A middle-aged man with gray hair, mismatched clothes, and worn out sneakers walks through the tunnel of the N/Q/R-line. Dark steel beams pass him by like arrogant sentinels oblivious to the insignificant trespasser. His steps are quick and pressed. Heavily he breathes the poisonous atmosphere of pulverized metal and brake lining dust.
Just a while before he was on the R-train on his way to Columbia University. The yellow line was congested that morning. As the train stopped in between stations he impatiently checked his watch which failed to indicate when the train would resume to move. Helplessly he looked around the car and through the window his gaze fell onto the blandly illuminated concrete wall of the tunnel. To his surprise, on it he saw the familiar, playfully scribbled, cuneiform marks of a mathematical equation. He moved closer to the window and realized that they were part of the first base calculation of the Schwarzman-Sanzoli problem, a problem he had worked on solving ever since he had finished his undergrad in mathematics at Oxford. When he had received tenure at Columbia last year, he had finally felt he had the time to really work on it. Somebody had written it in chalk right there on the wall. He wasn’t able to see all of it and then the train resumed to move. Frantically, he tried to take note of where the train had stopped trying to remember passing objects on the tracks. He got off at the next station.
He’s shining the light of his phone onto the tunnel wall as he walks. Finally he reaches the spot where he saw the calculations. The rats who sometimes stop on the ledge, sit, and clean their hands seem to ridicule him, laughing into their tiny, little fists and nodding their heads. Carefully he studies the chalk marks on the tunnel wall. When a train approaches, he switches to the adjacent track and tries to hide from the eyes of the conductor and passengers behind a piece of concrete dividing wall.
He looks at it. The whole calculation, so clear--and to his dismay it has a solution, so elegant.
As the successful solution of the theorem dawns on him, he sits down on the cover of the third rail. He feels like right then, in that moment, his entire life’s work is coming undone. Somebody found the solution to the Schwarzman-Sanzoli problem and decided to publish it on the wall of a dank, stinking subway tunnel in New York.
He jumps up and takes a couple of pictures with his phone. After making sure that he has pictures of all parts of the equation with sufficient light and clarity he takes off his coat, pours water from a Poland Spring bottle he had in his backpack onto the wall and rubs the chalk from it with his coat.
Suddenly he feels anxious. He fears being found by the police. He calms down when he realizes that they wouldn’t want to run through filth like he does. On his way back to the station, he begins to ponder. He has the solution now. Nobody claimed the prize for solving the problem, yet, or he would surely have heard of it. Should he publish what he copied--claim it as his own? He didn’t come up with the solution, but he had done so much work on it. He always knew that it was only a matter of time until he found the solution. He could publish it and put this to rest, move on from the torment. However, what if it is written somewhere else, on some other subway tunnel, on a trashcan, or on paper on some prankster’s desk?
He can’t shake the feeling that somebody is messing with him. His thoughts go back to college. There had always been this other student that he fiercely competed with. At first they had been one-upping each other in a friendly manner, playing pranks on each other, vying for professors’ attention. Eventually, their rivalry became more serious when it was about finding a post-grad position. After he had gotten accepted, his disappointed rival had left college to take up a job with some technology company. He can’t remember which. Their ways separated and he never heard from him again. Until now? Was this Omar’s doing? Is he still messing with him after all these years? This isn’t funny. It’s the Schwarzman-Sanzoli problem for fuck’s sake. How can someone invest so much energy and time into finding the solution, but then go on and write it onto the wall of a subway tunnel--or has it not been hard for them? Doubts rise in him. Has it been taking him so long because he is not as good as he thought? Is he retarded, like his father used to say? As he walks back listlessly he curses this city, this fucking city and all its people--one of which will always one-up you.