Mind the Gap

Written by Alessandro

Cover Illustration by: Omar Labombarda

“Ok pues the station is Venissieux, vale? – on the linea verde. So what you do is you go there early in the morning, like 5:30 – as soon as the metro is abierta – or you can go there late at night but better early in the morning – and you wait for the train to leave the station and you walk to the end of the platform; you’ll see some barriers there, like, some plastic ones to stop people from going into the túnel – vale, so what you do is you jump and grip the rim of the barrier and you dangle from it and go round hanging onto the rim and drop down on the other side – careful cause if you fall on the tracks there’s the third rail, sabes? The one with like 7000-volt electricity and believe me you don’t wanna fall on that. Then you run en el túnel before another train arrives or someone sees you in the station, and you’ll find a hole in the wall near the platform, with a bunch of cables and stuff, so you can hide in there and you wait for a metro to reach la estaciòn. You stay there hidden and when the metro goes from the station into the tunnel to change tracks and reboot, right when it’s passing by you, you run into the túnel along with it, side by side – there’s no driver in the metro de Lyon so there’s no risk of him seeing you – and this way, by going in with the metro, you don’t set off any sensores; so basically you keep running and you reach the end of the túnel and there’s a few metros laid up there, and you can paint there for like 10 minutos – we stayed 8 cause sabes, you’re never sure you didn’t set off anything or that they didn’t see you in the platform cámaras – and at the end of the túnel there’s an emergency door. You push through it, and there’s a set of stairs and an alarm goes off and then you’re outside; you get out in this small alley – we left our car there so we could leave quick, so it’s better if you find the hatch first and park your car next to it – pues eso. Buena suerte, hermanos.”

Oscar’s voice message cuts off, and Mirko lowers the phone. He’s the one who’s been keeping contacts though I was the first to meet Oscar. It was a few years back when visiting Madrid; I was mad into graffiti at the time, so when I found his Instagram I sent him a PM, and we went to paint the metro together. He’s one of those crazy Spanish guys who drive around Europe stealing gas at pumps and painting their name on as many different subway models as they can.

“Any other voice messages?” Ruben says.

Mirko shakes his head.

Ruben walks in a little circle round the hostel room. “It’s the barrier, man. I’ve seen that barrier and it’s shit – I don’t know if I’m gonna climb it, you know, if we had a stool or something it would be better…”

“What, and leave the stool in the station?” Mirko says.

“Yeah, I mean, we could,” Ruben says, but his voice is weak.

I stare at the light filtering through the curtains. A guy from the bunk bed opposite snores away, and I might join him soon.

I know what they’re gonna do; they’re gonna start chatting about the different ways in which the action could be done differently from what Oscar said, and it’s gonna come to nothing because in the end what matters is you gotta go and you gotta do it, and deep down we all know that.

I know what they’re gonna do; they’re gonna start chatting about the different ways in which the action could be done differently from what Oscar said, and it’s gonna come to nothing because in the end what matters is you gotta go and you gotta do it, and deep down we all know that.

Still, I wish I’d been with them to scout the place instead of making a point of going sightseeing, if only to take a look at this barrier – though if Oscar managed, and he’s this chubby dude, why shouldn’t we?

“…or one of us could go in, he could run into the tunnel and open the emergency door for all the others, what do you say? So we already have our getaway sorted,” Ruben says.

“Sounds like a plan,” I say, just to see how far they’re gonna take it, and you know what pisses me off? That if we were to do what Ruben is saying, of course it would be me having to walk into the tunnel to open the door.

“Sounds like a plan,” I say, just to see how far they’re gonna take it, and you know what pisses me off? That if we were to do what Ruben is saying, of course it would be me having to walk into the tunnel to open the door.

Rags of fog rip up the sky as we drive to the spot. The blocks are tall and square like dominoes, the same in each city we visit because graffiti always brings you to these places. Yet here in France graffiti is confined – to rooftops, old shutters, the walls of forgotten alleys. Everything else is geometrical, the pavements flat and oily. We reach Venissieux station and Mirko fusses about looking inside the cars parked in front of the entrance as we drive by, “To see if there’s any security,” he says –

But what if the guard came by bike or on foot and is waiting for us right under the entrance steps? It’s not like we could know – and really the point of these tricks is to give you an illusion that you’re safe when the truth is you are not – there are too many variables to check and you are exposed.

But what if the guard came by bike or on foot and is waiting for us right under the entrance steps? It’s not like we could know – and really the point of these tricks is to give you an illusion that you’re safe when the truth is you are not – there are too many variables to check and you are exposed.

We drive around looking for the hatch, but we can’t find it and the clock is ticking and already there’s this density in the car cut by our foggy breaths because Oscar said 5:30 and what if we go at 5:45 and there’s too many people in the station, or the metro stays in the platform too long, or the security guard starts his shift? All we have to go by is that two minute voice message.

We park up on a side street. Ruben chain-smokes cigarettes, Mirko shakes the spray cans so that we can paint straight up without wasting time or making noise in the tunnel.

I’m thinking I’m older now; it’s not like the days when I spent the moments before fighting with fear, now I’m conscious that it’s fucked and I’m accepting it as a necessary evil and it’s time to go.

I’m thinking I’m older now; it’s not like the days when I spent the moments before fighting with fear, now I’m conscious that it’s fucked and I’m accepting it as a necessary evil and it’s time to go.

No one on the street as we walk to the station and the concrete sidewalk gleams with brine like shattered glass. We’re going down the steps – me half-a-metre ahead, Mirko and Ruben behind –  and we arrive in the wide atrium of the station entrance, feed in our tickets and go through the barriers, and already I can hear the beep beep of the doors and the sigh of the metro and my heart beats fierce and distant in my body – it’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening now

– and we’re stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at the empty platform where the train is waiting, lights on and doors open. Mirko says, “Let’s wait for it to leave the station,” and I know he’s right though I almost say, “No let’s go there and do it now” – like fuck doing stuff properly let’s just get it done already. But we wait there in this station of reflected glass and steel and polished concrete like a low heartbeat pounding in the silence.

Already I can hear the beep beep of the doors and the sigh of the metro and my heart beats fierce and distant in my body – it’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening now –

Beep beep – the doors close. The metro whirs and tumbles off.

“Go, go now,” I say, and for a moment I stay put. I want to see if they will go before me, but they just stand there, slightly behind me on the steps, looking at me, and of course I knew it would come down to this – don’t lie to yourself, you knew it, and fire burns through your veins and the truth is you didn’t want it to be any different –

So I’m running down the stairs. I’m on the platform and it’s deserted with screaming grey tiles and the yellow banner flashes SIX MINUTES. I sprint towards the tunnel and see the barrier for the first time; it’s high with red and white stripes across it and immediately I know that you can’t jump up and grab the rim because it’s designed in a way that makes it impossible – the top of the barrier bends inwards – so I rush to where it follows along the edge of the platform for a few metres. I can sense the other two pushing up against me, so I reach forward and grab a bit where the rim is lower, though it’s slippery and I know I’m gonna have to lunge because between where the platform breaks off and where it resumes in the tunnel there’s a section where the floor is tilted. Mirko screams, “Go, go, go,” in my ear, and I reach forward with my hand and place a foot on the tilted platform and step.

Of course I knew it would come down to this – don’t lie to yourself, you knew it, and fire burns through your veins and the truth is you didn’t want it to be any different –

My foot is repelled like a force field. You know, that’s what it’s made for, I think wildly as I fall through air, onto the rails and this is it – this is it and I think in this kind of calm way that, if I stay close to the platform, I might not hit the third rail with its 7000 volts, but I slip sideways and sprawl across the tracks horizontally. First my feet, then my ass, then my back and my hand trying to push myself off.

I see Giovanni snap his head away because he doesn’t want to see me die and for a moment I see it – there, in front of me: a clumsy, helpless death.

I see Giovanni snap his head away because he doesn’t want to see me die and for a moment I see it – there, in front of me: a clumsy, helpless death.

I’m lying there. I’m still here though my left arm spasms out like there actually has been a shock. I push myself up. Mirko and Ruben are looking at me with contorted lips as I scramble onto the platform – Mirko even makes as if to give me a hand, such a helpless gesture that I almost laugh out – then we’re rushing back up the station steps, into the cold air and running to the car and for a moment everything is silent, then the city rushes in all pumped blood and motion. We reach the car; I wop wop and they go in and I stand there and breathe.

I hold up my palms and through the blur of tears I can see each crease in my skin and I turn and smash my fist into the side of the car tum tum cause it’s my life, I could have left it there and it would have all been for – for what?

God I can’t even start to say how useless it would have been and a notion of Mamma, not even the thought of her is enough to send my heart blasting out of my chest like you’re an idiot and you don’t deserve to live.

I hold up my palms and through the blur of tears I can see each crease in my skin and I turn and smash my fist into the side of the car tum tum cause it’s my life, I could have left it there and it would have all been for – for what?

“You want a few tokes?” Ruben says, but I don’t need a cigarette. I don’t want to feel better. I want to claw a hole in the ground and stay there until I have become someone else.

I’m driving through rainy streets, the car lights like candles seen through gauze, the reflections of the city playing out in puddles.

“We should go and try the other depot spot,” Mirko says.

“Another metro spot?” I say, and something pops inside me like a cap coming off a spray can. “Are you – are you dumb? Do you not realize that it’s not worth it to do all this shit just to paint a bloody metro? Like, what are we chasing after? You saw it, how it’s all new, all securitized and full of barriers and stuff – this metro isn’t meant to be painted. How hard is it to understand that? Graffiti doesn’t even look good on it and even if you paint it you have what, ten minutes? And they buff it in no time… and here we are, wasting our lives on it. No thank you, I’m not in, guys.”

“Another metro spot?” I say, and something pops inside me like a cap coming off a spray can. “Are you – are you dumb? Do you not realize that it’s not worth it to do all this shit just to paint a bloody metro? Like, what are we chasing after?

I would smash Mirko’s face into the dashboard like it’s all his fault for taking me back down this road after years of healing, but I turn and he’s looking at me with big eyes like I’ve let him down or something and I get this wave of nausea – like, this is what I built for myself in this life, friends who rely on me to lead them into something which involves manic risk, following the instructions of this guy who talks of the “metro action” like it’s a commando mission or something – and the thing is we can’t even play it like Oscar because we’re not those people. The truth is we’re not the hardcore graffiti writers who spend ages scoping the spots – I didn’t even go and check the station beforehand because I couldn’t be bothered. We’re not even putting in the intelligence, the cunning – all we’re throwing in is the risk. And for what? To paint some shitty letters with a spray can on a subway where those letters are not meant to be, and where they will be cleaned before they even start mattering; because if what we’re doing had a meaning, there would be a romance to it like back in the days – in 80s New York or whatever. Now the world has moved on, and we’re just a bunch of grown-up kids pretending we’re dreamers when we’re just playing life like it’s a game.

If what we’re doing had a meaning, there would be a romance to it like back in the days – in 80s New York or whatever. Now the world has moved on, and we’re just a bunch of grown-up kids pretending we’re dreamers when we’re just playing life like it’s a game.

I mean, what about Mamma’s face all those years ago? Four am, and her tugging me out of the stazione di polizia. How many of her nights were spent turning in bed with moon eyes after that? Easy to forget, now that she’s far – easy to forget the love she’s had to wrench her heart open with, for me.

Mirko and Ruben are going to the other spot. I said I would drop them off and then go back to the hostel, and they said alright though I can tell they feel let down. The problem is that a part of me wants to go, but what would they think if I said I was coming after I made that scene? Oh God, I mean, really? I’ve just brushed with death and here I am, getting worked up over the opinion of these two idiots.

What scares me is that now the shock is fresh on my skin, but what happens when some time passes, when everything retreats in the past, and I start thinking that it’s all good, that the graffiti lifestyle is matchless and that I’m losing touch with the bold version of myself?

I’ll tell you what, I’ll do it again and one time it’ll just be slap, bang, face down on the floor in a pool of blood.

“Hey, I just got a message from Oscar,” Mirko says. “He says he hopes we didn’t try the action cause the end station he told us was the wrong one, he painted at the opposite end of the line – Gare de Vaise.”

What scares me is that now the shock is fresh on my skin, but what happens when some time passes, when everything retreats in the past, and I start thinking that it’s all good, that the graffiti lifestyle is matchless and that I’m losing touch with the bold version of myself?

“No way,” Ruben says. “But wait, is that not the one we checked yesterday – where we found the hatch and the barriers were mad easy?”

“I think … yeah, that’s the one,” Mirko says.

I scoot to a stop. The light is red. The motor idles, nose brushing the white line. Cars slash past in front of me at top speed. I’m still here, I tell myself.

I’m still here.