Sometimes the trains are chaotic, it’s true. Sometimes there is trash and screaming and someone blaring Rhianna from their cell phone for all the cart to listen to—not caring how metallic and scratchy and obnoxious it is. However, sometimes there are moments of true joy and serenity.
Sometimes there are adorable well-behaved babies that coo and smile when you smile. Sometimes there are toddlers with trick packets of gum, and grandparents with a good sense of humor. Sometimes there are chivalrous men and women who jump out of their seats to make room for the elderly, pregnant, and wounded. Sometimes a lost tourist will ask how to get where, and every occupant on the cart makes it their business to get them there quickly and safely. Sometimes, when you’re in a festive mood, there is a three piece mariachi band strolling up and down the train, playing up-beat love songs on an up-right bass fitted with neon orange strings, an accordion, and an over-sized guitar.
There is a particular occurrence, however, that always strikes me into silence and appreciation. I find myself constantly and consistently mesmerized when two trains are running side by side. Sitting in the dark tunnel, reading a book, counting the stops till you’re home, scratching the paint from your nails, impatient, tired, worn, and then your isolated illuminated tube of commuters is suddenly graced with a companion tube.
If the trains are traveling at the same speed, it feels as if you’re not moving at all. There are simply four rows of people sitting under bright fluorescent lights in a dark tunnel, reading magazines or resting heads on lover’s shoulders, still, immaculate, unwanting. It’s the beauty of parallel lines. To travel the same speed and direction, facing each other, laughing without sound. Then one train will start to overtake the other, or the tracks will lift up or plunge down, the trains veering off towards different end points, and suddenly you feel like a reel of film being fed through a camera. The opposing train window’s acting like a back-lit roll of negatives, people become still life’s in motion. The surreal film quality all the more enhanced by the gentle click, click, click of the train tracks.
My boyfriend once told me about a time when just this type of thing happened to him. He was taking the A train home (when we used to live in Bed-Stuy) and another train started moving with them.
He looked up from his game of Angry Birds (or Fruit Ninja or Cut the Rope) and spotted a young girl giggling directly across from him in the companion train. The motive behind her fits of laughter were soon revealed as boyfriend noticed the timid curling and uncurling of her middle fingers. As the trains rushed side by side, the child exercised her secret profanity more rapidly and ravenously, increasing the speed at which her fingers rose and fell. She tossed her head from side to side causing her beaded braids to clack against her forehead insidiously and raised her upper lip into a devious square smile (or so he imagined). The two maintained eye contact, the trains keeping their positions steady, until each pulled into the station, separated by a five yards of platform.
The doors flung open, and the distance that separated the two vanished as quickly as the smile dropped from the child’s face. Boyfriend, looking to enact a small bit of emotional revenge, bolted up from his seat and made for the girl, who let out a small but striking yelp, as the consequences of her indecency set in. However, and just as boyfriend had planned, the doors snapped shut just as quickly as they had opened leaving each victim/aggressor to their respective trains. Boyfriend returned to his game of Fruit Ninja (or Cut the Rope or Angry Birds), and chuckled to himself as his train sped along — alone, and unencumbered.
For my first two weeks in New York, I was jobless. It was a life of mid-day naps wrapped in a down comforter with a cat kneading my hair. It was a life of feet up on the coffee table with plenty of time to cook, eat, and clean up breakfast, lunch and dinner. Watch all the shows. Read all the books. Do all the things.
Then through the mysterious, and sometimes questionable, powers of Craigslist, I found a job as a waiter. Jobs make you rearrange your life, but restaurant jobs, they murder your life and then perform a séance to resurrect it, except now it’s an evil rotted-flesh version of what once was. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and other non-restaurant jobs are hard work, but when the poet comes at me wanting to go tit for tat I present them with a simple challenge: just stay standing for 10 to 12 hours. You’ll experience pain in places you’d forgotten existed on your body. With a job your relationship to things changes. To hours of the day. To food. To sleep. To clothes. To the train.
When you’re jobless, just wandering with nothing really to do except read As I Lay Dying on a park bench at Union Square (praying the old woman with the beard and the bedazzled safari hat will stop talking to you about the Aryan-esque hierarchy of dog walking) you don’t really recognize the frustrating elements of the train. You can always wait for the next one, or walk those few extra blocks, but when you’re working, when you have a place you need to be at a specific time and in specific condition, little things can wear you down.
Suddenly delays are unbearable. You’re stuck in the tunnel a couple hundred yards from a station, restless and perspiring, and you start to entertain the idea of conspiring with the other passengers to pry open the doors and side step your way to the nearest platform, because when you’re in a hurry, that seems like a legitimate time-effective option. An un-airconditioned car becomes a crime against humanity. You step into the car and that muggy dense heat wraps you up and just as you turn to run to the next cart the doors snap shut, vacuum sealing you in so when you exit you’re succulent and tender and would pair nicely with a dry rosé. When your feet are throbbing from breaking in new work shoes and your shoulders feel like someone has taken sandpaper to your bones, fuck that guy and his personal space—you’re sitting down. His bag/guitar/bike doesn’t need that seat, your broken back and bunions do, so scoot!
Working reminds you of the intensity of the city. When hustling from the Lower East Side to Soho, to pick up a last minute POS component, the fanny-packed sightseers aren’t as charming or inspiring as previously described. And the Samba Humus man standing on the corner of Broadway and Houston giving out free samples, causing a massive thirty person pile-up of tourists who don’t really like humus but can’t resist anything free, can go straight to hell. Because elbowing your way through that mess makes your angry. Not just angry about the crowd, but angry that you’ve become the pushy, quasi-jaded, micro-managed amalgamation of stress and money and sweat that you never wanted to become.
You come to the city with the expectation that it’ll only change you in positive ways. You think you can barter with instinct and control adaptations. You think you’re here to make your mark, but very quickly you realize how deep the marks are being made in you.
Sometimes the subway is a pain. Sometimes it’s a game of sardines with a baby crying in your face and the wandering hand of a nearby passenger that leaves you wondering if you’ve just been groped or pick-pocketed or both. Sometimes the trains are on delay or are randomly rerouted or simply never show up. The train system here is nuanced and takes some getting used to. There is constant construction going on which is done mostly on the weekends or at night. What this means is that for five days you get used to a certain route, a certain train, a certain speed at which everything runs and then suddenly come Saturday this pattern, this habit, means nothing and must be relearned as something completely different. It is a little scary for people who aren’t used to city.
Living off the Four train is nice. It runs express, which turns seven stops into two. It runs to major stations in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, which makes it easy to transfer to virtually all other trains. I live at the end of the line, which means there is almost always a train waiting at the station and there is no high speed Olympic style sprint down the two flights of stairs before the doors close. The only problem with the Four is that it is under construction on the weekends. No Four trains go into or out of Brooklyn on Saturdays and Sundays. So naturally, my commute needs some tweaking.
Instead of the Four, I have to take the Two or the Three to Atlantic/Pacific. They are nice trains, punctual, efficient. They just stop, at what seems to be, every hundred yards. Once I arrive at A/P, I have a four real options: the B, the D, the Q, and the N. The R is an okay train, it just runs local (makes frequent stops) and dips down from central Brooklyn into the bottom of Manhattan—which is just long and tedious in comparison to the B, D, Q, and N.
There are three great things about the B,D,N, and Q trains.
1.They all pretty much run express, or make a limited amount of stops going from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back.
2. They all go above ground when entering and exiting Manhattan via the Manhattan Bridge
3.There is an amazing art installation running along all of these lines.
The first reason they are great is obvious. Time. It is always better to have a short commute. You can only play sardines for so many minutes before wanting to simultaneously punch the screaming child and hyperventilate into a paper bag.
The second reason these trains are wonderful maybe up for a little debate. Running above ground has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that in the winter, if there is a lot of snow or ice, the trains will stop running. Which throws a huge wrench in a lot of peoples days. However, I feel that the advantages outweigh the seasonal inconvenience.
Imagine riding on a dark, crowded train. The lights are cutting in and out. The car is being tossed about jerking you this way and that. The book you’re reading is getting stale. The people around you are talking loudly in a harsh foreign language. You’re late for a meeting/interview/rendez-vous. Then suddenly through the stifling darkness, light surges into the car. You are above ground. You are above the city. You are above the river. You are floating over peoples balconies. Eye level with the 20th floor. Eye level with the clouds. The city is no longer harsh and tall and overwhelming. It’s compact, almost neat. The sun is shining on your face and you find yourself smiling and refreshed. It’s invigorating. It’s uplifting. It’s the one time you get cell phone reception on the subway.
The third reason these trains are great is truly spectacular. After A/P the B,D,N, and Q all make one more stop at Dekalb avenue before heading into Manhattan. Between Dekalb ave and the Manhattan Bridge, there is a stop-motion animation running alongside the train. Much like drawing an image on each corner of a book and then flipping the pages, the train passes multiple single images at such a speed that they become a moving, breathing experience. Sometimes you have a conservative conductor who isn’t willing to go the 16-18 MPH that it takes for these picture to come to life. But even then, just the lovely flashes of color in an otherwise dark, isolated place makes me smile. To know that there are people out there who use their art to make the everyday beautiful, to elevate the ordinary, is awe-inspiring.
Usually when a train isn’t running the way you’re used to it’s a burden. It’s more stress, more anxiety, less confidence in the ability to get where you need to go in a timely manner. For me, days I have to make that transfer at A/P are invited. Despite the trash and the crowds and the noise, I know there will be a moment of peace, a moment of true serenity. A moment when I am reminded of the beauty this city is capable of. A moment when I remember why I’m here.
One thing I’ve noticed about myself since moving to New York is how long it takes me to recognize vomit.
A pink and white splatter pattern running the length of the platform could be anything. Until you notice the texture. Curdled half-digested nodules, clumping and opaque, with viscous translucent bile seeping from the clusters—filling in nearby cracks and navigating the warning tread like a hybrid game of Garbage Pail Kids and Pac-Man. It’s startling when it sinks in, and raises a solitary question: why?
It’s astounding the filth you can find in the subway. Sometimes it’s just trash. Bottles, newspapers, half eaten pizza, containers in, on, and around a receptacle. A Technicolor of garbage. Green and red cellophane from small hard candies. White balls of crumpled parchment paper stamped with golden M’s littering the hard cement floor like oversized processed snowflakes. Empty plastic bottles once containing purple or orange or blue drink rocking and spinning gently in place from the rush of a passing train. A metallic bottle cap, with daily fortunes printed on the reverse, being kicked between two uniform wearing schoolchildren. A lot of the time, there is trash.
Sometimes there are rats. They look like large black mice, and they are fucking adorable. I’m not joking. I was expecting some obese undead abomination trudging around on clawed feet with glowing red eyes and an unquenchable lust for virgin blood. Instead, they’re just pocket-sized scavengers that sit back on their haunches and reach their tiny noses out, ticking their whiskers back and forth, checking out the smells. Mostly they stay down in the tracks, but every now and then, a brave little Fivel will breach the platform, begging for cheese or chasing shiny objects or whatever. Rats in homes, rats in walls, rats on the sidewalk—not cool. Rats in the subway—I can deal.
I understand that with any area that has a high level of foot-traffic there is going to be some filth, however, there is one thing I cannot stand: shitty people who leave their garbage on the train. Every platform has a trashcan. Outside of every platform, there is a trashcan. Every street corner, every half block, there is a trashcan. There is no excuse for leaving your half-eaten chicken dinner, or your sloppy halal gyro on or under the seat. There is no excuse for setting a fountain soda, in one of those shitty water-soluble paper cups, in the middle of the cart for it to sweat and spill and stick up all over the floors. Don’t do it. Take your trash off the train.
Once I was taking the C train into Downtown Brooklyn from Bedstuy. Some doo-doo head left a plastic container full of pineapple on one of the handicap seats. At first, it was fine. The lid was mostly on and the little box was nestled in the concave part of the seat—supposedly safe from sloshing hazard. Until the train started moving. In the five stops it took me to get to my destination, that container of pineapple had fallen from the seat, split open upon impact, splashed room temperature pineapple syrup up the back of some poor woman’s leg. The little yellow nuggets were regurgitated until midway down the cart, and then were inadvertently smushed, kicked, nudged, and smashed by my fellow passengers. It was dumb, and it didn’t need to happen.
The worst thing about trash on the train is that you, a non-litterbug, an environment conscious trashcan user, now feels super guilty about not picking up that piece of trash. “Someone should get that,” is on repeat in the back of your mind, but shit, that ain’t your pineapple. So you ride the rest of the ride, eyes averted, pretending to read a book, and self-consciously guffawing when stray juice soaks through your Toms.
I enjoy the subways, I do, but sometimes little things can really ruin the ride. So please keep your fellow passenger in mind, and all the passengers to come, and throw away your trash, fools.
I moved to New York about two weeks ago. It’s strange. It’s the place where everything is happening and everyone is, and yet I am lonely. I moved in with my long-term, previously, long-distance boyfriend and everything was a dream, until he went to work. He works a lot. A lot, a lot. And so most of my time is spent alone. It’s hard being alone in a big place. It’s hard to be out and be alone. You can only sit in a park and read or people watch for so long. Alone museums, gardens, tourist attractions can be explored in an hour, leaving so much extra time. Not only that, a sense of guilt creeps over you when you realize you’re the asshole with nothing to do in New York City. So I was thrilled when an old and dear friend told me her plans to take the Chinatown bus from Philly and spend a couple days in the city.
In African and Haitian tradition there is a snake god called Damballah.
I live in Brooklyn at the end of the Four line in a neighborhood called Crown Heights. Crown Heights is an interesting place. Its demographic is half orthodox Jew, half black Caribbean. I live in the Caribbean half. An interesting part of town to be in for a 5’4” white girl from the south. The Caribs know, not only from my skin color but also from my lack of accent, that I am not from the islands. And the Hasids know, because of my penchant for wearing pants and above the elbow shirts, that I am not of the chosen people. I haven’t heard or felt anything threatening beyond the occasional cat-call of ‘hey light-skin, let me call you sometime,’ but it is a strange sensation to suddenly be the non-norm. A sort of shameful fear takes over you. Fear of being too obviously different.
Damballah is a benevolent god.
To get to Chinatown, I take the four train to Atlantic/Pacific and transfer to the Q, which runs express to Canal Street. It’s an absurdly easy trip and one that I like to make. The Q runs above ground going in and out of Manhattan, which is a rare and spectacular treat. The Q is smooth and calm and quick—something I’ll always appreciate, but first I have to take the four. The entrance to the four train is only about a two-block walk from my apartment. It is nestled in a median which separates a six lane street—Eastern Parkway—from a quite service road.
Offer Damballah an egg on a mound of flour and he will protect your young.
I pick up the four at its final stop: Crown Heights/Utica. It is right off roaring Eastern Parkway , and there is always something going on. Hispanic women in ponytails and baseball caps, peeling and portioning mangoes, occasionally stopping to shake the juice from their latex gloved hands. Six slices for $2. Jamaican men in bright Hawaiian shirts with graying dreadlocks posted up on each corner offering you a taxi ride (where the taxis are exactly I have yet to find out). Old men in cabby hats selling used books and homemade soaps. The smell of fresh hot coconut bread wafting through the air, along with something strong and fried—maybe flying fish or chicken. A purple suited woman in an ornate black hat offering you a pamphlet on how to save your soul, calling you sweetheart with a bright smile and a true desire to help.
With Damballah comes water and rain and life.
When I cross the service road to catch the four to the Q to Canal, all of these things are there. The soaps, soft yellow and purple rectangles, imperfect and stacked one next to the other on little fold up plastic tables crowded with bracelets and shiny trinkets. The men and women calling out and laughing in a dialect I still can’t quite make out fully. Like English with bells ringing through it, chime-ing and ting-ing with the rise and fall of intonation. Everyone is happy because the sun is out and the air is warm and little flowers are raining down from the trees, dancing in the cool breeze, and just as I am about to pull my metro card from my purse and trot down the stairs to the mezzanine I see them. Snakes.
He carries the souls of his ancestors.
Two men stand opposite the booksellers and soap peddlers, each with a large Burmese python curling its way around their bodies. One snake is bright yellow with red eyes, the other a spectrum of browns with a diamond pattern running down its body. I stop, startled and fascinated. It is the type of wonderment like when you see an animal in the wild. There is a desire to be close, but then there is that moment when the animal acknowledges you, and you realize big eyes and darting tails don’t remove the fact that this squirrel, this raccoon, this armadillo, this snake is indeed a wild thing—unpredictable and unattached.
He brings peace and harmony to the land.
I make my way to the mouth of the subway stairwell—trying to maintain my composure—when I realize there is a third snake. There is a third snake, unbridled by a warm body, slithering freely on the sidewalk cutting a smooth path towards me. Split tongue searching, body surging forward in a perpetual S, head twice the size of my fist. A form all strength. And then one of the men calls to me.
“They’re friendly,” he says.
“Don’t be scared,” he says.
“I’m not,” I reply as I take hold of the handrail and make my way down the steps.
One thing I love about New York is the public transportation. I come from the south where public transportation meant the Bus, and the Bus meant inconvenience. Timetables were more suggestions and gestimates than actual denotations of arrival. Floors were gummy and clung to the bottom of your flip-flops. Handrails were questionably slick and greasy. Seats were padded with tacky fabric that had subsequently been torn open and stained—whether it be ink or excrement or some other unmentionable you never could know for sure. Ultimately, the Bus was for the crazies.
The Bus was for the desperate students. For the homeless. For the broken down, the beaten, the foul breathed, the flask sipping, the studded vest wearing. The Bus was an air-conditioned place for the toothless man with Einstein hair and a cockeye to sit all day, circling around town, rocking gently in a tattered seat whispering ‘I told you so’ to everyone and no one. The Bus was a place to be avoided.
Maybe this isn’t true. Maybe this is just the prejudice of my lot. You grow up in a place and you are raised on its mythologies. My mythology happened to be that the Bus was a dangerous thing. So you age with this predisposition to fear or weariness and there is no reason to dispel it because all your needs are met. It is only when you move away, and the do’s and don’t’s of a city aren’t intrinsic, aren’t part of your genetic make-up, that you begin to see the myths for what they really are: a good-natured, yet crippling set of fallacies, designed to keeps us close and safe. This is why I love the idea of being a tourist.
Many of my friends who have lived in the city for years hate tourists with a burning passion fostered by Hades himself. It’s true. It can be mind numbingly irritating to be stuck behind a family of tourists, or a hoard of school children on a field trip, who don’t know where they’re going and are often prone to sudden stops and photo ops and generally cluster and clog the sidewalks. However, the point I always like to make is that it is so nice to see people who are actually happy to be in New York. Too often locals and permanent transplants, are battered by the long winters, the hard hours, and the deafening heat (with only a single oscillating fan to quell the discomfort). Tourists engage the city with a wide-eyed enthusiasm, which has been slowly let from natives over the years—or was never present to begin with. New York has its own set of fallacies. More often than not, you find neighborhoods quartered off by ethnicity, surrounded by alikeness, equally weary of the next place as I was the Bus. This is why I love the subway.
The subway is a place where neighborhood walls, class walls, gender walls, are brought down, or at least pressed up real close to one another. Whether you are the toothless bag lady toting around a shopping cart full of aluminum cans, or the businessman sporting an Armani suit and gold lined spectacles, or the fanny-packed farmer-tanned tourist snapping pictures of the man playing accordion, or the Hasidic mom with a gaggle of young Hasidic boys complete with kippas and sprouting peyos, or the student, or the nun, or the restaurateur, you use the subway. It’s convenient, cost effective, and will take you anywhere you want to go. I love the subway, and this blog is dedicated to the things witnessed in its beautiful spectrum.
When someone says fans and fandom, you probably have a clear idea of what they mean, but I am here to tell you that you do not. Put aside, for a moment, the mental image of pre-pubescent fan girls standing outside of an FYE at a local mall, squee-ing over a life-size cardboard cutout of Robert Pattinson; or an overweight man in his early thirties hunched over a luminous computer screen at 3am, in the basement of his mother’s house, translating mangas from their original Japanese while sipping on Mountain Dew and licking the Cheetos dust from his stubby fingers. Although from time to time, these mental images might indeed be representative of an actual fan, they are mostly grossly hyperbolized stereotypes that make it all too easy for contemporary society to disregard and invalidate fan culture.
Fandom is a place to be free. It’s like Halloween on steroids in cyberspace. You might think fans are all reclusive introverted nerds, but the truth is those pasty skinny kids playing video games or blogging are actually connecting and interacting with hundreds of people—veiled by a 15 inch monitor and spared the ghastly horror of extended eye-contact. Take a moment, take a load off, go online and read a fan-fiction, and then write one. Get lost in a world of your making, indulge in the secret fantasies you never could admit to your friends or yourself. Wear funny make-up and spandex and wield a sword made of foam at a local park. Be weird. Be free. Be a fan.