A Subway Mitzvah

A Subway Mitzvah

He went to Coney Island to save dolphins. The ones he’d seen on Instagram, strangling in webs of garbage. But there were no dolphins to be found. So instead, he spent hours saving overturned crabs on the sand and lifting used condoms and beer cans from shallow waters. Before he left, he looked out to the ocean, and sighed, feeling the weight of all that still needed to be done.

Now, he is in the subway, waiting to transfer from the F to the G. His wet swimsuit is sweating dirty water at the bottom of his New Yorker tote. He is distracted—worried about ocean acidification and the ecological cost of clean green energy—and doesn’t notice the “freshly painted” sign. His back slides down the subway column, the green paint comes with him. He’s not too bothered by the new stripe on the back of his suit. Without evidence, he believes there are Native American warriors in his bloodline. They wore paint on their faces to battle. Now painted himself, he is honoring his history.

The air in the subway station is stale. He smells fresh urine, but there’s no one around. In the past, he has peed in public and enjoyed it. It is one of many compulsions. Alcohol has always been involved. Too much vinho verde—his avô’s favorite. The worst and best time was in an elevator. He remembers it vividly and feels guilty in retrospect.

Everyone sins, though. It’s all about the order of magnitude. He could beat his wife. He could feed his kids non-organic vegetables. He could suck at his job.

Urine isn’t even a biohazard. It’s natural and sanitary. Bear Grills says he can drink it, if he’s really thirsty. He wishes he could replace all the pollution currently ruining the ocean with his liquid egesta. How wonderful that would be.

This time, he wasn’t the one who peed, though now he is thinking about it. He looks around the platform for a culprit… for company—a urinal buddy. His side, the Court Square side, is empty. But the pee smells fresh.

Finally, he glances over, across the tracks to the Church Avenue platform, and spots a form slumped on a wooden bench. It is bulky and big. Too big to be human. Shoulders wide, like a football player in pads. From this distance, he can’t determine its texture—if it’s all skin or fur.

Probably fur.

He decides—knows—the figure is an ape, that it must have escaped the zoo, scrambling up and out of its openair cage. He makes a mental note to issue a formal complaint to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, reminding their administrators that apes are great climbers—the best—and that their enclosures need roofs.

He can tell from the ape’s body language that life in the city has been hard, that it misses the Bronx, its zookeepers and their massages, and all the free food. Despite acquiring a paying job, its biweekly paychecks can’t keep up with New York City restaurants’ rising prices. It’s a real travesty.

The ape’s body is curled up, fetal, facing the tiled walls. All he can see is its back—a silverback. The gray band reminds him of the warpaint on his suit. He thinks about evolutionary chains, and how, in the grand scheme, he and the ape are not that different. Cousins on a great family tree—a sycamore. The ape seems restless. Its shoulders bump to a song only it can hear. He imagines it noodling a hole in the wood bench with a large gray finger. He has seen apes do that sort of thing in documentaries, with Jane Goodall at their side. Seeing their humanity, she names them all and is criticized for it.

Will it start grooming itself?

He’s seen them do that sort of thing as well, in the same documentaries; big hands searching black fur for insects.

He is worried for the ape, and how it will eat. The big city is a lot even for a great ape—the greatest ape. And he is always looking for a Mitzvah: Last week, he saved a cricket from certain death, a cat from a tree, a mouse from a sticky trap (though it left one of its pink feet behind). His job is just a paycheck, saving lives is his real vocation.

He calls 311.

The lady on the line asks him what she can do for him, and he says there is an ape in the subway. She asks him to repeat himself. He does once, then twice.

“Oh… it’s you again.”

“Did you hear what I said?”

“Animal control is on its way.”

“Should I wait for them?”


“I’ll wait.”

“You really shouldn’t. It’s probably not safe.”

“They’re herbivores, right?”


“I’ll wait.”

At this point, he usually feels comfortable putting his faith in the system. He doesn’t need to see the cat’s paws touch pavement to know it is saved. But this time feels extraordinary, more important and logistical, and he wants to see the fruit of his labors. He doesn’t know what animal control uniforms look like, and he’s curious. In his mind, he pictures safari men in tan shorts and brimmed hats, or the poachers from Tarzan the Disney animated film.

Over the last five years, he has ignored the way letters now blur on the page, and how faces at a distance appear simplified and smooth. On first dates and dating apps, he still says his vision is 20/20. He is afraid that he will look like his grandmother with glasses, that it will draw too much attention to his nose. So, when the ape turns and stretches, one foot and then the other, he thinks maybe he is seeing things. But no, he sees the swoosh. The ape is wearing Nike hightops. Something it has picked up on its journeys maybe?


A purchase that, on its measly wages, sent it straight into the red. He thinks that it must have built up an appreciation for good footwear from its cage. As people gawked at it, it gawked back, and took sartorial notes.

His mind needs time to accept his mistake, and he lets the fantasy run like this for another five seconds. Then reality hits hard, like a hangover, in the head and the gut. The ape might not be an ape. The ape might be a man. The green warpaint on his back now feels like slime. The smell of urine in the air is not sweet or stale but oppressive.

Time is passing, and he has done nothing. His throat is dry and burning like the Amazon will be in a few years. Two trains have come and gone without him. He should call 311 again. But that will be too painful, the lady on the line, too judgy.

Looking around, he tries to find solutions at his feet. There are candy wrappers, a few rats dancing around the third rail, dim lights, and no one to confide in. The ape—no the man—is still sleeping. He hopes the man is white and has a home, a large one with six bathrooms and dumbwaiter. The man is tired, like all men their age. He’s probably made some mistake at work, did something careless, but forgivable, like ordering five times the amount of industrial lubricant than needed. He was chewed out by a mustachioed boss, who waved fingers and warnings in his face, treating him like a kid. Now, he just needs a moment of shut eye, some rest, before facing his wife and children. That’s it.

Jumping around on the platform’s yellow, bubbled warning stripe, he tries to catch a bit of the man’s face or skin, something that might confirm a piece of this lovely, fabricated tale, but the other platform is too far away, and the man is wrapped in a black and gray striped puffer, scarf, and hat.

He takes two strides towards the steps, then turns around. There isn’t enough time to get to the other platform, and he would have to leave the station and pay again to gain readmittance. Another $2.90 down the drain. And that’s not nothing. Anyways, animal control will be here soon. They are the fastest emergency service. The fire department comes a close second.

Even if there was time, he doesn’t know what he would say to the man once he reached him. Genuflect? Expect forgiveness? The truth would not suffice. The ape—no, the man he reminds himself—will do something to him, take some kind of revenge. It might be physical, which would be painful and right.

It turns out, animal control officers look a lot like the NYPD, but in gray instead of blue. They approach the figure slowly, dart guns raised.

He flails about, jumping-jack style, to get their attention, to warn them their prey is man. Or, at least, might be man. And the officers do not see him. Their eyes are focused on the ape.

He decides he must become the ape—drops to a crouch, lets his knuckles drag across the dirty ground, smells his underarms, catches a whiff of Old Spice and sweat. Animal control remains unmoved. Desperate now, he grabs a metal pipe overhead, lets his weight hang—swinging, hooting, and wooting. It is still not enough. He wishes he hadn’t shaved that morning, cursing his baby-smooth face.

The animal control officers are getting closer to their mark, fingers on the trigger.

Without thinking, just feeling and speaking, he says, with fervor and grace, “I am the ape!”

A dart hits his neck, another hits his thigh. His grip loosens, his eyes feel heavy, body falling to the floor. Sleep takes him before the ground does. It provides a dark cushion.

When he wakes, he is in an enclosure. There are five other apes with him too. It is raining, like he imagines it does in India during the summer. With careful, four-legged strides, he climbs under the shelter of a large rock, sharing it with a female ape. She is twice his size with dark eyes, and a blue gray complexion. She is not bothered by him. He lays his suit jacket down on the ground—a makeshift picnic blanket. The green paint has dried. Before he can sit, the she-ape grabs the jacket and tosses it into the rain. You don’t need that here, she is saying.

Studying her, he wonders if she is aware of ocean acidification, the exponential rate of consumption and growth, the ecological tipping points behind us, and the few still ahead. Based on her expression, he thinks she might like to know. In fact, it is his morally responsibility to tell her.

A zookeeper brings in some food in a bucket, bananas by the bushel. The she-ape takes ninety percent of them, leaving him just a few. He understands. There is more of her to feed. He takes the brightest one from the remaining bunch and begins to strip it, the whole time smiling, thinking of his Mitzvahs, and what he’ll do next.


About the Author

Nadim Silverman is a Bangladeshi Jewish writer and illustrator based in New York City. He is currently studying creative writing at SUNY Stony Brook's MFA program. His work has been featured in The After Happy Hour Review, The Fiction Attic, and Quibble Lit.


Photo by Sean Driscoll on Unsplash