Subterranean Subway Life

I could live this life: the itinerant reader, traveling from place to place, park to park, blue plastic subway bench to yellow and orange molded seats, reading as I wait for the subway. I have become adept at reading standing up, one hand around the metal bar, the other hand holding my book, feet slightly apart. Stand near the door, if possible, and you can lean on it (ignore the signs that say otherwise). Put your weight on your right foot, keep your leg straight when the train takes off and you won’t stumble when it lurches forward.

Oh, how I love the warm electric subway breeze when it comes, the gushing air pushed along by the trains, a little relief from the stagnant air on the platform that piles on you like heavy invisible sheets.

The girl across from me on the train is puzzled. Furrowed eyebrows, calculating – the route to her destination , the number of stars in the sky obscured by the ground above and the city lights, the meaning of a conversation, over now, but still unfolding itself in her perplexed head? She is carrying a soup dish, covered in foil, wearing a purple dress, on her way to a dinner party/home from a potluck/down to her boyfriend’s tiny apartment.

We endure the slow rocking amble of the D train on the weekend. The Express trains, the 2 and the N, that seem to get a little ahead of themselves, then break between stops. The ear popping depth of the R as it travels under the East River to Queens.

I am sad when the couple gets off the train. Dark skinned, round and happy. The woman laughing, pushing an earphone into her man’s ears, smiling. He is skeptical, then smiles. She kisses him on the cheek. They step off carrying their shopping bags.

Something about riding the subway with your headphones stuffed in your ears makes everything seem holy, sanctifies it. If only it were in slow motion, a Wes Anderson movie, the rattle and screech of the train muted, the highs and lows of people’s voices covered by some dreamy pop song, the rough edges worn off and everything imbued with artificial beauty and constructed meaning.

Across from me now sits the Saddest Asian Ever. Big eyes, a little red from crying. He’s not looking down; he’s looking out, pleading on behalf of his heavy heart.

A man in a suit, whistling hurriedly, pulls a wooden chest onto the subway. He does a trick with a scarf, makes some flowers appear, then pulls a live dove out of his hat before placing it into the chest. We are surprised, but no one gives him any money.

The violinist, bracing his back against a pole as the subway travels uptown, plays Bach, provides a little relief from the Friday afternoon crowds.

I come up from under ground and I am surprised by the daylight. I have forgotten it’s not yet 6 and sun will not be setting for another two hours. In the park at Union Square on colored woven rugs two people sit face to face, legs crossed, one clearly teaching the other, explaining the mysteries of the universe. The woman’s hair is dyed orange; the man has tangled white-boy dreadlocks and an army-green headband. Signs nearby read: “Free Hugs,” “Become an Intergalactic Being” and “Free your spirit here.” Some strange cross between Scientologists and 60s hippies, trying to find their way up.


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