Skip to content

December Story: Sacred Birthday Cake on the Subway

640px-NYC_subway_simplified_map

Subway lines like Christmas lights. Manhattan, a piece of land, like one big birthday cake.

December is a month of birthdays, most notable, Frank Sinatra’s and Jesus Christ’s. To be more inclusive, December is the month of cool and death, that which gives us something to look forward to, another swing around the sun. Winter solstice is a moment marking the very beginning of longer days that bring more light to read by, more sunshine to grow food by, and more dresses to stride in along city sidewalks.

Here is one of my favorite birthday stories. On a New York subway car, rush hour crush, hot bodies dripping sweat from the heat of the crowd, sniffling, coughing into their sleeves, the doors open hard with a slight groan from the embankment of faces on the platform eager to push into our dense mass but instantly registering the futility. Front and center is a young boyish man, slim, freshly showered and shaved, no coat, just a crisp white shirt, navy tie, and pressed gray slacks. He is holding a flat, desk-size, six-inch high, chocolate cake slathered thickly in chocolate butter-cream frosting with dozens of pink, yellow, white roses, and letters reading, “Happy Birthday!” There was no plastic wrap covering the cake, no special cake tupperware, just the naked cake. He stepped into the car and everyone pushed back against each other in an intimate way (shocking two tourists) that is only acceptable between strangers in large cities with underground trains. The doors closed. Everyone drooled. The young man smiled valiantly as the train lurched forward. He positioned his feet as if he were surfing, a trick that all veteran subway riders learned intuitively at a young age. Both hands were spread out under the board that held the cake. The muscles in his arms were strained and visible through his white sleeves. Holding the cake just an inch from his white shirt, just a centimeter from the woman in a pearl necklace to his left, just a fast stop away from the older man in a camel hair coat to his right.

“Where you getting off?” The older man asked.
“96th Street.” The young man answered, his voice cracking, as he used his knees to rise and fall with a bump, at one with the train, moving with great dexterity, much to the awe of the other passengers whose eyes were set vigilantly upon him.
“That is a loooong ride.” The man in the camel coat spoke for all of us. He looked down at the cake, and back into the young man’s face, and we all heard his eyes say — you are crazy.
“Yes sir.” The young man smiled with confidence and sweat beading on his brow.

Just then the train screeched into the next station, slamming on the breaks, the cake swaying forward, the young man with it like a dancer holding his partner, not letting go, for dear life, flowing with the motion of the train, the movement of the mass, saved.

The young man carried on like this with his cake for the length of Manhattan without getting a spot of chocolate frosting on his white shirt, nor any fellow passengers. Whomever that cake was for, it took great faith to deliver it like a naked babe through the subway masses, on a snowy December day. Surely it was a type of divine body, a type of eucharist by the time it reached the birthday party.