Travel and Time: The Subway


People, truth, confrontation, my failings, and deserted sketchy streets in the middle of the night, apparently don’t scare me.

December 19th

10:30 p.m – Central Park North

I start on the journey to Brooklyn to meet my old great love, A., and his younger brother at a loft party. A.’s brother, Little A., is now twenty-eight, and I haven’t seen him since he was around fourteen. I head out at 10:30 p.m. and walk to the subway station on the north side of Central Park, which is not as well-lit as across the street, but instead I have the glow of the frozen lake by my side.

I pass a group of tough-looking street kids. Though it’s dark by the park, and besides them, deserted, it brings me no apprehension. But when one rolls way too close to me on his skateboard, I jerk my head toward him with a what do you think you’re doing scowl. This is a last resort on my part, because in New York, people don’t look at each other. Maybe in such a congested city a culture of not acknowledging one other is necessary in order to maintain a collective sanity. Also, showing fear/concern/interest can be interpreted as weakness in a city where tough facades are de rigueur.

But in this case, he’s just too damn close, his gliding shoulder almost touching mine as I walk. So I glare at him, and he says, more to his friends than me:

“Oh shit! I thought you was Larry!” Really? With my billowing sheer dress visible under my coat, and patent-leather ankle boots? He has a charming, impish face and his eyes sparkle. But I find I’ve tensed my entire body, and in this moment, I realize I’m no longer a New Yorker. So I loosen my muscles, ashamed, but also relieved that it’s too dark for him to have noticed my private tug of war with fear. For all I know, his friend “Larry” could be a petite dress-wearer with a 20’s bob like mine.

He and his group scatter off as I continue toward the subway.

It’s been fifteen years since I lived in New York. Now when I visit, apparently I turn into a tourist, which is never a point of pride. The upside is, I take in the greatest city in the world — yes, I’m one of those — with new eyes. The styles of architecture are varied and often spectacular, and for some reason it all feels magnified, like I’m seeing every detail up close. This must have to do with the proximity of buildings in proportion to their enormity. Walking around, there is a looming sensation to the streets, as if the buildings are alive. It’s dizzying and wonderful. To some, it’s also claustrophobic. As a New York devotee, I could never admit that I might fall under the last category too, even as I continue to live in Los Angeles where I navigate through my routines in the peaceful isolation of my car.

New York energy is tightly wound and urgent. In Los Angeles, there is space physically and therefore psychologically, and this gives you the luxury to make eye contact. You feel no need to block out passing connections. But leaving yourself open in such a way would assault your psyche with other colliding psyches in New York.

The co-mingling of everyone’s energy in New York versus individual insulation in Los Angeles presents a fascinating paradox. Think of hot water molecules that move faster and faster, versus cold water molecules with their leisurely motion. New York energy is like hot water. The attraction between molecules competes with their speed, causing them to move apart. But when slowed down in cold water, the attraction bring molecules together. In Los Angeles, a momentary connection with passersby poses no threat, but in New York, you’re thrown into what seems to be the midst of all humanity and the cosmos, which causes you to retreat into an invisible tank around your body.

I take two different trains to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The subway cars are overcrowded and sweltering under my winter layers. Keeping my layers on while trapped between people, rather than carrying them, is the most efficient way of transporting the clothing from the swarming underworld back to the cold where I can’t do without their warmth. There’s no available hand space on the poles and handles, and I actively avoid acknowledging that the reason the jostling train isn’t throwing me around is because I’m held up from all sides by the weight of an entire compartment full of people.

To Zen out in the middle of your claustrophobic nightmare is the only hope in preventing a mental breakdown, because panic would only speed up the feeling of suffocation. It’s like quicksand.

11:45 p.m. – Williamsburg

At the party, I discover that New York hipsters are exactly the same as Los Angeles hipsters. Questionable facial hair and creative use of accessories abound, such as a 60’s box purse converted into a hat.

I drink wine, talk, laugh, dance, and meet a bunch of people. One such person is a very tall man with a Greek-god nose and hair. I’m drawn by his intelligence, repelled by his boozy flirtation. Little A., turning out to be as sweet as he was fourteen years ago, checks on me more often than does A., who is busy eating brie and head-deep in a philosophical discussion about music.

By 4 a.m., I’m over the party and let A. know I’m fine to leave on my own. He knows better than to stop me, and can’t come along because he’s waiting with some others for food to be delivered. On the way out, I lose my scarf while navigating through the loft crowd. So I drop down to look for it in the dark among many legs. The Greek-god hair guy is all at once squatting in front of me and pretending to search with me. But really, he’s there to strategically intercept my face with his, counting on lip contact.

I find my scarf and grab it, chuckling and shaking my head no.

“I’m not going to kiss you,” I say, still perched in between partygoer legs.

“Oh. I thought you were drunk enough,” he replies, thinking himself charming. I can see he doesn’t believe me and expects me to kiss him in the end.

“I am, quite. But alcohol’s got nothing on my self-possession.” I stand up. He finally believes me. I walk away, waving goodbye. His tactic reminds me of the contrived “accidental” kiss of romantic comedies, which is precisely why I don’t return his call the next day. Or ever. I’m world-weary, he’s cliché, and there exists no emulsifying agent to mix together that salad dressing.

4 a.m. – Brooklyn Subway

I’m not afraid of too many things. Maybe breaking my bones while snowboarding, which might explain the amount of years it’s taken me to attempt double diamonds. Also, rats. And sometimes in the ocean, I imagine sharks to the point of having to leave the water. But people, truth, confrontation, my failings and deserted sketchy streets in the middle of the night apparently don’t scare me. So I walk to the subway, definitely tipsy, but most certainly not showing it.

In the subway station, I add $20 to an expired Metrocard, not paying attention to the prompts on the machine that warn not to refill an expired card.

Naturally, at the turnstile the expired card doesn’t work, my $20 having gone into the ether.

I approach the booth to remedy the situation, but the caged attendant is slack-mouthed and snoring away in sleep. I utter one or two tentative “excuse me, sirs” to no avail. He’s too deep in his private slumber and I can’t bring myself to wake him. This is not only out of consideration, but because rousing him feels too…intimate.

At this point impulse takes over me. When this happens, I’m already in the midst of action before the option of thinking it through even occurs to me.

So I turn, run, and jump the turnstile.

Yeah, I could’ve bought another card. Or I could’ve pulled the turnstile back and slipped through. Instead, I jump over it, ninja-style, skirt and all. By most standards, I’m middle-fucking-aged. (Consider this my coming out.)

And the little man entering the station who sees me do it?

I bet he has as much fun watching me — the fancy lady in Chanel patent-leather boots — as I do mid-leap with my Peter Pan complex in full effect.

The train from Brooklyn to Manhattan is inexplicably crowded even though it’s close to 5 a.m. The majority aren’t dressed for nightlife, nor do they give off the vibe of those about to begin or end a work shift. Who are these people and where are they going? It’s surreal. And they’re all nodding off like they’re in some drug cult together. But I suppose they’re just tired.

Subway Dude

Except this badass, he definitely had a night out.

5 a.m.  Manhattan

I get off in Manhattan at the 14th Street station. I take the underworld passages by foot to change for my second train and discover that what might be worse than an overpacked subway system is an utterly deserted one. It’s like everyone’s gone from earth and I’m left behind in a grim purgatory.

I laugh at myself. Seems I have complaints about both the presence of, and lack of people. Then I marvel at the habit of entrancing myself during otherwise mundane moments and infusing them with the surreal. And I realize each is a projection of my mood.

In the dirty subway, I learn for perhaps the dozenth time in my life, so much of my feelings and perceptions are choices.

I scan the empty passages again to make sure I’m alone, and with the confirmation, begin to skip wildly and flail. For this moment, all of it belongs to me. If I knew how to do cartwheels — and if the ground weren’t so filthy — I’d have endless space to do them. Instead, I skip with arms waving in the air until I reach the stairs to my deserted platform.

When the train comes, it too seems to be completely empty. So I ride in between cars where it’s forbidden, if only to see whether someone might appear to admonish me and break the spell. But no one does.

Back on Central Park North, I walk home by the frozen lake. The air is crisp and I can’t think of a single reason why I need to grow up.

 Subway Car


Cathartic Monkeyism

None necessary.

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  1. I really enjoyed this. It captures a lot of what I feel walking around Manhattan on my annual February trips to the city for a conference these last five or six years.

    1. During this particular January, I experienced both 60° weather and -17° in New York.

      1. The wind tunnels created by those tall buildings can wallop you when it’s that cold! Yeah, it has been a strange winter on the east coast. Near sixty in the Blue Ridge today but an inch-plus of snow expected tonight.

  2. Ah, I’m glad I will soon be back in NYC because this made me nostalgic. I love everything about this– refusing to kiss or answer the Greek-God-Nosed-Man, the shenanigans at the turnstile, and the whimsical skipping through an abandoned tunnel. This reminds me of one night in particular when I was in Xi’an, walking around my neighborhood and seeing magic everywhere.

    1. I’d love to read about it.

      1. I definitely have several pages in my journal from that night… I’ll have to try and find it soon 🙂

  3. Paul · · Reply

    “…so much of my feelings and perceptions is a choice.” Mmmm – I do agree with you there Gunmetal Geisha however, I would suggest that some of your perceptions are shared by others – as Jeff Schwaner mentioned. I’ve not spent enough time on the ground in NYC to be able to identify but I have had similar feelings in other situations. As a long-haul trucker, I’ve had occasion to be on large highways in the wee hours of the morning when there is little or no traffic. I have stopped on the side of the road and walked out on an empty 6-lane highway and felt the crowds that would travel it within a few hours and yet at that moment I could sit safely on the center line. It is a feeling of flipping back and forth between why the highway is there and the fact that I am presently alone on it. It can be an eerie feeling but I think it is a clue as to how we think and process information. We don’t just simply process present observations; we overlap them with past experiences and future extrapolations to create 3-D emotional maps of what we are seeing. And, yes, you can choose how you perceive it because there are multiple options available to choose from at that point in time. I find it a neat feeling – the flipping back and forth between perspectives.

    Anyway, great post – loved the descriptions, the turnstile jumping, the molecular metaphor and the party. Makes me want to visit NY again.

    1. Yes, I would guess most of human perceptions and experiences overlap — humanity would be a lonely condition otherwise. I would like to experience a 6-lane highway when it’s empty for the reasons you mention. “3-D emotional maps of what we’re seeing –” I love that.

      1. Paul · ·

        The neat thing that I find about the common perceptions that connect humans is that each life lead has totally different experiences. So when you describe a situation and the attending feelings that are real for you, the story enters my consciousness and as it does I automatically start to make connections with my experiences/feelings – they sort of hook onto and incorporate your description. And the richer and more honest your potraiture, the greater the density of links. Much as I would envision the formation of brain ganglia. And I find your descriptions and experiences greatly enrich my understanding of my world and of our “shared” world. So, yes, some perceptions overlap, but in completely different experiences. Growth.

        Yeah, the highway is so cool. I thought some more about why, after I commented, and realized that it is surreal to stand on pavement where more than 50 million people have passed ( 20 yrs x 52 wks/yr x 5 days per wk x 10,000 cars per day) and yet no one has set foot where you are standing since the road was built. It’s like discovering the moon in your closet when you open the door – totally unexpected.

      2. I feel the same about your comments and thoughts — they definitely expand on and add to whatever concept or theme I am exploring. They make me take a step out of my own thinking sphere to see more, and by that virtue, my thinking sphere gains a larger radius. I just love the way your mind works.

  4. There is something about the energy in that city that is different than all others. I almost grew up in Long Island, but we moved when I was only 8, so never really knew what it was like to live there.

    1. It really is different than any other city. Where did you move to when you left LI?

      1. South Dakota. I grew up there instead. It’s probably why I am so bitter. The winter weather there suuuucked.

  5. Breathtakingly good! Your style forges such a connection between the writer and the reader that it’s impossible to resist. Everything, the energy of NY, the thwarted suitor, vaulting the turnstile … all of it described in a way that engages every sense. My favourite post of yours (so far) – quite, quite splendid!

    1. Oh interesting! Love reading that from you. Just when I begin to wonder it there were anything relatable in the post…

      1. Relatable? I have just spent 15 minutes LIVING that day/evening with you! Your writing is like virtual reality!

      2. You’ve made very giddy, thank you!

        Also, I want to run over and see what you’ve cooked up, because you’re so so good at it. This is why your feedback means so much to me.

      3. I could say the same about you! Thank you! 🙂

  6. I remember standing on a NYC sidewalk looking up at the skyscrapers and drinking in my claustrophobia…I was right there with you GG, well done.

    1. Would it be presumptuous to say, I felt you there with me, Red? I’m not kidding. You were one of the people entering my mind when I wondered what so-and-so would think of my subway / NYC post.

  7. Presumptuous? Not in the least…I am deeply honoured.

    I struggle with accepting being in the heart of another at any time. It brings me great joy to hear I was in your thoughts while writing/re-reading such a piece of descriptive art…it also creates in me a feeling of waiting for the other foot to fall. A legacy of a lifetime of being built up in order to smash me down…such foolishness in the face of such esteem. This is the weave of childhood upon the tapestry of our lives, yes?

    Thanks GG, I was about to embark on a totally shithouse day and you’ve turned that around. Damn, you’re good!

    LLH&R REDdog

    1. You can thank Paul Curran (commented above) for pointing me in your direction when you wrote for BBW.

      There is no other foot (to drop), because there is no ulterior motive.

      What’s LLH&R?

      1. I must pay Paul a visit, thank him myself, I enjoy you.

        Not expecting you to drop the other foot, it’s more like a phobic extension of all positive interactions I think…I am totally somebody’s Psych thesis.

        Love Loyalty Honour & Respect
        …by these precepts I live and show my heart…

      2. GG, what is Paul’s blog called, I can’t seem to get there from here

      3. Paul doesn’t haven’t a blog, but if you scroll up, he commented above. I believe he receives follow-ups. (He really should have a blog, the way he thinks and writes — I’ve suggested it many a time.)

  8. Nice piece, I miss New York. I grew up in Illinois, several summers during my teens were spent in NY with my cousins. Nice to meet you, I just discovered you via the blog where there is much controversy today. Have a beautiful weekend.

    1. Hi Becki, thanks for reading and introducing yourself. It’s lovely to meet you.

      1. Pleasure to meet you. Have a beautiful weekend.

  9. Twist · · Reply

    I. Heart. New York.

  10. mike · · Reply

    the only time I was in NYC the subways smelled like pee and I saw someone shooting up in an alley. Not the best first impression.

    1. No one ever said NYC is not intense…


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