An (attempted) haiku:
Eight in the morning,
Body against body, ugh.
I’m not sure where to look in a subway car. When it’s crowded, I feel that the only safe place to stare is at the corner of the sliding doors or the corner of the window. Sometimes when staring into the window, you’re actually locking eyes with somebody’s reflection, and that can be awkward. Usually that’s the best way to check somebody out furtively, but not when the person you’re checking out also knows it’s the best way to check someone out, and they’re checking YOU out. It’s complicated.
So, the past week or so I’ve had a temp job as a mailroom worker at a cosmetics company in East Midtown. Tall skyscrapers, lots of men in suits (with tennis shoes?), women in smart skirts and fancy blouses. I step out of the Lexington/53rd station on the E line to a gorgeous waterfall, plenty of tables with (available!?) chairs, and a mall–utterly unlike most other subway stops I’ve encountered so far. I feel out of place with my H&M blue pants (chinos, maybe? I don’t know; they’re not jeans), and my un-tucked button down (what does “business casual” mean, anyways?).
It’s a 9-5 job and commuting to it has been my first experience with rush hour traffic in the NYC subways. Before, the subway was definitely “busy,” and populated with people, and sure, I’ve had to stand when there were no available seats, but nothing compares to when you have to pass up on boarding two trains because you actually cannot fathom how you could fit in the car without your face pushed up against the window. To a Midwestern boy born-and-raised, this is something veryyyy different than what I am used to. Plus if I have to wait for the train in the (hot) station for too long, I’m also a sweaty mess by the time I enter the subway car (x2 if I had to run to catch it). A sweaty mess in a contained sea of other sweaty messes. Sweaty messes that cannot help but bump elbows, knock bags, and come crotch-to-face with a sitting rider.
I have a backpack.
Oh, you have a backpack, too.
Take it off, bitch. Sigh.
When it is busy and packed body-to-body, I fully expect those people with backpacks to take them off and put them at their feet. Or at least move the backpack to one shoulder and kind of cradle it in their arms. I do it; basically whenever I enter a subway train I have my bag on one shoulder, ready to cradle it if need be to make room for another passenger. Maybe I’m just too polite. More often than not, people will do no such courtesy and keep their backpacks on, both shoulders. This is especially infuriating when these backpacks ARE JAM-PACKED FULL AND LITERALLY TAKE UP THE WIDTH OF A FULL HUMAN. Yesterday I was smooshed between two fellas with full, hard-on backpacks. And then the one guy looked at ME when my inevitable subway-caused movements and shifts would push him. Dude, take off your backpack. Everybody, this is a PSA—take off your backpacks.
A third haiku:
Subway is silent.
Then, “THIS IS FIFTY-THIRD STREET
TRANSFER TO THE B.”
Sometimes that one guy plays his music too loudly, or that girl is p i s s e d off and cussing at her boyfriend on the phone. Usually it is quiet, though. As far as the quality of the MTA employees on the intercom, a chasm divides the workers who barely mumble the stop info into the speaker, and those that are essentially screaming into the microphone. And then there’s those who seem to be talking for a full minute at each subway stop. In rare, wonderful cases, the MTA intercom speaker-person tells you the stop and the transfers in a direct, pleasant voice, and then they stop talking. It’s a beautiful moment, but I emphasize the “rare.”
I guess that all doesn’t matter too much when you have your headphones in. (Observation—everybody in New York uses Apple earbuds. Every. Single. Person. The one with the microphone. Everyone.) But, actually, even headphones can’t block out mariachi bands or incessant banjo-ing. Ah well.
On that note:
Subway. Subway. Then,
Bass, hip-hop music, back-flips,
WHAT IS GOING ON?
Performers are an inevitable aspect of subway life. As a tourist, it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. As a New York commuter, it can get fucking annoying. I mean, I just wanna sit/stand and listen to my music in peace so I can forget the fact that I’m on a shitty subway, man.
But on the flip-not-so-negative side, subway performers ARE one of the more interesting, different events of urban life in NY. It’s something that suburban/Midwestern people never experience in their daily lives, since subways aren’t really practical anywhere except for very large cities. And when I’m being less pissy and annoyed, some of these performers are actually pretty incredible.
For example, the other day I was coming back from volunteering at a theatre festival in Brooklyn, and these two guys were chilling in the open area by the doors, with a friend and a boombox. One pushed the other playfully, a bit of fake-punching, plenty of laughing. Then, they turn their boom box on, and while the train is in motion, they are doing these crazy moves. The first guy spends most of his time in the air, touching the ground and then whipping his lower body up against gravity as well as the kinetic forces of a moving train. The second guy jumps in and literally does a back-flip off of the subway door. The second guy comes back and effortlessly performs three somersaults, without even touching any of the other passengers. It’s incredible, and they did it with such joy and goodwill. Constantly laughing, playing off each other. They were performers in the best way, performers who enjoyed what they did and did it well. I only wish I had the cash to tip them.
Sitting. Earbuds in.
Left: a book, right: a small smile.
New York in one car.
Outside of my apartment, the subway is where I have spent most of my time in New York so far. It’s very strange to think that I’ve spent most of my time going somewhere than I actually have being somewhere (besides the apartment). It’s interesting, and I’m sure there’s some sort of philosophical statement in there. In one line of thinking, I can look at commuting time as wasted time—time spent in traffic, time spent unproductively. As a new New Yorker (I’ve been here a month, eek), I could think: wow, the most I’ve seen of my new home so far is the fucking subway, *large UGH*.
However, in another way of viewing it, the subway may be one of the more essential, and dare I say innately New York things I could experience. It’s how New Yorkers travel. It’s how they get to work, it’s how they get home. It’s where they spend a lot of their time. You see tourists, sure, but mostly you are seeing people tired after work, smiling as they text someone special, laughing with their friend. On the weekends you see some fly gentlemen and high heel’d ladies ready to get their party on. You see a cute guy with shorts and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Some people are frustrated and angry. Some are spaced the fuck out, living in their own world. And some strike up conversations with the stranger sitting next to them.
Some subways go above ground, too. One of my favorite trips so far has been going to Brooklyn (the Q and B trains, I think) where we cross the bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn and you can see downtown Manhattan sparkle in the sunlight. Or, at night, you see the city light up and reflecting off the water. It’s truly a sight to see.
Sure, being in the subway can often feel like I’m a little sardine in a can, and sometimes I’m just not feeling it. But there are other times when I become aware that I’m surrounded by people that are so different than me; people of diverse races, religions, and backgrounds. It’s so apart from where I was raised and where I lived most of my life. These people are different, but the same. They’re people, they’re New Yorkers. I’m beginning to understand them a little more each day.