There is a pedestrian tunnel beneath Fourteenth Street, connecting the subway trains at Sixth Avenue with those at Seventh. Daily, a wash of people are flushed through this hot pipe of meat, the bodies so densely packed that you cannot see the tunnel’s end until you’ve already passed through it. It’s like a scene out of Metropolis, almost Biblical.
Recently, there has been a man in the tunnel with a worn djembe slung around his shoulder by a leather strap. He doesn’t quite play the drum so much as he rains blows upon it—measured blows that build and unify into a strong, purposeful beat. It is a beat from history, dark and thunderous doom, like what you might’ve heard a thousand years ago aboard a Spartan trireme. It perfectly matches the mood of the tunnel.
Most mornings, I march to his drum’s beat. On others, I consciously march against it, but that demands a concentration that cannot always be mustered at 9:00 A.M.
The notion of the warship is difficult to dispel. Jaws clench, elbows stiffen. No one smiles. A middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt finds the speed unsuitable and tries to force his way through the crowd, eager to break into an open run. He is fenced in by bodies at each attempt. He must march at our pace, to the war drums. I feel a strange pleasure at his obstruction. There is a mounting tension in the tunnel. The temperature is rising. The drums accelerate. Now we are storming down the tunnel to some great and terrible purpose. We exit, off and away, the drum’s spell fading with each step.
One day, I eavesdrop on two young men walking at my pace, the pace of the drums. They are speaking of motivation, in regard to personal training. The first man drinks a passion fruit tea that has wet his lips the color of blood. The second strokes his goatee with a vengeful determination. The first explains that his trainer uses violence as a motivator. He tells him to imagine that the bench press tried to mug him, or that the elliptical murdered his family. The second man's trainer uses sex. He tells him to take it smooth and slow, ascribing femininity to his barbell: “she’s gonna make you sweat,” and so on. The two men speculate on whose trainer is more effective. The first man licks his lips and casts a vote for violence. The second man reluctantly concurs. We exit the tunnel together. They go uptown, I go downtown. The echo of the drums.
Today, the drummer has been replaced by a man hunched over a battered old Casio calibrated to a New Age sound. “My Cherie Amour” travels from his fingertips, through the wires, and emerges from portable speakers. He doesn’t quite play the keyboard so much as he plinks at it. I imagine this is an attempt to pacify the crowd, but it does not work. We march on, hearing war drums.
Sean Gill is an Emmy-nominated writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. He won Michigan Quarterly Review's Lawrence Foundation Prize, Pleiades' Gail B. Crump Prize, and The Cincinnati Review's Robert and Adele Schiff Award. Other recent prose has been published in The Iowa Review, McSweeney's, The Threepenny Review, and ZYZZYVA. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and Werner Herzog's Rogue Film School.