My commute to and from work is usually the same every day: wake up at around 8 in the morning, take a shower, eat some toast, then walk the block-and-a-half it takes to get to the Myrtle Av./Broadway J,M,Z station (trust me, the subway system is less complicated than it sounds at first glance).
I swipe my MetroCard (rarely does it work the first time, and I swear under my breath, shooting an apologetic look at the person behind me who’s looking at his watch), clamber up the stairs, and take up my spot on the platform amid hundreds of other commuters that all have one goal in mind: to fit inside a packed train, to suck their stomachs in so they can squeeze into a spot that’s barely big enough for them, and cross the East River via the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan.
Pick any morning, and you’ll be treated to a pastiche of the New Yorker. There’s the harried single mom with her stroller, struggling to lift it up the stairs until a passerby deigns to help. There’s the guy in a sweatshirt, baggy jeans and a trucker hat, headphones firmly in and leaning against the doors, looking supremely bored with the world. There’s the Orthodox Jewish family, the little boys’ telltale braids swinging to and fro as they peer out the windows. Right next to them, clutching his suitcase uncomfortably, is a Wall Street-type, a bald patch on the back of his head and creasing out a kink in his inner vest. He stares straight ahead, because his phone doesn’t get service underground and there’s nothing else to do.
In the middle of that, there’s me. If I had to be classified, I suppose I would fit with the young-twenties-professional-cardigan-and-Dockers-type, because really, that’s who I am. And nowhere else am I so pointedly reminded of that fact than the dank, grimy underground corridors of my commute.
Because when you’re standing idly at a platform, waiting in vain hopes of a train that is never on time, your eyes tend to wander, and you slowly begin to appreciate the enormous diversity of the New Yorker. We all may be waiting for the same train, but our destinations couldn’t be more different. That single mom with the double stroller? That Wall Street banker with the $2000 suit? We may be on the same train, but this is the end of our lives’ intersection with each other. I’ll get off at my stop, you’ll get off at yours, and that will be the last time we ever see each other in this tightly packed city we call home.
At the same time, though, the subway fosters a sense of unity, whether it takes the form of a communal eye roll and a groan when the conductor announces “due to train traffic, we are being held by a signal”. We chuckle for a second, and for that brief moment in time, we are united in our disdain for the MTA. Then there’s the respectful glance when we scoot over in our seats a fraction of an inch to make room for just one more, the whispered “excuse me” when the pitch and yaw of the train leads to trodden feet and accidental grabs, a freakish moment of personal intimacy in a city that eschews it.
I’ve always been fascinated by subways. (Or, I should say, I’m fascinated by mass transit as a broad subject.) That fascination springs from not only the steel and the iron that comprise the hundreds of miles that New York travels on every day, but what that construction supports – a whole system of cultural norms and shared experiences, that glue that brings depth to the term New Yorker.
Without the subway – without the myriad of water-cooler conversations and anecdotes and urban intimacy that it provides – that word may well mean something different entirely.
Maybe, in an alternate universe where our daily commute does not comprise of hundreds of people packing themselves into each silver-clad car and rocketing over the East River, New York may not be the New York we know. And that’s not a universe I want to find myself in.