended for no one. I stared a moment longer before beginning to feel as though I’d imagined the whole thing and looked away in fear of being rude.

The next morning, as the subway pulled in, I noticed the man standing in one of the cars. Curiosity moved me as I maneuvered to get into the same car and took a spot next to him. For the duration of the trip I focused my senses, hoping to pick up on a clue that would explain yesterday’s mysterious event. In the moment, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted but it became clear when, as I was getting off at my stop, I heard a voice say 157.

I repeated the exercise over the next few days with similar results (132, 201, 233). It didn’t take long to realize that the man was counting us – the fluctuation in numbers seemed to correspond with how crowded the car was. At first I was skeptical, thinking there was no way he’d be able to count each and every single passenger that came aboard. Then I realized that it didn’t matter how accurate he was, depending on what his reasons were. I supposed that it was for market research or some other study but those were activities that did require a bit more precision and so, rather than mull over it, resolved to find out from the man himself what his purpose and method were.

*             *             *

Chuck never showed up the following Monday, nor did he appear on any subsequent day thereafter. Though it only took a few days to get over the disappointment, one year later I still think about why he was muttering those numbers. I may never know, but I think I’ve gotten closer to the answer.

It happened one day during a train delay. The car was packed and the air conditioning had malfunctioned. I stood perspiring, unable to enter the hermit shell I’d carefully crafted and forced to acknowledge the fact that I was underground in between stations with no hope of escape. I’d begun to panic, lifting my head up hopelessly looking for an answer when I noticed all these people. They were all coping in their own way – some were shuffling uncomfortably while others were standing still, some were looking at their phones or reading their books while others kept their eyes closed. I stared at these people for a while, observing their mannerisms.  I began to count.



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