"Onlook," Philomena Polizzi. Grade 12, Age 18. Gold Medal, Photography.

“Metro Card” is a 2011 American Voices winner, by senior Robert Mathai from Cambridge, MA.

Metro Card

Slowly, steadily, surely the ink fades. The Metro Card is rectangular, about 1.5 X 3 inches. The front of it is split vertically into an orange side on the left with a picture of buses, and a big “C” on the right to indicate that it is a “Combo Pass”. The back is filled with disclaimers and legal descriptions of the purpose of the card. The back also has advertisements for Breast Cancer awareness. The cost of the card is written in the top left corner.

The corners are fraying. With time the ink has been bruised and blurred so that it is almost impossible to read the fine print. But the card is still firm. It is not plastic, but a mix between paper and some kind of cardboard. It was bought nine years ago, and it should have disintegrated by now.

But it is still there. It is still strong. It bends and twists from time to time, but the base of the card is still there. I carry it in my wallet at all times. The card was bought for use in New York City, which explains why someone would be willing to pay fifty-seven dollars a month for it.

There are stains. There are scratches on the front.  There is a reddish spot on the back that I assume to be dirt, sweat, or a coffee stain. But the macabre side of me imagines it to be blood. I want to cleanse it. Deeply. To make the card blemish-free, just the grandeur and pristine wholeness of a normal Metro Card like everyone else’s. But I know that these dark spots are just as important as the clean ones. They are just as much a part of the card as the perfect, happy spots. They create a more realistic, natural, and beautiful card. This candor gives the card a credibility that an immaculate card simply could not have.

The card was, is, my father’s. He was carrying it in his wallet on the day he died, September 11th, 2001. The front of the card has a big black “2001” stamped vertically on its right side, and a “SEPT” in the top right corner. My father was in the North Tower, on the 106th floor. The card survived the fall that he did not. His body came back to us in pieces. The card did not. The card was perfectly intact, along with all his credit cards and sixty-two cents in his wallet. My mom did not tell me the full story of his remains, and will not until I am older. I am not sure that I want to know. She gave me his Metro Card. I can hold onto this card as a real part of him that survived.

I sometimes take out the card and simply stare at it. I marvel at how well it has weathered the past nine years, diminished, but mostly unchanged. The fraying is due to time. There are gaps in the writing now, where there used to be clear, indelible words that I assumed would never fade.  Some of the words are missing letters because of wear and tear, or they have a white line running through them. Some words are completely gone, without a trace. No magnifying glass will allow me to see them again. They are lost to the recesses of the card, buried in the white of the paper. I have spent hours staring at the card, trying to remember what word was inscribed where the empty, blank, white spaces sit now. As I fall asleep, the whiteness of the card haunts me, increasing slowly, everyday. No matter how hard I try, the details will fade to blankness with time.

I could write on it, or use “White-Out” on words and parts of it that I do not want to see. But the card will still be there, under the ephemeral constructions that I place upon it, untouched and unchanged. By showing the good, and the bad, and the unremarkable, the card creates an objective, neutral narrative of its use.

I could laminate the card. I could take a picture of the card. I could make copies of the card.  But these alternatives will not stop its disappearance. It will not stop the increasing elasticity of the card. It is still hard, but everyday I feel it get less firm. All I want is the card. I do not really care what it says, or if the colors stay bright and vivid. I just want the comfort of its presence, to know that it is there, in my wallet, with me no matter where I go.

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