When you plunge into overwhelming darkness, the beckoning tunnel, your face ghostly, almost alien in the scratched and scuffed window reflections, nothing is secure. Grab a metal strap or pole and don’t dwell on germs, because losing balance and falling onto a splayed lap or atop a moist reclining passenger is infinitely worse. There’s a roar of sound and forward thrust. The clack-clack-clack forms a rhythm, something to relate to, a consistency amid the chaotic subterranean universe for the mind to grasp. Only a minute or two, time stretching past the limits of patience before a blur of liquid metal pours into another station among the fanfare of shrieking brakes. Is this 59th Street? Always more crazed and massed than 68th Street. The stutter and shiver of doors slide open as people push in, slipping around the wedge of humanity, barely allowing riders to fight their way off onto the platform. Doors close and open, close and reopen, then seal as invisible gears and levers are pulled. Is the grinding noise from outside or just deep in your teeth? Eager new boarders jostle for empty seats while cautious women gauge whether to press in between surly men, or perch next to the sleeping fellow slumped in the corner, his stink so primal as to create a proximity force field. They choose neither.
Besides the ever-rising fare and the banishment of tokens to the dumpsters of history, New York subways feel the same today as when I rode them decades ago. They may attempt to clean the platforms, add more cops and impose the vague outlines of efficiency onto the proceedings. Wondrous. Regardless, no matter how much grime is scraped away or how they revamp the trains with new R160 cars from Alstom in France or Kawasaki, the ancient tunnel system, the soot and the stench of everything dumped down there and moldering since 1904 remains.
In the nineties I rode different lines every day, uptown for work, to see friends or family, to paint at the Art Students League, then downtown to my West Village studio apartment. A choice over the slow progress by bus transit and more expensive Yellow Cabs. Visiting Manhattan now, as a rootless stranger, the subway is my only means of travel. Renting a car a frustrating exercise in navigating bumper to bumper traffic and dreaming of unattainable parking spaces. While taxis and towncars are the provenance of the new rich who’ve inherited the city.
The train dives back into a dry boneyard ocean. Inhale leftover death. You have been spared—momentarily. Lights flicker, sometimes shutting off as the cars judder and spasm like spinal disks out of alignment. Vertical bodies are sent this way and that, and excuse me, I didn’t mean to touch, just grabbing at something to hold onto and you were so…three-dimensional. For those pregnant seconds in darkness we can imagine our demise—if buried alive in a shared coffin on wheels rattling toward the River Styx or some other desolate finality. Strangers’ features are distorted under the grim fluorescence and become shadowy oddities in the pitch black before being trapped as frozen images in a strobe of light-dark-light-dark. If you could fall in love with someone in transit, staring down at the part in their hair, or up their nostrils, at the gleam of harsh light on their skin, and they fall for you under such conditions, maybe that love would last forever.
Someone told me once to avoid direct eye contact with other passengers lest that be taken as a provocation, yet to not look away either, or they may feel insulted and react in anger. A delicate balance.
Another train rumbles alongside in brief synchronicity and faces look across at each other in alarm, indifference, jealousy. Is this a dream? Will we escape and be exactly who we were before? Probably not. Just as logic accepts the neighboring track’s subway, it descends deeper into an express train chasm farther below, and the reflections of your single car and occupants returns as if that just-past vision was a collective mirage. Gaze at the ceiling, study the floor—a mottled mess. No one can help you.
In the nineties, I considered the writing emblazoned on the sides and doors and wondered, is this original early seventies graffiti, or was that scrubbed off to be replaced by newer retro-styled markings? Someone told me once to avoid direct eye contact with other passengers lest that be taken as a provocation, yet to not look away either, or they may feel insulted and react in anger. A delicate balance.
People of every race and gender and nationality stand facing each other with eyes fixed elsewhere. Tall, short, heavyset, slender and those malnourished for fashion. To glance outside and imprint the tunnels as retinal after-images for future nightmares remains beyond most passengers’ desires. Instead, study the instructions, maps and emergency brake. No escape from the wall-mounted ads—always troubling. Ads for TV series, for seedy lawyers and small-time politicians—assemblymen and council members—you’ve never heard of and hope not to. Faces smiling in pathetic desperation. This is what I’ve been reduced to, advertising in the fucking subway! Their dismal hopes for becoming Comptroller or Mayor then ascending to both instant recognition and immediate annoyance is palpable. Worst of all, the dermatologist ads. They promise cures for skin conditions, venereal disease, hair loss, rashes, spider veins, wrinkles and the horrid-sounding fistulas.
Why is everyone so young or very old now? Where did middle-aged, middle class people go? How do college students afford two and three thousand dollar a month tiny Manhattan apartments, and why does it seem so cheap for Europeans to linger for weeks, barking into smartphones, eating out and shopping relentlessly? I don’t know. New city secrets no one seems eager to discuss or reveal.
After the relative calm of 51st Street comes a raucous hallelujah rush into Grand Central Station, where one crowd departs and is replaced by a desperate crush of humanity into every available space. Perhaps welcome insulation during the Arctic fronts of January, but unpleasant when nestled in the humid crotch of August.
You are cut adrift, buffeted by the mass motion up hard iron stairs to the landing above, where passengers dart for intersecting lines going west, north, south, to Queens or Brooklyn—perhaps even Long Island. Dodge and weave around confused pedestrians and bulging newsstands, swerve wide of the motionless gawkers watching karaoke performers or whatever strange, noisy band is working the transitory space. Beyond this chaos, a long claustrophobic tunnel veers off toward the Times Square shuttle and no matter how many revamps, it remains a bleak passage haunted by people scuttling in either direction, racing for trains they can only imagine through distant earthquake rumblings, but are determined not to miss should fate favor them.
For those pregnant seconds in darkness we can imagine our demise—if buried alive in a shared coffin on wheels rattling toward the River Styx or some other desolate finality. Strangers’ features are distorted under the grim fluorescence and become shadowy oddities in the pitch black before being trapped as frozen images in a strobe of light-dark-light-dark.
The drivers of the shuttle travel back and forth, over and over, crossing a span of five blocks. Their line is even named Zero to signify its importance.
Those souls are not afforded the adventure given to operators on north-south trains who traverse space, first exposed and aboveground then descending into the tunnel system, the perpetual night of their days, ever-changing to keen eyes, burrowed away in sealed compartments up front as they ford rivers, cross boroughs, make hectoring pleas to clear the sliding doors between the canned computer chatter listing street stops. They engineer progress toward something ephemeral, just out of sight, here then gone, however futile. Gunmetal blue sparks at vision’s edge, ricochets splashes of ugly light, as the constant throttle and hum propels them forward toward transition, or devastation. Both eventually.
The howl and shriek of movement out of a station is followed by a loss of balance as a slight nausea inhabits us, unwelcome, toward deeper winding passages. Shadow people are encamped, creatures of odd design, roaming and crawling at the periphery of imagination. They live on coiled in your intestines but painful, like some forgotten collegiate amphetamine jag that punches against a thin-skinned stomach and begs to be remembered.
How do college students afford two and three thousand dollar a month tiny Manhattan apartments, and why does it seem so cheap for Europeans to linger for weeks, barking into smartphones, eating out and shopping relentlessly? I don’t know. New city secrets no one seems eager to discuss or reveal.
You will not be saved. But you already knew this. If not today then tomorrow or the day after and on and on, but anon.
Sprint from the shuttle toward the IRT West Side line. Oh, shit, it’s a congregation playing Peruvian flute music. Their fanfare always sounds the same, something canned from a Disneyland ride, a big production of many players in costumes, and crowds mass around agog and hypnotized, as the music magically transports them to the last American city where they heard the exact theme.
As you dart onto the 2 train and race south on Seventh Avenue toward your home, do you wonder if the operator up ahead is cackling with glee, all high and lonesome while teetering on a tightrope between inspiration and madness, on mood medication to focus, along with a microdose of ecstasy sprinkled atop? Or maybe this transit authoritarian is high on life and Jesus, a holy-roller bringing metallic righteousness to the great unwashed.
I used to ride the L train east out to Brooklyn in the early and mid-nineties when Williamsburg was vague, a cloud forming, and not a general destination. There were Polish and Italian neighborhoods, projects south of Metropolitan Avenue and cloistered communities of Hasidic Jews. Skinny youths from Manhattan clutching slim art portfolios or hoisting guitar gig bags were a rarity. No name or wardrobe existed, thankfully, for the Manhattan expatriates seeking larger spaces and cheaper rents. Williamsburg was of the past then, sagging houses coated in linoleum with rich deposits of formica within. Its vast expansion neither foreseen nor desired. Creation emerged from rubble, from decades of neglect.
I visited someone important to me in the shadows of late afternoon and we could be each other’s cocktail, the buzz to take the edge off the day. She rented an entire floor of a place for the price of a studio apartment in Manhattan. And we could become drugs too. You be my painkiller and I’ll be your antidepressant—isn’t that love? No declarations made. Both young and young in our knowledge of one another. It’s the divining of secrets, the tireless quest for details that destroys such bonds eventually. I want to know everything about you. No you don’t; I don’t even want to know everything about me. Not if you’ve witnessed my dreams. Weird shit lives up in there. Bad fuckum stuff.
Can a contented life be as simple as having one divine soul who cares for you and makes you act a better person than you know you are? Perhaps, but time can render us impatient, reckless monsters who churn about and unwittingly savage whatever delicate beauty we once helped create.
I barely noticed my L train rides out under the East River because I was in transit, amid a state of expectation and a state of becoming someone else. While my journeys back to the city were numbed by a glorious exhaustion—the fading high of her molecules still ghosting about me. We can never judge those things in the now, and say: this is where I’m happy and this is what I should be doing or striving for for the rest of my life. Not in the dazzle of youth. You can’t know, until much later.
You be my painkiller and I’ll be your antidepressant—isn’t that love?
Cursed by restlessness, selfish nomads cross state lines to look for opportunity, a better place to live, clean air, nature. Once the borders are crossed, you can never go back and will destroy yourself if you try. Instead, whisper yourself to sleep with, I once held a Picasso in my hands, I cradled a Modigliani. Not the canvas from a museum, but better, a singular masterpiece either artist would have killed to paint—had they been lucky enough to live in New York during one special moment when I did.