Last weekend, I rode the subways from Grand Central into Brooklyn and then back again the next morning. Along the way, I experienced confusion switching trains as one of the lines was under construction.
Having grown up riding the subways of Philadelphia, I still find my brain addled by the New York subway. A friend advised me to take the R to Union Square and then the 6 to Grand Central, or switch from the R to the N at 59th or 36th. Except, when the trains arrived I didn't see Rs and Ns. I saw Ds and Qs and city employees told me it was ok--it would take me over the bridge.
I made it over the bridge each time, but along the way the subway culture vied for all of my senses.
Did you know there are concerts at various subway stops beneath the earth? Enormous crowds gathered and watched dancers, bands, rappers, and performers of all sorts of novelty. And they were damn good.
Even with the clattering and shaking trains, the announcements of stops, and roar of trains flying past in the opposite directions, dozens of people of all ages slept peacefully. Heads back, mouth open, asleep. And then when the train stopped at their destination, up they popped and continued on their way through the doors.
Announcing himself as homeless, a man stood in the middle of the car and projected loud enough so everyone could hear. He would never beg for money, but would work for it. He said he hoped to bring us a small amount of joy on the way to our next stop, and then he looked down at a child and said, "Hello, gorgeous."
Bent forward with arthritis up and down his body, he must have been over 60 years old. But he sang "I got sunshine, on a cloudy day..." like a younger, happier man. He held his notes like The Temptations. Remarkable. That song in that moment from that man. Just simply remarkable. Several people pressed a few coins into the singer's palm and then he shuffled along to the next car.
Another man, who could have been in his 50s, had set up a small easel in the aisle and worked on a pastel from his seat. He was sketching an image from a newspaper; he kept pulling the paper (folded into a narrow strip) from inside his coat, up close to his face, and then dabbed a few colorful grease marks onto the paper, only to pull the paper out again moments later. He reminded me of the WWII veterans who drank in corner tap rooms on bright weekday afternoons.
Across from me, a man read Dust and Shadow: an account of the Ripper killings by Lyndsey Fey. He was old and frail and knock-kneed. On his left hand was his college ring. I imagined it was from City College. Noticing the library sticker on the spine, I envied that he had easy access to one of the greatest libraries. Like the artist just a few feet away, this man also held what he needed to see close to his face. His nose might have scraped the pages.
I wondered what I would do and who I would become without books. I wondered what would become of that man as he lost his physical capability to read.
These people were New York. They had a pulse. They had culture, history, and resilience. And they were comfortably at home in the underworld of the New York City subway.