the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Rusty Shit


The color scheme of the E train — baby blue seats and shiny chrome handles — has always seemed more appropriate for the monorail at Disneyland than for a gritty source of transportation between Queens and Manhattan.

I was on the E train the way to see my therapist on 54th Street, in the aging building over Hooters. My subway car was crowded, except for a section which contained a brownish stain on the seat. A teenage boy was about to sit on it when he was scolded by him mother, a stout woman carrying a Macy’s shopping bag.

“Don’t you dare sit there, Jason. For all you know that’s some homeless guy’s leftover shit!” she said.

Jason grimaced, his nose turned sideways, and he flew back to the comfort of his mother.

I assumed it wasn’t shit, but some rust, but like everyone else, I was too afraid to test my hypothesis.

My therapy session was more intense than usual. For the first time since becoming his patient, I confronted Dr. Nesmith about his “talk therapy.”

“How do we know if it is accomplishing anything?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a straight-forward plan on how to change your life?”

“There is no plan for changing your life,” he answered.

Cliches, I thought to myself. And it makes therapy seem just hopeless. From what I understand about human development, your personal makeup is 75% DNA, and 25% cemented the moment you hear your parents arguing on the way home from the hospital. No amount of talking will ever dent this internal armor.

I was thinking about this shit when when I returned to the subway platform to catch the E train back home to Queens. The train was delayed, so I strolled down the platform. I admired the brown leather briefcase of a businessman. I took an Instagram photo of a young woman in tight jeans. I laughed at this group of tourists from Italy struggling with a map of the city. I glanced at the tabloid magazines at the newspaper store. Three of the magazines had cover stories about a member of the Kardashian family.

The E train arrived and I entered it. It was fairly empty, not yet rush hour. I sat down on the baby blue bench and there, across from me, I noticed it — the spot of the seat rusted with that shit-stain. Not only was I back in the same E train going home, but I was seated in the exact same subway car. What are the chances of that?

I’ve always been fond of statistics, so I worked on the numbers in my head. Let’s say there are FIVE E trains running through the MTA at any one time, with each train having about THIRTY different cars. Statistically, the chances of this event occurring — hitting the same subway car coming and going — are about 1/150, which while high, is certainly not unforseeable.

What struck me as far more fascinating was the human element. As you may recall, I strolled down the platform before entering the train. I didn’t knowingly get on and off the train at the identical spot, or plan this conflagrance of circumstances. And if this was such a common occurance, why has it never happened to me before? Today felt different, as if something — or someone — wanted me to find myself back in the same subway car today.

I’m not a religious man, but I did attend Hebrew school as a child, and have an attraction to the idea of the spiritual, the seeing of signs, miracles, and messages from God, much like Jacob did when he had his famous dream in the Bible.

If I was brought back to this subway car, what could be the reason? Was I destined to meet my future wife, like a plot line from some romantic novel? I took a quick glance around the subway car. Most of the women in the car seemed sullen, or retired.

A soldier entered the subway, dressed in fatigues. Was he home for the Holidays, on leave? He glanced at the rusty shit spot on the bench, and sat elsewhere. My mind drifted to thoughts of… violence. Perhaps there was going to be a terrorist strike, right here in this subway car, and God is sending me a message to get off the train, wanting to save my life.

I was about to leave the train, when I looked over at the dusty boots of the young solider and felt like a damn coward. Was I really going to change trains because I had a momentary thought that I was being warned of danger? If I left the subway car out of misplaced fear, and nothing happened, I would feel like a total wimp and so ashamed of myself that I would be attending therapy for the rest of my life. No, I would not leave the train out of fear or superstition.

I was acting like a child. My mind was wondering, worrying, going places that were emotional, and not logical. Nothing of any real value was happening in this subway car. It was all in my brain. I noticed the same rusty shit mark on the bench, which reminded me that I was in the same subway car. That’s all. No big deal.

But it was a big deal. The moment was important, and it wasn’t because I was in the same subway car. It was because I noticed it. Who know how many other times I have been in the same subway car, and didn’t see it, being that my head in the clouds, or in a book?

In therapy, I asked Dr. Nesmith for a plan to live life. He said there was no plan. I asked him how anyone can change if they have no plan. He insisted that talk therapy was more important than a plan, because through talk you begin to see the patterns of your life, and by finally seeing them, you start to change.

Maybe everyone is on the same train, the same subway car, every day, going through the same motions, never seeing the rusty shit on their brain. I looked at my fellow passengers, most who wake up the same time each morning and go home the same time each night, who go through life eating the same meals, picking the wrong men and women to date, getting angry or abusive for the same reasons, or accepting too little too late, always reliving the patterns from childhood.

Tomorrow is a new year, 2014, and as much as everyone drunkingly yells and cheers in Times Square as the ball drops, they end up going home in the same subway car as they did the year before. The best they can do, right now, is to notice it.

See you in 2014.


  1. Shannon akaMonty

    Well done. I want to get out of my subway car and onto one without quite so much rusty shit. Except I fear change, so I’ll probably just sit in the shit spot.

  2. Tricia O.

    A few days ago I was scrolling through my Instagram feed and saw a picture of yours of the back of Essex House. Within a minute, the next picture in my feed was from a neighbor here in South Carolina who is visiting NYC. Her picture was also of the back of Essex House, but from her hotel room. Both pictures looked to have the same/similar filter. I pointed it out to my neighbor, but her account is locked so you couldn’t see it even though I tagged you. I’m not one to think to think in terms of signs, but I am overly anxious, so I’m constantly worried that something is wrong. My gut is almost always in overdrive, so much that I sometimes doubt my intuition when I shouldn’t. I’m working on being better at deciding who and what about which I should actually be frightened. It can be exhausting.

    However, I had no concerns when I saw those two pictures following each other in my Instagram feed. Out of curiosity, I Googled “Essex House” and saw nothing that particularly piqued my interest, so if God were trying to tell me something, I missed it. What it did make me think of is that we are all connected to each other, whether we like it or not. Even if our accounts are locked, we are all still moving amongst each other, waiting for something to happen or attempting to create a plan to manage it.

    I may try and stay at Essex House during my next trip to NYC, though. You just never know.

  3. Dawn B

    A soft strike from the keisaku – Wake Up!

  4. kenju

    The little synchronicities of life are signs of things we ought to study more closely. What did it mean to you, that you caught the same train (and same car) coming and going? You have a good head start on re-thinking it, now you might want to take that train (of thought) further.

  5. Veronica

    “Maybe everyone is on the same train, the same subway car,
    every day, going through the same motions, never seeing the rusty
    shit on their brain. I looked at my fellow passengers, most who
    wake up the same time each morning and go home the same time each
    night, who go through life eating the same meals, picking the wrong
    men and women to date, getting angry or abusive for the same
    reasons, or accepting too little too late, always reliving the
    patterns from childhood.” This part was depressing–everyone going
    through life picking the wrong partners, getting angry and abusive,
    accepting too little too late. The scenario you’re describing tells
    me therapy is working for you. I’d like to remind you that some
    people in the car are making good choices, having healthy
    relationships, setting boundaries, demanding and giving love and
    respect and enjoying their jobs, meals, and routines most of the
    time. It’s possible. You can ride your train to a different
    destination even if you don’t change cars.

    • Marcy

      What she said.

  6. Elizabeth Aquino

    Bravo. I’d stand up and clap and cheer, BRAVO! if I weren’t sitting at my desk, typing away. This is some seriously mindful shit you’ve written, and while the whole notion of mindfulness is becoming a cliche, I’m of the belief that it’s the only way to live. I’ve always thought your photography is incredibly mindful — that your eye opens and closes at just the right instant. And I love what your therapist said —

  7. The Animated Woman

    Your eyes are open.

  8. Tamarika

    Happy New Year, Neil. I loved this post, and I love you. Remember … I won you, once!

  9. Nance

    Holy crap, Neil.

  10. therapydoc

    I can’t get past the therapist office above the Hooters.

  11. Marie Nicole

    It’s because of posts like this that I decided to follow you.

    There’s a book, I think it’s called “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can” it’s about searching for the right therapist, and how you can endlessly jump from one to the next in your quest for the right match. I stopped looking years ago, and decided to trust my inner 15yr old. It hasn’t lead me the wrong way yet, but you seem to have found the right one. Don’t let go, they’re such a hard find.

    p.s. 2014 has big shoes to fill, 2013 was one of the best years of my life…

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