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Subway Lifer

PUBLISHED: October 15, 2013

Illustration by Joseph Griffith

Editor’s note: The following post is the first in a series on living in New York.

I know New Yorkers who last took a subway in their twenties, thirty years ago, or who would rather be stuck in traffic any day than on an express train anyplace. Someday I, too, may know the luxury of a town car and driver or what it’s like to always take a taxi home. But until those hypothetical ships come in, all I can know is what I am now: a subway rider.

During my first year in New York, I took the A/C line to work each day. The West Fourth Street station was five minutes from my apartment. My favorite time was early morning. The station wasn’t crowded yet, riders weren’t rushed. People did not talk but read or listened to iPods. The smokers hacked their smokers’ coughs. Water drops—rusty tears in winter, I’d imagine, beads of sweat in summer—leaked from the steel I-beams overhead. The air was soft, as if unfinished dreams still emanated from everyone’s skin.

Waiting, however, can be a delicate business. Patience can turn to impatience in a flash and prompt a stance I’ve come to call the lean-and-look. This involves standing on the yellow strip at the edge of the platform, one foot firmly planted, the other extended back, and leaning out far enough (but not too far) to see if a subway is coming. It’s one step away from being either suicide or a minimalist dance move. One after the other, people would come forward and do it, myself included, as if collectively we could coax a train out of the tunnel.

Sometimes it actually worked and, on rare occasions, brought forth not one train but two: an A on the south side of the Fourth Street platform, a C on the other. At such moments one realizes that even the smallest choices matter. Both trains went to my stop at Fulton, but the A was an express and the C, a local, was poky. Each attracted different riders, different personalities. Which am I this morning, I would think, an A or a C? And what might happen in the extra minutes gained by the express? Will I bump into my next love as I exit or trip and break my leg?

On weekends, I tended to take the red line; a 1 stop was just down the street. I didn’t know many people here, which suited me fine. My primary relationship was with the city; we got to know each other via long subway rides—through Harlem and Washington Heights, Brooklyn and the Upper West Side. One night I ended up in Midtown at Lincoln Center. I stood for a long time in front of the Metropolitan Opera House, watching the luminous dance of the fountain at its entrance. I got a ticket, last minute, to an opera just about to begin. The lights dimmed and the crystal chandeliers made their silent retreat into the ceiling. I found myself shedding a few tears as the overture started. Did I wish there were someone with me? Perhaps. So I wasn’t shy about sharing my joy with others at intermission.

For some reason, there were no subway trains at Columbus Circle that night. I didn’t have money for a taxi, so I started walking. Eventually I stopped at the 50th Street station. It was empty save for a blind man tap, tap, tapping a jagged line on the platform. I watched him for a while, then, worried that he might fall to the tracks, steered him toward a back wall. We introduced ourselves; his name was Harold. It was past midnight and we were both going home—I to Christopher Street, Harold to 155th.

Now, I still didn’t know a lot about subway lines at the time but felt pretty sure that if Harold wanted 155th, he was headed the wrong way, and I gently told him so. He responded with a seeming non sequitur: “Sometimes, Billy, you have to go down to go up.” Just then a train came and we rode together to 42nd Street, where Harold got off and disappeared into a crowd. It was only then that I understood he hadn’t been dispensing sage advice about weathering the ups and downs of life in New York. The uptown station at 50th Street had merely been closed.

I am told by longtime New Yorkers that the subway used to be awful—garbage-strewn, graffiti-covered, suffocating in the summer, dangerous late at night all year-round. And of course I know plenty of people who despise taking it today, even though the cars are remarkably safe, clean, and cool. I suggest they ride with me. I cannot take a subway without marveling at the lottery logic that brings together a random sampling of humanity for one minute or two, testing us for kindness and compatibility. Is that not what civility is?

The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting: First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hardhat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.

I have other subway stories to tell: There’s the Weeping Man. The Moving Man. The Girl Who Wanted to be a Practical Thinker. And I could list more reasons why I like riding the 1, 2, 3, C, F, D, 4, 5, or L. But if pressed, I’d have to say that what I love most about the subways of New York is what they do not do. One may spend a lifetime looking back—whether regretfully or wistfully, with shame or fondness or sorrow—and thinking how, given the chance, things might have been done differently. But when you enter a subway car and the doors close, you have no choice but to give yourself over to where it is headed. The subway only goes one way: forward.

Read the next installment: The Thank-You Man


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Radha Stern's picture
Hello Billy, Great piece….Jane forwarded it to us. OX Radha
Lia's picture
Lia · 9 years ago
Hi Bill, Your illustration by Joseph is what drew me to comment. I moved to New York from Olympia, Washington for school many years ago, and met Joseph when he was selling his work at the L underpass (where I made a transfer from the dreaded G train which took me home to Brooklyn). I would stop to talk and chat with him, and bought five or so of his amazing subway drawings. I gave them as gifts over the years and now only have one and it is one of my most prized possessions from my time in New York. I was so happy to see it here!
Bill Hayes's picture
Bill Hayes · 9 years ago
I will be glad to share your comment with Joseph. Hopefully, we’ll have another Joseph drawing in one of the upcoming essays in this series. Thank you!
Patrick Hardy's picture
Patrick Hardy · 9 years ago
Nice. But clearly you haven’t been here long…the give-away was the i-pod comment! When I first arrived people were buried in their newspapers or immersed in themselves; although on one hot, crowded evening rush hour ride decades ago, a young man, walking between cars, slid open the door and shouted “Doesn’t anyone want to have a meaningful relationship with me?” Those were the days…Looking forward to the next installment!
Kimberly Topp's picture
Kimberly Topp · 9 years ago
Love your work, Bill. Your words always force me stop - and appreciate the sounds and smells, the sights, and the thoughts expounded by others. Keep coaxing me forward! I am held between stations in anticipation of the next installment. Best wishes!
Jan Ostrom's picture
Jan Ostrom · 9 years ago
Thanks, Bill, always great scenes and characters. I have been to NYC only once, a week’s magical experience–I saw The Rockettes!–but your writings allow me a few moments to relive the city, word by word, person by person. Seriously, thanks.
Kathy's picture
Awesome perspective towards subways in NY. Never read such a wonderful post about Newyork. Looking forward to read remaining in the series.
Karan's picture
Karan · 9 years ago

Hi Billy, well this is really a master piece and I would like to thank Jane for forwarding this to us!

Gaby's picture
Gaby · 9 years ago

great post


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