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A Sudden Stillness


Harry Buschman

On a chilly autumn morning Frank and Mary DaSilva sat at opposite sides of the living room with their feet on the window sill. Mary wore gray house slippers. Frank was barefoot. Between them stood a thriving potted palm, now thirty years old, a gift from the boys on the cutting room floor on the occasion of Frank and Mary's wedding

Outside their third story apartment, the silver rails of the Third Avenue elevator glistened brightly in the clear morning sun. It was their habit to sit quietly every morning and watch the trains go by. At this time of day a train went by every 90 seconds, then as rush hour drew to a close, the intervals between trains grew longer. At this point, Frank would yawn, swing his feet down from the window sill and go to bed.

While they sat there, they would comment on every passing train. Their eyesight was trained to catch the face of the engineer as he flashed by, and they would say, "There goes four-eyes," or "There's the walrus." From their vantage point they would occasionally lock eyes with a passenger staring out the window of the train, and there would be a magical momentary communication, unspoken and unacknowledged, but riveting nonetheless, and the passenger would carry an image of Frank, Mary and the potted palm in his mind all day.

They could have moved from Third Avenue to the stillness of the suburbs years ago, all their friends and relatives left during the building boom in the fifties, but Frank and Mary DaSilva preferred to remain on the lower East Side. They had no visitors and even the few relatives who still came to call couldn't leave for home fast enough. "How can they stand that infernal racket?" "How can they sleep." "They must be crazy -- I'd go out of my mind."

Frank was on the night shift in a bed frame factory, he didn't get home 'til six in the morning. His wife, Mary, following her mother's advice, adjusted her routine to conform with her husband's work schedule. She did her housework at night and started supper at five in the morning. They would both sleep the day through lulled by the clashing and clanging of steel wheels on the steel rails of the Third Avenue El outside their living room window.

During the day. they slept through the bustling scene outside. On sunny days the street under the elevated train was dappled in shade and created a dizzying chiaroscuro. Common street horses were changed magically into zebras. Trucks and storefronts were camouflaged in stripes of black and white. Looking up at the bright sky one could see a latticework of steel beams, cross ties and rails, that in the imagination of some recent citizens, resembled an enormous caged enclosure built to imprison a city of immigrants.

For people who love elevated railways, Frank and Mary's apartment could not have been chosen more wisely. If they were one floor lower the trains would have been above their line of sight and much of the excitement of seeing them flash by at eye level would have been missed. If they were on the fourth floor the trains would have been below them and their living room view would have been compromised by the more sordid panorama of life in the apartments across the street.

As luck would have it, there was a rail splice just outside their living room window. It was an old splice, well worn, and the train wheels, like a blacksmith's hammer would pound it with every passing. The building would tremble slightly, there would be ripples in standing water in the kitchen sink, and the potted palm in the living room window would tremble with excitement. Frank and Mary would fall asleep in the morning light counting the wheels as they pounded the splice ever deeper on their way uptown. "That's an eight-car train," Frank might say. Mary might agree, or she might not. Combined with the screech of steel wheels on rusty switches, the clangor and pounding lent a rhythm and a purpose to their daily lives.

They were not alone in their love for the elevated. Their canary, "warbles" would fill his throat with song as the train left the Division Street station and sing to it as it roared by. Warbles did not live in the living room, he hung from a peg on the kitchen wall and although he could not see the train, it vibrated the bars of his cage like harp strings and he knew something wonderful was happening in the world outside.

Frank's brother lived in Plainview, Long Island and Mary had a sister in New Dorp. On summer weekends they would reluctantly go to visit them, but the utter silence of the suburbs would set them on edge and they would leave for home as quickly as possible.

Frank would say, "I don't know how they can stand it, all you hear is birds and lawn mowers."

And Mary would answer, "I know, I know -- and eating outdoors ... ugh! Like animals!"

Quietude was synonymous with the grave, whereas the pounding, grinding, metronomic regularity of the Third Avenue El was a constant reminder of life to the DaSilvas, it set a tempo to the placidity of their lives, and when Danny O'Hara of the Transit Union announced the entire membership would strike the city transit system for the first time ever, Frank and Mary looked at each other in dismay.

"He wouldn't dare," Mary ventured.

"Oh wouldn't he though," Frank answered nervously. "You know how the Irish are."

The newspapers talked of nothing but the possibility of a general transit strike. The Mayor warned of injunctions and court orders. "It would raise the cost of a token to 25 cents," he said. Danny O'Hara shook his fist and replied,

"The subways should be free!"

The possibility of conciliation faded as the strike day approached. Both sides had strutted and postured to the point that neither could concede.

"The deadline is five o'clock Monday morning," Frank said nervously.

"Supper time," Mary said wistfully.

Frank took the elevator to work for the last time on Sunday night. He stood on the windy deserted platform and watched the flickering lights of the approaching train as it lumbered up the hill to the Division Street Station. It was a four-car train -- nearly empty and it sounded hollow as it approached the platform. The doors rumbled open and Frank sat down cradling his lunch box on his knees. Across the aisle an old man stared at him. He flashed a timid smile on and off like a disconnected light bulb. Above the mounting rumble of the train he shouted, "Night worker, eh? How y'gettin' home tomorra?"

Frank hadn't thought about getting home in the morning. Somehow he felt that if he went about his life in the usual way the strike would never happen, and tomorrow morning at the stroke of six, he would punch the clock and the Third Avenue El would be waiting for him just as it always had. He would ride home on the silver rails to the Division Street Station and walk the half block to home. He stared at the old man and smiled uncertainly in return -- "Guess I'll have'ta walk," he shouted.

But all through the night it haunted him. The men on the sleepy night shift in the bed frame factory reported they heard from the delivery men "On good authority." "They're still talkin'." "Danny sez this." "The Mayor sez that." No one knew for sure, but everyone knew it was do or die. At four in the morning someone from the spring forging room said the strike was on. Trains, buses, trolleys, everything -- the union was solid behind Danny O'Hara.

Some of the crew lived in Brooklyn and Queens -- two of the men on Frank's team lived in Jersey. Frank could walk home, it was only three miles straight down Third Avenue, but it was something he had never done. He loved the Third Avenue El and he wouldn't walk a block if he could ride.

When the shift closed down at six, the men stood outside in the chilly quiet morning and stared up at the Third Avenue El.

"Well, they done it. The sonsabitches went and done it -- now how we gittin' home?" One of them grumbled. The two Jerseyites turned up their coat collars and headed west.

"Poor bastards," Frank remarked. "They gotta walk all the way to the PATH tubes."

"I gotta hitch a ride to the Bronx," someone said. "How you gettin' home, Frank?"

Frank looked up at the dark and quiet framework above him, and in a subdued voice, answered, "Guess I'll hoof it."

In pleasant weather and in happier times the walk home under the Third Avenue El would have been a fulfilling one. There were stores of all description, ethnic differences sharply defined but friendly borders separating them. It was as though the walker were a giant in a Lilliputian countryside passing through Italy, Germany, Poland, Greece and China. But on this particular day-1 of the transit strike Frank's mood was black and gloomy. He looked up from time to time at the dark, forbidding structure above him - quiet now in the weak morning light. Barricades blocked entrances to the stations and newspaper kiosks were shut tight.

The sight of fresh vegetables in the markets did not revive him, nor did the fat yellow chickens hanging by their feet in the butcher's windows. Even the swinging doors of the saloons did not cause him to break his slow and solemn stride.

"You're late," Mary said as Frank walked in and sat at the kitchen table with a resigned sigh.

"Had to walk."

"I know," Mary said sympathetically. "They stopped running at four am ... it's been so quiet."

"Supper ready?"

"Don't'cha want to read the morning paper, Frank?"

"I can't stand to look at the pitchers of Danny O'Hara." Frank clenched his fist and brought it down hard on the table. "Look what he's done to us, Mary!"

They ate in the kitchen. They ate without enjoyment. The canary looked down from his cage on the wall, and sensing the melancholy in the room ventured a plaintive peep. It, too, was aware of the silence, and looking from Frank to Mary and back again, decided it would be better to keep its mouth shut.

"We could listen to the radio," Mary suggested.

Frank chewed mechanically and without relish. It didn't seem important to respond, but after swallowing laboriously he pointed out to Mary there was no sense turning on the radio at seven o'clock in the morning. "As a matter of fact," he said, "There ain't much use in stayin' up anyways ... think I'll turn in after supper."

"But it's seven o'clock in the morning, Frank."

"I'm tired, Mary. I had to walk home -- besides, what's t'stay up for?"

Mary stood up and looked into the living room which had been their vantage point to watch the passing trains only yesterday. She sighed deeply and gathered up the supper dishes. "Guess I'll turn in too, Frank. Soon as I get the dishes done. Ain't much t'do without the trains is there?"

Frank helped her with the dishes as he always did under happier circumstances. They put the cover over the canary, and with a last melancholy look at the living room window, retired for the day. The canary, who lived on daylight time and confused by the sudden onslaught of darkness decided it would sing a song or two.

"Shut up, f'Christ's sakes, we're tryin' t'sleep in here." Frank shouted from the bedroom.

©Harry Buschman 2002

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