“BIGGEST BLIZZARD TO HIT BOSTON SINCE 1935; 40 INCHES OF SNOW EXPECTED OVERNIGHT.”
School was canceled; the governor announced a state of emergency in anticipation of the storm, and told everyone to stay home or go home early. “We don’t need to have cars stuck on the highways. Be safe.”
Manoj’s foster mother was complaining again.
“The landlord said he’s going to fine us if you don’t take that blanket down.”
She was referring to the woven rectangle hanging over his window: dark blue, with red and yellow concentric diamonds formed from the weft yarn. The blanket was old, worn, and just big enough to cover the small window, or to wrap around a baby. He liked the way it scattered the cold winter light and brought a hint of warmth to his room. It was the only thing he had from his mother, his real mother.
“I don’t see why it bothers him so much.”
“He thinks it looks like some gang sign from the road, and our lease says we have to use white curtains to keep the building looking neat for prospective renters. Look, I don’t hang the laundry on the balcony any more, either. We all have to adapt.”
He took the blanket down, folded it, and put it away. It astounded him that the landlord would get mad at them for using one piece of fabric instead of another to cover his window, simply because one was sold for this purpose and another not. This country was full of such rules.
He did not want to stay in the apartment, did not want to hear his foster mother mutter about how he was by himself so much. But where could he go? There were no neighbors he knew by name, no friends whose homes he could take refuge in. This was America, a land where strangers lived next door to each other, and where a fourteen-year-old boy could not live on his own.
He decided to take the T downtown to play tourist.
• • • •
Manoj thought often about the refugee camp in Nepal: the crowded huts in the jungle, the daily queuing for water, the twice-monthly food delivery convoys, the hot and humid air, and the persistent feeling that life was on hold, that they were simply waiting.
He remembered nothing of the family’s flight from those who wished to kill them because of the land their ancestors had been born in, and he had only the vaguest memories of his parents before they died in the refugee camp. It was a blessing, in a way, because he had no nightmares of those times, as some of the older children in the camp did. But it was also a curse, as he could not call on hatred and thoughts of vengeance to sustain him during the long periods of lassitude and enforced torpor. A refugee camp was not a destination, not a home, just a transit hub where one waited.
He had been passed from family to family, none particularly interested in handling another child who cried at night and had never known what home meant. Finally, one family kept him because they heard that that UN prioritized resettling refugee families with many children.
Boredom meant that everyone had to be creative. A great deal of the supplies they received in camp was useless for their intended purpose. Some donors sent thick blankets and winter coats because they thought Nepal was a “Himalayan Kingdom” and so the refugees must be buried in snow and ice. But the camps were located in the middle of a jungle, and the refugees took those coats and blankets and made them into insulation for the iceboxes. It was difficult getting reliable electricity in the camp, and so the refugees took the donated old laptops—useless—and turned them into batteries for storing up electricity to charge mobile phones. They took the boxes the UN sent supplies in and made them into cisterns and swimming pools for the children.
One of Manoj’s oldest memories involved the day the camp received a giant canvas bag of baseball caps from America—some team whose logo was an elaborate red “B” had donated them. None of the children knew what to do with them, but Manoj figured out how to clip two baseball caps together at the brim and make a cage for fireflies. The light leaking out of the mesh backs was soft and gentle, the color of nostalgia. That night, the camp was filled with children running through the dark, dragging flickering, meteoric tails.
What a wonderful place this America must be, he thought. They make homes for light.
When the waiting ended with the news that he and the family that had taken him in were to be resettled in the United States, it seemed like fate.
• • • •
Even though the city was going to shut down early for the storm, it still bustled with activity. While the oppressive, gray sky loomed overhead, Manoj window-shopped at Faneuil Hall, gazed at the glass-walled federal courthouse, and watched people scurry around the city with grim faces, intent on their business.
His stomach growled. He counted the money in his pocket and decided that his best bet was to head to Chinatown for lunch.
Chinatown, the very existence of the place was a mockery of the high regard Americans had for their own country. While everyone congratulated each other over the election of a black president, here was a patch of the city, segregated, marked apart, a legacy of how people did not feel comfortable if they weren’t classified and put into their neat boxes. He had taken note of how the composition of the riders in the subway cars changed depending on the branch of the T he rode on and the stations the train stopped at, how the complexions of the people who sat in offices in the gleaming towers differed from those who cleaned the offices and took out the trash and brought them food, and above all, how nobody wanted to talk about these things.
But at least everyone else seemed to have a people, a place they were from.
He shivered—he would never get used to these winters—pulled the coat tighter around himself, and pushed open the door to a restaurant that looked cheap enough.
• • • •
On a winter’s morning two years ago, Manoj and his foster family were brought to a suburb of Boston and told that this was their new home. The cold air had surprised him; he wished he had the useless coat from those donors.
That chilly feeling had continued in school.
With little knowledge of English, he had felt—not exactly deaf and mute, but—incomplete, stupid, inadequate. He sat quietly in class, counting down the minutes until dismissal, the incomprehensible goings on around him like some elaborate folk dance. He hated having to smile all the time, indicating that he did not comprehend; he hated having to pantomime like some idiot to make his few wants understood; he hated the giggles and whispers of the other students.
His foster family was no help at all. They kept him fed and warm, but they also had young children of their own to care for. Besides, the struggles of a boy in school hardly seemed as important as surviving and adapting, as starting a new life.
After a year, the natural resiliency of youth and many hours of television finally taught him enough English that he no longer felt entirely lost, but this hardly brought him the relief he had expected.
“Where are you from?” the other students asked.
He didn’t know what answer to give. “Bhutan” was listed on his documents, but that was a land of which he had no memories (and which he had been told had not wanted him). Nepal was the place he had spent the most time in, but could he really be said to be “from” there when all he had seen was the inside of a refugee camp? And what was the point of giving either answer when his classmates would not know where to look on a map for both?
“Tibet,” he said, because that seemed like a place everyone knew.
“So you’re a Buddhist? You pray to the Dalai Lama?”
Again, he was stumped. He had deciphered enough of Social Studies to see that Americans liked to classify and label things: you were either Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or some other capitalized word, either black or white, either American or foreign. But the stories of his childhood—a mélange of heroes, gods, buddhas, avatars, and spirits—did not fit easily into the categories delineated in the textbooks.
Why does it matter so much where I’m from? he thought. The answer to that question had made him into a boy without a country in the first place.
Then came the bombs on that spring day in Boston, when people were supposed to be running a marathon. Later, it was discovered that the bombs were planted by a pair of brothers, foreigners who had come to America after escaping war in their homeland.
“You’re a refugee, too, aren’t you?” one of his classmates asked.
He wished he were back in the camp in Nepal then. But he understood that in America, you could not let others see how you really felt. This was a land that did not respect those who showed fear.
“Coming here and living off our money,” the boy said. “Hating us. Hating America.”
So he fought instead. He fought desperately, hopelessly, like how he had fought back at the camp sometimes when other children teased him about no family wanting him. He felt no pain until afterwards, until the teachers had separated them, until he had been told that he was being suspended, and then expelled.
Do I hate America? he thought. He could not tell. He was certain, though, that he did not feel grateful.
He switched schools. He fought more. His foster parents beat him because they thought it would help. He hardened the shell around himself. He realized that in America, school was very much like a prison or refugee camp, and he began to live his life as though he was back in Nepal, as every day turned into a game of waiting: waiting for the bell to ring, waiting for the bus to drop him off, waiting for dinner, for night, for sleep, until another day of waiting could begin.
This was not his city, not home.
• • • •
After a bowl of fried rice, he stayed at his table, sipping tea. Through the door of the restaurant, he could see snow falling in thick drifts, though the wind hadn’t picked up yet. Businesses all around were shuttering their doors and the street was filled with crowds streaming home. One by one, the customers around him got up and left.
He imagined the city in an hour or two: an empty metropolis in the storm. He smiled at the vision—suddenly, the people who normally filled these streets, never doubting their right to strut through them, were fleeing as refugees. If he stayed behind, he would, for once, not feel out of place.
The idea seemed so compelling that his face flushed.
When the owner of the restaurant left for a moment to check on the kitchen, he got up, left his money on the table, and went into the basement, where the restrooms were. He opened the broom closet and stepped in, pulling the door shut behind him.
In the darkness, he waited. Overhead, he could hear the owner and his staff moving the tables and chairs about, cleaning the floors. Someone came down and used the toilet, and then went back upstairs. Tired from standing, he sat down on the floor and tried not to take deep breaths as the air was saturated with the odor of musty rags.
He fell asleep.
• • • •
By the time he woke up, total silence engulfed him. Heart pounding, he pulled open the closet door. The darkness was broken by a few green LEDs at the top of the stairs—the cheap stereo system that the owner used to pipe Cantopop into the restaurant.
He climbed up the stairs, and he could now hear the howling of the wind outside, like some great beast, and he felt the walls of the building tremble.
The glass panes on the front door were completely blocked by ice and snow and only the faintest rays of light made their way through. He tried the door but saw that it was guarded by an elaborate series of locks. He didn’t see a way to open it from the inside without a key.
Undaunted, he felt his way towards the kitchen, bumping into tables and knocking over chairs. The back door, which opened onto an alleyway, was much simpler, and he unlocked it without much trouble.
He pushed against the door, and it refused to budge—the snow accumulated outside was too thick. He leaned his body against the door and strained, and felt the door give way. A crack opened, and cold air streamed in and sliced at his neck like a knife; he regretted not wearing a thicker coat.
A sudden gust of wind slammed against the door and knocked him off his feet. He laughed at himself, got up and tried again. This time, when the door opened, he did not let up but continued to strain against it, ignoring the cold wind, until the door opened enough for him to squeeze out.
A dense snowy blanket smothered the straight highways that followed the route of colonial postal riders, the twisty city streets that inherited the paths taken by grazing cows centuries ago, the parks of the Emerald Necklace, the red bricks of Cambridge sidewalks, the frozen harbor, and the Charles River. Boston was a city in the grip of winter, a construction of ice and snow.
Exhilaration filled his heart. He was alone in the city, sole master of this inhospitable domain.
He wanted to shout his joy, but as soon as he opened his mouth, an icy blast of wind punched into his throat, and he tumbled back into the snow. Darkness; then the cold seeped in from every gap and opening in his clothing. Panicked, he struggled to get up, but it was like swimming in quicksand. By the time he finally managed to get up, he could feel the snow and ice that had gotten into his clothes against his skin, tingling, and then numbing.
He was truly alone in the city. He imagined families huddled inside their houses and apartments, praying that the heat would not fail. He imagined the homeless being shepherded to shelters earlier. The wind, like a mighty river flooding over an obstreperous pile of rocks, angrily divided around the skyscrapers of Boston proper and turned into tributaries, channels, vortexes of sub-zero air. Snow, whipped up by the moaning wind, filled the space between buildings until it was impossible to see even a few feet ahead.
The thrill in his heart cooled, and fear precipitated like growing icicles. He realized that he was in trouble.
Thigh-deep in snow, he plodded ahead, stumbling with every step. The swirling flurries assaulted his face, and he couldn’t see any lit windows around him. Would strangers hear him if he pled for help? Almost by instinct, he made his way towards the T stop, hoping against hope that the trains were still running.
His feet, soaked through, felt numb inside the shoes. Wind pried open his collar and forced itself between the gap in his lapels. A strange hush filled his ears between gusts of wind, a foreboding silence that made his heart race, like the stillness of the transfixed crowd in the camp as they waited to hear their destination.
He felt guilty that his foster mother was going to worry, not knowing where he was—she might not have been terribly warm to him, but she had always tried to keep him safe, and he knew that was not a trivial thing in this world. He pulled the coat tighter around himself and pushed on. When did the governor say was the last T train? He couldn’t remember.
Finally, he was at the T stop. The grille was open, and the inside of the station was lit. Grateful, he pushed the doors open and stumbled inside.
The escalator wasn’t running, but that didn’t always mean the trains weren’t. The stairs were muddy and slippery from melted snow, and he carefully made his way down, glad of the warmth.
The platforms were empty. He glanced at the LED display that was supposed to show the expected arrival time of the next train: blank, as barren as the platforms.
He had missed the last train.
The silence in the vast underground space seemed to gain weight and substance. He told his racing heart to slow down, to not panic.
He sat down on the bench. He would have to sleep here tonight. He closed his eyes and waited—he was good at waiting. This was not very different from being in class or being at home.
Now that he was no longer moving, the temperature in the place seemed to drop. Was the heat turned off? How cold would it get down in here? Perhaps it would have been better to stay inside the restaurant, where he might have figured out how to keep the heat on overnight?
Then the station lights went out. And he was plunged into complete darkness. Blood rushed to his head, making him dizzy.
He heard skittering noises. Rats live down in the tracks! He climbed onto the bench and sat on the back, straining his eyes. Fear and cold seized his heart, and he could not tell which was which.
A rumbling came in the distance, a grinding, clanging noise that echoed off the walls. He strained in the direction it came from, and a dim light, like dawn, appeared around the curve in the narrow tunnel.
He got off the bench and went up to the edge of the platform. A breeze from the tunnel—warm like the heat of an opened oven—brushed against his face. The light grew brighter, the clanging louder. Abruptly, like a sunrise, a brilliant glow appeared from around the bend in the tunnel, and sparks lit up the tracks underneath.
He was saved. He had been in time for the last train after all.
Afraid that the operator might not see him and fail to stop, he jumped up and down on the platform, waving his arms and screaming. “I’m here! I’m here!” And then he stopped, too stunned to continue to shout.
A metallic behemoth, like some steam-powered monstrous engine that could only exist in imagination, puff-puff-puffed its way out of the tunnel. A great, blaring light, a miniature sun, shone from its forehead like a cyclopean eye and lit up the platform, bright as day. In front of the machine, hovering close to the rails, was an elephantine ground-sniffing snout that resembled an oversized vacuum cleaner’s nozzle. It roared like the engine of an airplane, and pumped out torrents of hot air that made it almost impossible for him to remain standing near the edge of the platform. The locomotive—nothing like the clean, electric T cars—belched acrid smoke that smelled of kerosene and made Manoj cough and his eyes tear up.
Abruptly, the roaring of the engine ceased, and with a long, clanging, scraping sigh, the machine slowed down, stopped, and revealed a train of T cars behind it. The doors slid open with a light thud.
He stared at the empty interior of the car in front of him: the same plastic bucket seats lit by fluorescent light; the same mottled pattern on the floor designed to hide stains; the same T map with red, green, orange, blue, and purple lines radiating away from Boston proper like the twisted strands of a web or the collapsed spokes around a hub. It looked just like a normal T train but for the hulking monster that pulled it. He was dumbfounded.
“Are you going to get in?” asked a deep voice from the front of the train.
Manoj looked over and saw a man’s head, topped with a fedora with a crimson hatband, poking out of the window in the locomotive. In the harsh light that reflected from the tiled walls, Manoj could not tell his age: One moment, he seemed to be as old as the decades that seeped from the cracks in the tunnel walls, the next, he seemed as young as the fresh paint on the train car.
“Come on,” the man said again. “The snow train needs to keep moving.”
• • • •
“Who are you?” Manoj managed to ask.
He was standing inside the operator’s compartment, which looked to him like the cockpit of some fantastic plane cobbled together with parts from different eras. There were rusty valves, jointed metal levers, and gauges with swinging needles and glass covers that looked yellow and brittle; LED lights arrayed in grids blinking madly and rhythmically like a vision of the future imagined in the sixties; subdued, flat computer screens that displayed maps, crawling lines, and scrolling text and numbers; even a roll of paper tape where a clacking printing head picked out faint letters formed with dots.
Hot air blasted from a grill overhead, keeping at bay the cold wind coming in through the open windows.
“You don’t recognize me?” asked the man, smiling. “I thought they did a pretty good job on those T passes.”
There was another seat next to the man, but Manoj didn’t feel comfortable enough to sit. He was afraid to touch the wrong lever or button, and so he remained standing.
Manoj took out his wallet. The credit card-sized “CharlieCard” depicted the side of a subway train with a man in a suit jacket leaning out. The wind whipped his crimson tie up and back like the tail of a kite, and he was trying to hold onto his fedora with one hand while holding up a green rectangle—cash, a pass, a little green book?
The face in the portrait was indistinct: a swirl, a dab, a quarter of an arc; perhaps intended to represent an eyebrow, an eye, and some kind of mustache. Manoj had never noticed how eerie the portrait was.
The train operator continued to smile as he glanced over at Manoj. His hands deftly played over the instrument panel, pulling at a lever here, punching a button there, spinning a dial on the other side.
Manoj looked at the man again, at his fedora with its crimson hatband, his white shirt with buttoned collar, his gray suit and crimson tie.
“You’re Charlie?” Manoj asked, feeling absurd. “You’re real?”
The man laughed. “You see me, don’t you?”
“That’s not what I meant. They hired you to dress up like this—like a mascot or something?”
“Not exactly,” said Charlie. “But enough about me. What do you call yourself?”
“The King of America, obviously,” said Manoj.
Chalie laughed, tipped his hat, and went back to driving the train.
“What kind of weird train is this?” asked Manoj.
“A snow train,” said Charlie. “Whenever there’s a big snow storm, the MBTA has to run snow trains overnight, after everyone’s gone home, to keep the tracks free of ice and snow. But my train is used only for the biggest storms, the kind that regular snow trains can’t clear. You saw the contraption up front? It’s made from the engine of an old jet fighter from the Korean War. The engine may have been with the T for almost as long as me, but it can still melt through the toughest ice.”
“You are working on a night like this?” Manoj was impressed, though he couldn’t take the man’s preposterous claim to be driving a train with a jet engine up front seriously.
“I have to,” said Charlie. “The storm is so bad that none of the regular MBTA operators can do the job. If I don’t run the snow train, by the time the storm is over, the T will be completely paralyzed.”
“I didn’t realize the MBTA made their mascot work so hard.” Manoj muttered. “So what’s your real story? Are you one of those guys whose whole life revolves around the job?” As a matter of fact, Manoj suspected that he was looking at a homeless man who happened to find the keys to the train and was now joyriding the T to stay warm.
Charlie turned to give him an appraising look. “You’re not from Boston?”
There it was again, the question about where he was from. “No.”
“Seems like most people in the city these days aren’t from Boston.”
“So what?” For a people who claimed to be welcoming to strangers, Americans sure cared about the distinction between born here and from away a lot.
Charlie looked at him, smiled, and continued on in his calm tone, “Well, if you had been born here, you would have heard this song while you grew up.”
Did he ever return?
No he never returned
And his fate is still unlearn’d
He may ride forever ’neath the streets of Bostonb
He’s the man who never returned.
“What are you singing?”
“It’s called ‘Charlie on the MTA.’”
“The song’s about you?”
Charlie nodded. “It started back in 1949, when Walter O’Brien was running for mayor of Boston. He couldn’t afford radio advertising, and so he drove around in a truck and played campaign songs from a loudspeaker.”
“That must have made him popular.”
Charlie chuckled. “The citizens of Boston fined him ten dollars.”
“So how did you get to be in this song?”
“One day, I got on the MTA—that’s the old name for the T—at Kendall Square heading for Jamaica Plain. When I tried to get off, the conductor told me that I owed a nickel.”
“Wait, you didn’t pay when you got on?”
“Of course I did.”
“So why did you need to pay again?”
“Oh, the fare on the trains was a mess back then. They had all sorts of complicated rules and schedules and it filled up a whole booklet. They had just had a fare hike that made you pay an extra nickel if you wanted to get out at a station that was above ground.”
“If you knew why they’d hiked the fare, you’d think it worse than dumb.”
“The subway was owned privately back then, but the owners couldn’t make enough money. So they managed to get the city to buy them out with a huge bag of cash to be paid by the people of Boston. The MTA then raised the fare so the poor could pay the rich.”
“I thought so, too. Since I didn’t give him the nickel, the conductor wouldn’t let me off.”
“So what did you do?”
“What could I do? I just stayed on the train.”
“For how long?”
“I never got off.”
“That’s absurd,” scoffed Manoj.
“Didn’t you hear my song? That’s what it said. My wife Libby had to come to Scollay Square at quarter past two every day to hand me my lunch through an open window as my train rumbled by her.”
“Why couldn’t she give you a nickel?”
“I didn’t want one; it was the principle of the thing.”
“And you really never got out?”
“That’s right. I just stuck around.”
Manoj was about to protest how the logistics of this story couldn’t possibly have worked when Charlie gestured at him to wait. “Hold on. We’re about to come out from underground.”
They emerged from the tunnel, and the rumbling of the train turned hollow and dissipated in the open air. It was impossible to see far beyond the windows obscured by the swirling patterns of the snow.
Charlie pulled on a lever and the train slowed down. Manoj peered through the windshield, kept barely clear by heated wipers moving in a frenzy, and saw a wall of packed snow looming ahead, almost half as tall as the train itself. The tracks disappeared under it. Instead of a train, it was like they were sailing through the Arctic and had come upon an iceberg that blocked the way.
“Now you get to see my old friend in action,” said Charlie. “She guzzles fuel like crazy, but they don’t call her Snowzilla for nothing.”
Charlie pushed some buttons, spun some dials, pulled back on a lever slowly, and a deep, bone-quaking roar began to build inside the train. The entire engine shook like a rocket about to be launched.
Manoj had never heard anything so loud. He wanted to cover his ears but realized that it would be useless: He was hearing, no, feeling the roar in his bones. He was defenseless. So he relaxed his body and gave in to the noise and motion, grabbing onto a section of vertical piping that ran near him. As he looked through his trembling field of vision towards the front, he saw the air shimmering above the giant vacuum cleaner nozzle, and the swirling snowflakes, like a swarm of moths diving towards a flame, vanished in the hot, shimmery air. The wall of snow in front reflected a bright, red glow.
Charlie had not lied. The train really did have a jet engine strapped to the front.
Charlie eased up on another lever, and the train began to slowly move forward. Manoj watched as the wall of snow softened like heated wax, caved in, and then crumbled like a calving glacier in the heat from the jet engine. The tracks emerged from under the snow, and Manoj could see the flickering flame tongues inside Snowzilla’s maw reflected against their mirror-like surface. As the train moved forward relentlessly, Snowzilla dug a ditch out of the snow, and twin rivulets of meltwater flowed in torrents next to the tracks.
It was like riding inside some monstrous machine in that Jules Verne movie Manoj saw once. It was fantastic and impossible and absurd and awesome all at the same time.
• • • •
The jet engine’s roar sputtered a few times and became uneven.
Manoj looked over at Charlie, whose intense gaze was focused on one of the dials. Manoj saw that the needle on the dial was nearing the left edge, in the red zone.
Then the engine sputtered a few more times; Charlie punched a few more buttons and spun some wheels, his movements becoming more frantic. The engine’s roar rose to a crescendo and then turned into a series of sputters that culminated in a loud choking sound, and then, complete silence.
Charlie had to pull back on a lever in a hurry and the train lurched to a stop. After the continuous roar from the jet engine, the sudden silence seemed deafening.
Manoj didn’t have to ask any questions. He knew what had happened.
He opened the door of the cockpit and climbed out. Charlie stood at the top of the ladder but didn’t follow.
They were deep in a canyon of snow. Behind them was a tunnel that Snowzilla had dug with her fiery breath; in front of them was a solid wall of ice and snow. Meanwhile, snow continued to fall from above, and the wind howled overhead like wolves.
“You didn’t carry any extra fuel?” asked Manoj, shouting up at Charlie to be heard above the wind.
“We’ve never quite had a storm like this,” said Charlie.
“What if we climb out to a gas station nearby?”
Charlie shook his head. “Snowzilla requires jet fuel, and in any event, I can’t leave the train.”
Manoj looked up at him, incredulous.
“I told you my story.”
“You really can’t leave the T?”
“Look at me. How old do you think I am?”
“I don’t know. Fifty?”
“When I got on that MTA train back in 1949, I was already fifty.”
Manoj felt a chill in the pit of his stomach. Half an hour earlier, he would have considered this just another one of Charlie’s quirky jokes. But now, after all he had seen and heard, he was no longer so sure that Charlie was just an eccentric T employee who made up a crazy story. In the flickering light of the operator’s compartment, Charlie’s face seemed to flicker between youth and age, grow as indistinct as his portrait on the T pass.
“Are you a ghost?”
Charlie shrugged. “I guess you could say that. I prefer to think that the laws of physics suspended around me sometime back in 1949 and never got around to re-applying themselves, but there are other rules that I do have to follow: I exist as long as I stay within MBTA property.”
Charlie leaned and extended his hand outside the door. When it was about two feet from the train, the fingers grew translucent and Manoj could see the snow falling behind them. He pulled his hand back.
It didn’t seem useful to stand around in the snow. Manoj climbed back into the train.
“We’ll have to wait it out,” said Charlie mournfully. “Maybe tomorrow they can dig us out. At least we can stay warm.”
Manoj noticed that the hot air blasting out of the grill overhead continued unabated. “How do we still have heat?”
“That runs off the electricity from the third rail,” said Charlie. “Same as the train itself.”
Manoj considered this.
“We can use it to melt the snow.”
And now it was Charlie’s turn to look at him incredulously.
“But that’s not what it’s intended for.”
Manoj laughed. This man—ghost, whatever—didn’t think it strange to spend a night in a storm huddled in a train engine; didn’t consider it odd to be still alive more than six decades after getting on a subway train; didn’t believe it to be unusual to smash through ice and snow in a train with a jet engine strapped to the front; but he had trouble thinking that something could be used for another purpose.
“Where I’m from,” said Manoj, “if we used everything the way they were intended to be used, we’d be dead.”
“It’s a good thing that you’re not from here then,” said Charlie.
• • • •
It took Manoj more than an hour to climb through the snow to a nearby store that he could break into—the massive dangling icicles functioned well as battering rams against glass, he found out—get the supplies he needed, leave a note behind with Charlie’s signature that promised MBTA would pay for everything, and make his way back to the train, dragging an inflatable kiddie pool behind him as a cargo sled.
He was exhausted but he couldn’t rest yet. It took them another hour of work to cobble together Manoj’s vision. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and told Charlie, “Give it a go.”
Charlie flipped the switch to turn back on the heat in the train. They had turned it off while Manoj was working, and the temperature in the compartment had dropped precipitously.
Except the hot air didn’t flow into the compartments. Manoj had covered the heating grills in the train—the cars as well as the engine—with funnels jury-rigged from tents, sleeping bags, winter coats, and anything else that provided good insulation. The funnels directed the hot air into thick hoses that all came together in front of the engine in a single bundle tied together with heavy-duty tape. This hydra, as thick around as Charlie’s midsection, required all of Manoj’s strength to lift and keep in place as the hoses wriggled behind them and the hot air blasted out of the nozzles.
Manoj stepped resolutely forward and aimed this new Snowzilla at the wall of ice and snow. It wasn’t as dramatic as the fiery breath of the jet engine, of course, but, slowly, the icicles wilted and the snow began to give way.
With a happy whoop, Charlie inched the train forward, keeping pace with the slow progress of Manoj as he blasted a path forward in the snow.
• • • •
Finally, they emerged from the wall of snow and ice onto a clear part of the tracks. The snow had stopped falling, and the sky was exceptionally clear, studded with countless brilliant stars.
Manoj looked around and realized that they were on a bridge over the Charles River, and the buildings of Cambridge beckoned from the other side.
“How did we end up here on the Red Line?” asked Manoj. “We were on the Orange Line.”
“Oh, I don’t care much about maps,” said Charlie. “All the lines need clearing, so I just drive Snowzilla wherever she’s needed.”
Manoj was beyond that’s impossible by this point. What was crossing from one set of T tracks to another compared to having ridden a fire-breathing monster through a storm?
“It looks like we’ve cleared the last part of the tracks,” Charlie said. “From here it should be easy to bring you wherever you need to go and then for me to get back to the depot.”
“You never finished your story. How did that guy—O’Brien—end up making a song about you?”
Charlie laughed. “As you can imagine, I wasn’t the only one who was mad about a few rich guys trying to rob the rest of us with that fare hike. We formed a party, the Progressives, and O’Brien was our candidate. He was going to fight for the working men and women who rode the trains and depended on it.”
“Did he win?”
“Not even close. He came in last out of five candidates. They smeared us, and him, as Communists.”
“John B. Hynes.”
“Like in Hynes Convention Center?”
“That’s right. O’Brien moved back to Maine, where he was from, and ended up as a librarian and ran a bookstore till he died.”
Manoj reflected on this. It seemed such a typical story about America: the local, the established, the wealthy just kept on winning.
“Where’s home?” asked Charlie.
Manoj was just about to speak, but stopped. Home seemed such a heavy word. Was the apartment where he stayed with his foster parents and siblings really home? Was this city, this country, this cold, unforgiving place where people always asked him where he was from home?
Charlie waited, and when it became obvious that no answer would be forthcoming, he nodded and started the train again.
As the train rumbled along the tracks, Charlie seemed to be speaking to himself as he said, “Do you know the real reason for why I never left?”
Manoj said nothing.
Charlie went on, as though Manoj had asked. “The song wasn’t true, not entirely, anyway. I had plenty of money in my pocket, but it didn’t feel right to give it up. This city was my home, but somehow, somewhere along the way, it had turned into a faceless machine where everyone submitted to paying just to get off the train. We were fighting to take back our home, and we weren’t even allowed to use a loudspeaker to talk to our neighbors. I was a stranger in my own land. So I put my foot down and said no.”
Manoj still said nothing.
“I’ve seen the city change a lot in the time I’ve been riding the trains: First it shrank, then it grew; the whites left, and others moved in; new words, new accents, new languages; people lost their jobs, moved away, and were replaced by others doing new jobs; neighborhoods got wrecked until they became trendy enough to be rebuilt, and the cycle started again.
“Sometimes, I think Boston is not one city, but many cities that just happen to be forced to share one space. There’s one city for the bankers and investment managers and lawyers; another city for all the garbage haulers and custodians and cleanup crews; one city for the young and beautiful; another for the old and sickly; one for those who know that they belong here; and another for those who seem always in doubt. The city belongs to all of them and none of them; no one is ever truly at home.”
He paused, looked over at Manoj, and seeing no reaction, went on.
“But the people of all these Bostons ride the T. This is the only place where they are forced to share one bit of space and breathe the same air: rich, poor, light skinned, dark, different tongues, different ages, different clothes, different ideas. This is a place for those who are passing through, a hub.
“This city wouldn’t be the same without any of its people, and even if they don’t talk to each other, this is the one place where they have to acknowledge each other. If you and I hadn’t been here tonight, the tracks wouldn’t be cleared and the trains wouldn’t run tomorrow. Everyone leaves a mark on this city, even if they don’t know it, even if they think they’re just passing through, that this isn’t home.
“And I thought: Well, if no one calls the T home, then I shall make it my home. This is my place. This is where I’m from.”
“I think most people would say that’s not really the T’s intended purpose,” said Manoj.
“Being at home means you don’t care what other people think.”
Manoj looked at Charlie. What an American ideal that was. People didn’t always adhere to it, but it was a beautiful ideal nonetheless.
He relaxed and let out a long-held breath. He sat down in the other chair in the cockpit and put his feet up on the instrument panels.
They said no more as the train rumbled on in the darkness. Outside, the snow and ice seemed to make the world anew, a frozen, blank page, and the heat and noise of the train left a long, gleaming mark behind, a path that promised nothing and everything.
Spread the word!