Yuiko's ladder

    Train Spotting is a new fiction series focusing on imagined accounts of real patrons of the New York City subway. Kayleigh Roberts is on her journalism residency in New York and the stories are based on her experiences people watching/daydreaming on the train.

    Yuiko’s real name isn’t Yuiko. Yuiko’s real name – and by that, I mean her given, legal name – is Sophia. Sophia was named after her late maternal grandmother, but her paternal grandmother never accepted that. She never called her Sophia. She called her Yuiko. Sophia’s father told Sophia’s mother that Yuiko was the Japanese equivalent of Sophia. It wasn’t. Sophia’s grandmother just hated the name Sophia.

    Sophia happened to think the name “Sophia” sounded better fit for a poofed and preened French poodle than a girl. As a result, much to her mother’s chagrin, by the age of eleven, she began going by Yuiko. When confused teachers and neighbors asked why, Sophia told them that Yuiko was Japanese for Sophia. It still wasn’t.

    This is neither here nor there though, as we’re not meeting Yuiko at age eleven. We’re meeting her at age twenty. She’s waiting on a subway platform in New York City, wishing the 3 train would hurry up and her companion doesn’t know her name is Sophia and wouldn’t care if she did. Yuiko is average only in height, standing just shy of 5’5. Her long dark hair shines a little more than hair should and the blend of her mother’s fair, Irish features (nose, chin) and her father’s strong Japanese features (eyes, cheekbones) results in the kind of face that seems proof positive that there is a God.

    Much like her name, however, Yuiko’s looks are of little importance to this story. The thing that’s important to note about Yuiko is her ladder. It’s so short one might be tempted to term it a step stool, but that description couldn’t be more inaccurate. It’s three rungs of pure, vertical ladder and is slung over her shoulder like a purse. The top rung hooks over her right shoulder and the bottom-most point hits well above her knee. The ladder probably isn’t homemade, but it’s so old and worn that it could pass for such. The wood is pocked in innumerable places from years of being banged about and the color is light, an almost milky shade of brown, from having been handled so much. Pressed against Yuiko’s bulky, olive green coat, the crisscross of the rungs and sidepieces almost create the illusion of camouflage. But not quite. It is still, quite clearly and visibly, a ladder.

    But I’m starting at the end of the story, when the ladder and dust are already present. Right now, Yuiko and her friend are standing on the 42nd St. platform, waiting for the 3 train uptown. Forty-five minutes ago (give or take), they were at the downtown end of the downtown platform prying open a yellow metal hatch.

    Now, Yuiko and her friend are both small and unassuming enough, but they’re still committing a difficult crime — the hatch, something like a large, hinged square manhole cover, doesn’t open easily. How does one do this, on a New York City subway platform, you ask? One plans and one gets lucky. Yuiko had planned for several months, waiting for just the right moment. Weekend: Lots of tourists and what do tourists know anyway? Winter: Too cold for anyone to be bothered by surreptitious goings on. Dancing Dan: A performer with a tap dancing routine that stops the passersby and creates a Great Wall of People penetrable only by pressing medical emergency.

    With Dancing Dan maintaining the Great Wall of People (really, the Great Wall of Tourists) just in front of the hatch (Planning: Paying Dan to dance there. Luck: The Great Wall of Tourists stopping short of the hatch.) and his James Brown CD blaring loudly enough to drown out the clang, clang of crowbar on metal and concrete, Yuiko and her friend heave the hatch open and Yuiko descends. The thud of it closing above her, though expected, shocks Yuiko. She’s now surrounded by darkness and clinging to a service ladder (no, not the one from the beginning of the story, that’s coming later) for dear life. She hooks her left arm through the rung to which she’s clinging and uses her right hand to fish for the flashlight buried deep in the pocket of her bulky green coat. Did she remember to change the batteries? She panics briefly before the beam of light appears. A sigh of relief. Yuiko positions the flashlight against her neck, hooks her chin over it and resumes her downward climb.

    The lower level station is decrepitly beautiful. It’s everything she’s always imagined. The track is empty. The tiles are chipped and missing in places. Beams lean on other beams at forty-five degree angles. Wires and piping are exposed. The graffiti artists have been prolific. She is witnessing entropy in motion and wishes suddenly that she had brought a Polaroid camera instead of her digital Kodak. She shrugs this thought off and takes her pictures, including several of herself, at arm’s length, with tiled “42”s in the background. She’s about to leave when she spots it. The ladder. So small she decides it must have been made for the express purpose of climbing to the platform from the tracks. It’s old, chipped and cracked, almost falling apart (she wouldn’t trust it to support in her inconsiderable weight). She’s in love. She has to have it.

    Logistically, this is difficult. She needs both hands to climb back up and is already propping a flashlight under her chin. She has not brought a backpack. The idea of the shoulder sling is born. With the ladder over her right shoulder and the flashlight wedged between her neck and chin, she climbs back up toward civilization. She raps twice on the hatch and her friend responds with two knocks of her own. The coast is clear (Planning: Knowing how long Dan can maintain a crowd and timing accordingly. Luck: The Great Wall of Tourists had dissipated while Yuiko solved the Puzzle of How to Steal the Ladder, but another had formed during her slowed ascent). Yuiko pushes her head against the hatch as her friend heaves with the crowbar above and she gets out more quickly than she got in.

    Yuiko brushes herself off and drops an extra $20 into the hat at Dan’s feet, for sticking around to draw another crowd. Then she’s waiting for the 3 on the uptown platform with the ladder everyone is noticing and no one is acknowledging slung over her shoulder, the spoils of her journey below.

    She thinks maybe she’ll make it a hat rack.


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