Scene: Subway Car
Lindsey Locke

A subway car. New York City, night.

The camera is turned on inside a subway car. It finds only four people in the scene. That's unusual for a Tuesday night--and it's not even midnight yet. Oh well, they're the only four we've got, so let's take a closer look at them.

The first, sitting legs-out-in-the-aisle-like-he-doesn't-give a-damn-if-you-trip-over-them, is a young man in a black leather jacket. The jacket doesn't show much wear. Looks pretty new. Keeps it clean, he does. And you can tell he's proud of it.

Maybe we should zoom in to look more closely at this fellow's jacket.


Characterization. Always good to start out with characterization.

Go ahead. Doesn't matter to me one way or the other.

Okay, the jacket is black, like I said. Shiny black. It has silver chains at both shoulders. The chains drape down below his armpits.

Looks uncomfortable.

Must be worth it to him. The jacket has silver buttons all over the place. Most of them are not used to fasten anything, and are therefore pointless.

What's that all about, some kind of statement?

Well, everybody has a cerebral cortex, and therefore their own concept of fashion.


Never mind. Equally pointless are the straps at both cuffs.

What was that about a cerebral cortex?

Not important. Anyhow, you get the idea: a sullen boy in a black leather jacket that has pointless buttons and straps.

This characterization stuff is a waste of time. He's probably only a supporting-cast character anyhow.

Well, it is possible that he may only be an extra in our little drama, but each character must be properly developed. Now that I think about it, I bet a certain type of observer, the nervous-Nelly type, might suspect this young man could be carrying a switch-blade knife.

Now you're talking. There's plot in that.

On the other hand, a less concerned observer, one who was less nervous about young men in general, and maybe noting the fact that this boy is not trying to aggressively make eye-contact with anyone, might suggest he only uses it to clean his nails.

That's it?

That's it. He only uses it to clean his nails. But enough about him, lets move along. Let's look at the second person, a middle-aged woman. She's staring straight ahead, eyes glazed over as if she's remembering something. Or reliving something? Zoom in to the floor. Between her feet, guarded by her thick ankles, is a white shopping bag that says "Bloomingdales" on the side of it (in big orange letters, if you're interested). No puzzle about who this lady is: she's a shopper, returning home late from a long day of shopping downtown. The only thing unusual about her is the look on her face. Close up of her face. She's irritated, frowning, lips pushed out, eyes scowling. She's mad at somebody. She's going to tell that somebody off when she gets home.


Who knows?

Now, the third person in the car is an elderly woman in a worn cloth coat. Let's say the coat is dark red. Or how about maroon?

Does it matter?

Right, the color probably doesn't really matter. Let's just say it's an old-fashioned coat. She's sleeping sitting up.

Geez, that looks uncomfortable.

This particular lady probably used to have gray hair, but it's been dyed such an unnatural reddish-brown color nobody could help but notice. Zoom in on her hair. She's dreaming. You can tell she's dreaming because her eyelids are twitching.

What's she dreaming about?

What she's dreaming about doesn't matter; what does matter is that the swaying of the train makes her head gradually slip farther and father to the side until it's leaning against the shoulder of the old man sitting next to her. The fourth and final person in this scene is that old man.

What about him?

He's old, like I said. The important thing is why is an old man on the subway at this time of night? He should be home in bed. But maybe he's not like most old men: maybe he's one of those get out-and-do-things old men. Now that I think about it, he could be on his way home from that confusing new play the NYU drama club is putting on. That's it: he's been to that stupid play and now he's thinking about it, trying to make sense of it.

Good luck with that.

He thinks: a few too many on-stage fist fights, and far, far too many curse words, but I guess that's the way young people communicate these days. Oh well, at least they were trying hard. He resisted the urge to leave in the middle of the play. He saw it as his duty to sit through the entire thing.


Because as far as he could tell, he was the only person in attendance who was not somehow associated with the drama club itself. He was, in effect, the audience. About halfway through the performance, he realized their play was actually not aimed at him, the audience, but toward each other, the small clique of students who make up the NYU drama club. The lines they spoke were designed to elicit laughter from each other, the kind of laughter that's more like shouting than laughing, so loud the old man had to put his fingers in his ears. They were laughing hard to show their appreciation for the not-really-funny situation jokes that were actually inside jokes about life at NYU in the drama department. There were also the usual statements-in-dialogue about being too young to be part of the established order of things and therefore perfectly qualified to take jabs at those in power, statements about how things should be, would be, if they had their way.

How, exactly?

Well, for example, more moral, more relevant; you know, better all around.

Good luck with that too.

Surprisingly, the old man is not disappointed with his night out. He may not have enjoyed the play, but he enjoyed being there. He reads the Village Voice every week just to find such events. His nights out help him focus on the part of him that is still young rather than the part of him that is getting old. He thinks about that a lot, getting old.

That's cool. How old is he, exactly?

Well, he's maybe sixty-five? About retirement age. Let's say he's recently retired.

What does he look like, this old guy?

Well, he looks like . . . like old guys look. You know, gray hair, not dyed. And he has brown spots on the backs of his hands, like old people do. He's dressed in a suit that was probably expensive in its day, but it's now showing the travails of time.


Not dowdy, not really. The suit is clean and well cared for. It's quite possible the lady sleeping against his shoulder is the one who cares for it. Therefore, we might decide the sleeping old woman and the old man are together, that her sleeping head and his patient shoulder have grown used to each other, have been linked together through a long and happy marriage that is now stable and quietly drifting onward through time, a relationship that will continue into their declining years, on and on toward the inevitable end.


I thought so. But nothing could be further from the truth. Although the old man is being very careful not to move so as not to disturb the woman's sleep, he doesn't know her at all.

So why is she resting her head against his shoulder?

Who knows? Ask her. Anyhow, those are the four people in the subway car.

Hey, why are there so few people here? Isn't this supposed to be a busy subway line?

Actually, there were more people a few minutes ago. A lot of people, people all over the place, way too many for a short story. So I got rid of them. When the train stopped at the 138th Street station, I had them all get off.

Where did they go?

Who cares? Let them take the M train.

The M train? Can't be. It goes north.

Or some other train. Who cares where they went? They were only cardboard cutouts anyhow. All right, let's move on. Once the cardboard people are gone, we've got just the right mix of characters for this story: a boy in the leather jacket, a shopper, and the old couple that is not really a couple. And, now that we know the old couple is not really a couple, the old woman cannot be the person who so carefully maintains the old man's suit. She doesn't even know him so why would she take care of his suit? No, the old man lives alone, has lived alone for the past nine years. Since his wife died. He takes care of the suit himself. Maybe it's his favorite suit. Maybe it's the suit he was married in.

Why does that matter? Get on with it.

Now, after the very important characterization information, we're right back to the scene. Characterization takes very little time and it's important to the story.


Now for the woman. Pan to the woman. Let's say the old woman has also been uptown, but not to see a play. No, she . . . she went to see a movie. An old movie, a movie that reminded her of her youth. The movie might even have been in black and white. The movie could have been one of those great old movies that had a story, not just car chases and explosions. A movie about how people really are.

Sounds boring.

No, really, you should see some of those old movies. There was this one great movie they made out of an old Tennessee Williams play.


Tennessee Williams. He was a guy who used to do plays. Pretty famous in his day. Anyhow, that's where she's been, to the movies, a movie made out of an old play. And now she's on her way back to her lonely apartment in the Woodhaven district. She's feeling glad she went to the movie, but she's a little sad, maybe even a little grumpy because the movie reminded her of something she lost a long time ago.

What was it?

I don't know. It was just a feeling. Maybe she never even had it. Anyhow, to make herself stop thinking about it, she fell asleep, her head against the old man's shoulder.

Hey, doesn't this train ever stop?

Sure it does. In fact, we're just coming to the 75th Street station. The train stops. The woman with the shopping bag stands up.

Uh oh, this could be trouble.

You're right. I'm afraid we're about to lose one of our characters. As the train slows, the shopper lady holds onto the pole by the door, still scowling, as if she's determined to hold onto her anger until she gets home.

Boy, somebody's going to get it for sure.

The old man watches her as she stands there waiting for the doors to open. His eyes are staring at the shopping bag that says "Bloomingdales" on it, but his mind is not thinking about that: he's thinking about something else.


Well, maybe he's wondering if he had been too serious back when he was a student.

Why would he be thinking about that?

Give me a minute, will you? I'm working on it. Okay, it's like this: he's sitting there thinking that while he was focusing on getting a useful degree from a well-respected college, he may have missed some valuable opportunities for other types of learning. For example, he's remembering that day he walked past the art building over there at the far end of campus.

What, now we're doing flashbacks?

It's in his memory. It's a memory that's very important to this story. He thinks about the fact that those students were not well-dressed, as if they didn't care, as if they weren't aware that how you dressed was important. A lot of them were carrying large drawing pads under their arms. They hurried up the stairs--no they were skipping-up the stone stairs of the art building. Wow, he thinks, they seem happy. They didn't seem to dread going to class like he did. He wonders: What is going on inside that building? Now, looking back on it, he wishes he would have followed them to find out.

Hey, what about the scene?

Characterization. Memories characterize. But back to the subway car.

About time.

The double doors slide open with the usual hiss of compressed air. The woman with the shopping bag gets off.

What a shame, and after we spent so many words developing her.

But all is not lost: she's replaced by two new characters, two young men dressed in tight-fitting black clothes.

Black clothes? You've got to be kidding.

No, really, they're both dressed all in black. I wouldn't go so far as to say these two young fellows are dressed in identical outfits, but actually, they are: black pants without cuffs, black shirts that neither of them tuck in at the waist.

Now you've done it. How are we supposed to tell them apart?

Oh, I just noticed, there's one thing that makes them look different from each other: their hair. One of them has noticeably yellow hair, but with the top part dyed green. The other has darker hair, but with the tips dyed bright red. It's quite striking.

Weird, I'd say.

No, really, it doesn't look all that bad. And the old man agrees with me. He decides the dark hair tipped with red looks better than the green-on-top-of-yellow hair: more subtle, but still plenty noticeable. But then our old man begins to doubt himself: maybe he's showing his age, his biases. Maybe he's only going for the dark hair with the red tips because it's slightly more conventional than the yellow with the green on top. He doesn't want to be biased, and he doesn't want to be conventional. Yellow with green on top is just fine with him.

I don't care what the old man thinks. I don't like weird hair.

Suit yourself, but that's the way it's going to be. After the doors close, there's that moment of hesitation as everyone waits for the surge of electric power that will transform the subway car from a stationary object to an object in motion.

What is this, a physics class? Get on with it.

There's a slight jolt and we are underway again, much more quickly than anybody might have expected unless they were the impatient sort. There's the expected racket of us being hurtled through a concrete tunnel, broken periodically by a sort of schwooshing noise that's probably caused by us going past some kind of break in the consistency of the tunnel.


Yes, schwooshing. It's the sound subways make.

Who cares what they sound like? Move the story.

Anyhow, after a few more very important and very dramatic schwooshing sounds, we're back to character thought. The old man has always wondered why the lights flicker each time the train passes over something in the tracks. And it makes a loud double clack noise: clack-clack. Like that.

Oh brother. Now it's clacks.

The old man thinks about it and decides it must be a link in the tracks, a connection between the steel rails.

Wait a minute. We're spending a lot of time in the old man's point of view. If you're not careful, this old man could take over the whole damn story.

He's important. Have some patience. Then, after the really-interesting character thoughts that are all important to developing a character, we're back to focusing on the two young men.

Oh, them. I forgot they even got on the train.

Right. We haven't developed them yet, have we? Okay, let's do it. They're dressed all in black, like I said.

Jesus, do we have to keep on repeating ourselves all the time? Black clothes. I get it.

In the interest of saving time, the two young men do not sit down. They hang onto the poles, scanning the other three passengers in the car. They look at each passenger closely and whisper to each other. They check out the young man in the leather jacket.

Hey, I just about forgot about him.

He's still there; he's just been out of focus, in the background. Now, with the two boys staring at him, he looks away nervously. The old man suspects the boy in the leather jacket is afraid of these two new characters. That makes him smile.

Oh no, we're in the old man's POV again. I knew this would happen.

The old man knows these two boys are not threatening. He's been riding the New York subways most of his adult life, long enough to know which passengers are dangerous and which ones are not. These two are looking for something else.

Like what?

Not a handout, that's for sure: their clothes are not especially neat--in fact, they're a little wrinkled--but they're not wearing the grimy multiple layers of the homeless. And they don't have any scary tattoos or nose rings so they're not the in-your-face types, and they're not wearing the pants-hanging-down-so-low-their-underwear-shows like the dangerous gang kids wear. No, these two are different. They're after something else.

Just tell me. What are they after?

I'm getting to it. Think pacing. These things have to be developed properly.

Jeez, now slow is proper pacing.

After the old man has taken time to think about it, he's disappointed to see the two young men are staying close to the door. He worries that they might be planning to get off at the next stop.

Are they leaving the story?

It's possible: we haven't developed them very much, so they could be supporting cast. Let's give them some time to decide. In the meantime, it's time to get the old woman into the action.

Is she still there? I forgot all about her. Is she still sleeping?

Yes, but as the car begins to slow for the next stop, she wakes up. At first, she doesn't seem to understand where she is. She sits up quickly and looks around, blinking. She turns to look at the old man. She seems irritated at the prior close proximity between her head and the old man's shoulder. She's suspicious that the old man somehow managed to get his shoulder under her sleeping head. To who knows what end. Maybe he's a pervert.

That's funny. Unless . . . he's not is he?

No, but she doesn't know that. She wonders if maybe he wants to get to know her better, you know, personally, despite the obvious fact that he's way too old for her even if she was the slightest bit interested which she most definitely is not. Seeing her disapproving look, he's about to say something like, "Hey lady, it was you that fell asleep on my shoulder," but he stops himself because that would be too New York, and he recently decided to try not being so New York. The old woman looks around. She's surprised to find herself in a subway car. She was having a dream.

I'd still like to know what she was dreaming about?

I'd tell you, but I don't want her taking up too much of the story. I'm about to write her out anyhow.

Really? Why?

Because she's played her role. Time to move her off stage. She sits forward and pushes her shoulders up toward her ears to get the stiffness out of her neck. The train is slowing, so if she's going to say anything, she'd better say it quick. She turns back to the old man. "What station is this?" she demands.

"I believe it's one hundred and fourth street," he says quietly.

"One oh forth? Why didn't you wake me?"

He searches for an answer that isn't the usual New York answer which would probably be something like "Hey, lady, how was I supposed to know where you get off?"

But she doesn't wait for his answer anyhow. She shakes her head and pushes out her lower lip.

Her lower lip? What does that mean?

She's showing consternation.

Oh. Why don't you just use the narrator to say so?

Okay. Showing her consternation, she says, "Now, I'll have to go back." She stands up even before the train comes to a complete stop. She staggers as the train brakes. The old man reaches out to steady her, but she pulls away. Is he making inappropriate advances?

The doors open. The two young men in black do not get out.

That's good. I think they're interesting characters.

They're about to get even more interesting. They stand aside to let her pass. She leaves the car, mumbling to herself, ready to be through with this night, ready to be back home with her cat who will surely be irritated at the late hour. He's bored with the almost-empty dish of dry food, ready for some tuna, and it better be the good stuff this time, not the smashed-together crap that looks and tastes like day-old paste.

What? Now we're in some cat's POV?

As the train picks up speed--

Speed, that's what we need, better pacing, forward movement.

The two young men in black quickly come over and sit down, one on each side of the old man. Surprisingly, the train is not so noisy now. The schwooshing sound has mysteriously disappeared so we can hear them talk just fine. "We thought you were with that lady," says the boy on the old man's right, the one with the yellow and green hair.

"No," says the old man. "We just happened to be sitting next to each other." Apparently satisfied with that answer, the young man with dark hair tipped with red gets right to the point: "You want to come with us?"

The old man looks at the boy. Now that the boy is closer, within the proper focal range of the old man's glasses, he can see that the young man has shaved off nearly all of the hair on the sides of his head. Combined with the longer dark hair on top, and the bright red color at the tips, it gives the young man a look that is more disturbing than the old man first thought. Maybe he will have to reevaluate; maybe he does like the green-topped yellow hair better. "Where would we be going?" he says.

"Well, it's like this, sir," says the yellow/green hair boy, the one without the sides shaved off, "we need an old man to sit in a chair."

"Yeah," says the other one. "All you have to do is sit there and do nothing, like up on this platform, a stage thing. It's not too far from here. It won't take long."

"You see, it's a little play we wrote," says yellow/green hair, about some people on a subway."

This describing everybody in a three-way conversation by their hair color is taxing my patience. Maybe you should have given everybody names.

Too late for that. Burt we're almost done anyhow. The boy continues: "I mean, I wrote it out like a short story, but then we thought it would work good if it was a movie. So we got this video camera and we want to film it."

"Tonight?" asks the old man.

"Yeah," says one of the boys (it doesn't really matter which one), "it has to be tonight because we sort of have to get the camera back before anyone at school notices it's missing. The viewing is tomorrow. Of everybody's project."

"Yeah," says the other boy. "We have to get it done tonight."

The old man thinks it sounds interesting, but before he can say so, one of the boys says, "You see, our movie is about old people, like you. It could be anybody old. We don't give them names. These old people are supposed to be riding on a subway. It's late at night and this one old guy is thinking about things, you know, thinking back in time. It's like he's wondering how it all slipped away. You know, his regrets, stuff like that. You don't have to do anything, just sit in the chair. I'll be the one who recites the story. It's like you're thinking about it to yourself."

"Do you think you could do that?" asks the other boy. "It would be really cool if we could have a real old guy sitting there while we read the story. It'll be like it's all in the old guy's head. The other students in the class will really get off on that. Do you think you could do it?"

"So you want me to play an old man," says the old man.


"Thinking about my lost youth, and regret. Things like that."

"Right. Do you think you could do that?"

"I suppose I could do that. In fact, I'd like to do that. Very much."

The boys grin at each other. They slap hands. "Yes!"

So that's it. The car slows, right on cue. It stops. The three of them get off.

Is that the end?

Just about. The subway car is empty except for the young man dressed in the black leather jacket.

Oh, him.

He didn't get to play much of a role in our drama. He was mostly in the role of onlooker, audience if you will. But he listened attentively, in his role as audience. He thought the conversations the people had were pretty interesting, especially the one between the old man and the two boys in black. For a moment, he'd even thought about stepping out of his role as audience and following them off the train. He remembers going to a poetry reading once, and it wasn't so bad--a bunch of kids dressed in black, like those two, reciting so-called poems that didn't rhyme about suicide and war. Maybe he should have spoken up. Maybe he should have asked if he could help with their movie. Maybe he could hold a light, or a microphone, or something. But he knows it's impossible. He promised his mother he'd be home before midnight. He looks at his watch. Midnight, right on the button. Uh oh, he's going to be a little late. He hopes his mother will already be asleep. Sometimes she falls asleep in front of the TV. Maybe he'll be able to sneak in and go to his room without waking her.

The train picks up speed. Cue the schwooshing sounds. Cue the flickering lights as they pass over junctions between the lengths of rails, or whatever it is that makes that sound when you're riding on the subway.

The boy takes out his switch-blade knife.

That's right! I almost forgot about the knife. Is he going to stab somebody?

But all he does with it is begin to clean his nails.

Oh, heck.

Hey, why all the white space? Is that the end?

The end. CUT!

Copyright 2009. All rights reserved.

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