New Yorkers have a lot of strong feelings about the Subway. Somehow, the MTA manages to be both the greatest pride and deepest frustration of anyone in New York City.
“It’s so great – having a car is really more of a hindrance than a help when the subway runs 24/7 and goes everywhere. It’s amazing to have this kind of access to public transportation!”
“MYTRIANWAS30MINUTESLATETHISMORNINGANDTHENGOTSTUCKINTHETUNNELANDTHEYSAIDITWASTRAINTRAFFICBUTWEALLKNOWITWASN’TITWASJUSTHE MTA BEING UTTERLY INCOMPETENT.”
I’m lucky, and my work-day these days starts around 10am, so I usually miss the actual rush hour on the subway. But, a few days ago, Matthew and I had to head in a bit early and we hit the rush to the train right at its peak.
Suddenly walking down the street wasn’t just a normal commute anymore, it was like being in the scene from The Hunger Games where the people in the districts are all getting herded towards the town square for The Reaping. From every direction, in small groups or by twos and threes people joined in, merging like cars into this steady traffic towards the train. Some people are dressed for work, others have yoga mats slung over their shoulders, some, by all appearances, still in PJs and grasping steaming café cups like lifelines.
On the platform it’s packed. This is never a good sign. I feel myself start to prepare the eye roll and sigh that will immediately tell everyone that I was the victim of circumstance rather than poor planning. When the train comes, there are no seats to be had, even though we’re only the second stop on this line. People pack in, until it seems like we are all part of some elaborate experiment to see how tightly you can pack people before their atoms cease to have definition and simply merge into one unidentifiable mass of HUMAN.
I hate packed trains. Right after moving to the city, it became clear that a good mood and a bad mood were almost directly correlated to two factors – one, how many bags I was carrying (more bags = less happy) and two, how full the train was.
It is overwhelming. The smell. The closeness. The literal intimacy of someone’s body pressed against yours.
But then, about 8 months into living here, it started to seem kind of amazing. Still not enjoyable, but I found myself amazed by the good parts of people that got brought out by the train.
A dear friend of mine has often observed that big, highly congested cities tend to be more liberal, while places where people can spread out tend to be more conservative. Her (and other’s) theory is that, when you live in apartment buildings, or ride trains, or stand on streets where you are jammed up against other people, stepping on their toes, dodging their backpacks and umbrellas, you can’t afford to do anything other than just let them be. Your capacity to judge and condemn is diminished because judgment costs you something very real. Your comfort in your home. The support of your neighbors. Even something as simple as your peace of mind on your morning train ride.
I started to feel almost inspired by packed trains. I’d look around to see women in hijabs standing next to men in suits next to women in mini skirts next to drag queens next to homeless people sleeping. I’d see all these people touching, not by choice, but by circumstance. On trains, you can be driven into the kind of intimate touch we reserve for only our nearest and dearest with people who you may have almost nothing visibly in common with. I’ve stood on trains literally in the arms of another human as they reach around me to hold onto the pole, my cheek all but resting on their shoulder. And I can’t help but think that’s kind of amazing. We all have agreed to the rules that, in this case, we simply must all hold onto each other in order to move forward.
About a year into living in the city, I was on the train home and coming through the tunnel between Manhattan and Queens when the train abruptly stopped – the kind of stop that can’t mean anything other than something unexpected and problematic. I know that now, and it’s easier to find more grace when you start to be able to differentiate between what is really train traffic and what is a real crisis only pretending to be train traffic.
The announcement came, “We apologize for any inconvenience.” And largely, everyone takes this in stride and goes back to whatever it is they were doing to occupy their commute.
And then more minutes.
People start to get antsy. If you look up and around, you can literally see people sliding down the slippery slope between forgiveness and condemnation. Inch. By. Inch.
Finally, the conductor comes back over the PA system and announces that we are going to be delayed for longer than it makes sense to wait, and, since the first two cars of our train have reached the station, if people would like to get off the train at Queensboro Plaza, they can walk the length of the train to the cars at the platform and get off.
And thus begins the modern New Yorker version of the Jews walking out of Egypt. I must be sitting about halfway down the train, and eventually I put my book away to watch this seemingly endless line plod slowly forward towards liberation.
It is again, strangely inspiring (things that happen on the train will never be purely inspiring – there will always be healthy side portion of strange or uncomfortable). People move through closed doors, persevering through this (albeit small) challenge, pressing forward towards something greater that is, as of now, only a promise. And they do it together.
Everyone looks weary. It’s the end of a workday, and it’s clear that everyone just wants to be home. But very few people are complaining, or even looking particularly pissed off. Largely people are resigned, plodding forward, one step by one step.
Eventually I join them. Slowly moving until I finally pop out into the night. I journey with the masses down to the street and, after one look at the line for the bus, decide (along with many others) that it’s worth the ten bucks to take a cab the rest of the way. And I wend my way slowly and finally home, left with this strange experience in my mind like the echo left by a piece of powerful art.
I think about the way people are on the train often, and especially about this great exit from captivity towards liberty. I’m reminded that we can stand shoulder to shoulder – literally – with people we have never met, and whom we will never see again. And even if it makes me grumpy (and full trains still definitely do) some part of me is still grateful for this daily reminder that even when things are the most frustrating, the most inconvenient, the most uncomfortable or gross or unknown, we can, in fact, still stand side by side and move forward, step by step towards open doors that lead to somewhere and something better. ♥