Latency Period: Gus

Editor Daniel Elder, Editor's Choice, March 27th, 2017

"...the opportunity to cement this long-standing but impersonal connection..."

Daniel Elder Essay Nailed Magazine
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Our monthly column “Latency Period” is made up of reflections on the gaps in our lives–whether between life and death, between perception and reality, or between one human being and another–and trying to bridge those gaps with words. Written by Daniel Elder, for NAILED.

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My life has become a small and cozy thing in the last few months. I moved to my favorite neighborhood in Portland and quickly landed a job a mere eight-block walk from my house. I’m trying to be an early riser, to varying degrees of success, but no matter how late I sleep in, I try to avoid walking the straight eight blocks the exact same way each time.

It’s a beautiful neighborhood, and I’ve never really lived among so many houses before. I grew up in an apartment building surrounded by other brick hives as far as the eye could see. And when I moved from Queens to Manhattan and then from there to Brooklyn, that never changed. One apartment after the other. We call them apartments, though we are stacked one on top of another when we live in them. And houses, with all the space around them afforded by their yards, do feel so much less apart.

So I take winding routes to get to work. In New York, unless I was taking one of my pulse-checking walks through the city (more on that another time), I was always striving to be an Efficient Pedestrian. The idea of walking out of my way to get to work wasn’t blasphemous, it was plain beyond comprehension. It never occurred to me. Now I weave through the neighborhood, taking in all the houses and their personalities, the strange wire sculptures here and the hand-built greenhouse there. The tire swing, dripping wet in the rain. The two black cats always prowling around that one house in the morning, and all the people out walking with their joyful, beautiful dogs.

And though my routes are always in flux, I’m beginning to draw a map in my mind. Not a map that’s just of place, mind you–it is easy enough to remember streets and avenues–but a map of all the people and the brief bits of their family lives and their personalities that I get to see on these morning rambles. This is my community.

The last six years before I moved to Portland, I lived in a small studio apartment in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. My commute was the same, always. Five days a week, I took the same walk down Fulton Street to catch the C train at the corner of Washington Avenue.  My first and only stop along the way was the delightfully queer Outpost Café. Coffee in hand, I then continued to the subway, passing by Crown Fried Chicken, the CleanRite Laundromat, and the scaffolding that had marred the corner of Fulton and St. James since I’d moved into the neighborhood almost three years ago. When I arrived at the stairwell leading underground, it was usually around 10:15 A.M. The subway platform below was lined with familiar faces.

There was the old rocker whose hair got scragglier and longer as the top of his head got balder, always reading old pulp sci-fi novels with headphones plugged in his ears and a scowl on his face. The old black professor who looked like a taller, crazier version of Cornel West and who wore mild suits with wildly patterned ties. And how could I forget the girl with the messenger bag covered in hexagon patches? God, I love hexagons. I used to spin out stories in my mind of how, once I finally confessed my love to her, we’d always have the C train and her hexagons as a story to tell our friends, family, our kids, our grandkids. How did we meet? Why, the C train.

I never actually spoke to her. But it was a pretty thought.

No, none of us spoke to one another. Though these characters populated my opening credits each morning, and I in turn populated theirs, it was rare that we made eye contact, much less said hello to one another. Doing so would have been too open an acknowledgment of the routine that we all assumed, for our sanity, was a temporary set of circumstances.

As I approached the corner of Fulton and Washington one searing hot morning, I trailed in the wake of one of my perpetual morning companions. Gus, as I’d named him, was a roly-poly gentleman in his early 40’s. As usual, he sported his beige raincoat, flannel shirt and khaki pants. I followed behind him, admiring his shock of salt-and-pepper hair and the way the tan leather of his shoes matched that of his messenger bag.

I’d always felt a particular kinship with Gus. We both knew precisely where we needed to stand at the Clinton-Washington station – middle of the platform, right by the two benches, closer to the trash can – so that when we disembarked at Jay St. to cross the platform to the F train, we would exit three stops later right by the stairwell that led to the northeast corner of Essex and Delancey in Manhattan. There, we’d finally part ways. Some days I shared this commute with Gus in both directions. We’d spent countless mornings and evenings standing five feet apart from one another with our noses buried in our books. Our lives dovetailed so perfectly, we had symmetry between us, so that I often imagined we were reading the same exact thing. He looked pretty nerdy, and when I spent six months straight reading an epic fantasy series called The Malazan Book of the Fallen, I felt pretty sure he was reading it too. We were kin.

That one morning, I came up behind Gus just as the sound of a train wafted up from the nearby grating in the sidewalk.  I could see from Gus’s body language as he trundled ahead of me that he heard it too, our ears finely tuned after countless mornings of this same stale routine to recognize the rumble as that of a Manhattan-bound C train pulling into the station below.

We both hurried our pace. Gus being more heavyset than me, I quickly overtook him. As I passed through the turnstile, deftly swiping my MetroCard without slowing down, I heard Gus shuffling down the stairs a ways behind. The C pulled out ahead of me, but I made good enough time to avoid breaking a sweat in pursuit. I upgraded from a steady gait to a brisk power walk, taking advantage of my lanky stride. When I reached the last car, all the doors down the length of the train were clear and I was the last to board. Far ahead, the conductor’s head ducked back in the window of her compartment. All aboard.

The doors kicked and began to close as I stepped in, but I pressed my body against the rubber lip of one side, holding it open and looking back to gauge Gus’s approach. He came barreling through the turnstile, his short, stubby legs working double-time to hurl his figure forward at what, for him, equated to breakneck speed. We made momentary eye contact, and then he focused on the floor just outside the subway car, running his lungs out while clutching his messenger bag against his belly. I could feel the eyes of impatient commuters boring into me, could hear their muttering. I didn’t care. I watched as Gus worked his momentum, hitting the brakes and slowing his steps just in time to come alongside the door and lunge into the car.

I stepped away from the door and it closed.

I leaned against the doors once they had shut behind me, grinning at Gus, thrilled not just with our triumph but the opportunity to cement this long-standing but impersonal connection.  How often I had wondered what his life was like. What wild flights of fancy I had taken, imagining where he went to work each day. How similar I knew we must be.

“Thanks,” he said quietly, flicking his gaze at me then looking at the floor. He sighed and leaned back against the pole, pulled a handkerchief out of his khakis pocket, and mopped his sweat-soaked brow. The train lurched forward.

“No worries,” I replied, beaming a smile at my newfound friend. “No man gets left behind, you know?”

Gus dabbed the handkerchief at his cheeks and neck, his torso heaving as he sought to catch his breath. His gaze lifted, transfixed now on some distant point down the length of the car, amidst all the people that were riding the train with us, sitting, standing, reading, listening, commuting, all the people going wherever it was that they were going, living whatever lives it was they lived.

He mopped his brow again, and then his neck, then he spoke in a low, slow tone, staring straight ahead.

“Everyone gets left behind.”

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Header image courtesy of Anton Krasnikov. To view his photo essay, “Speak It Easy,” go here.

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Daniel Elder

Daniel Elder is a New York City native who now calls Portland home. He is the author of a self-published collection of essays and is currently revising a novella. He lives in an attic with his cat, Terence.