Travel and Time: The Subway

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Turnstile

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 and walk to the subway station on the north side of Central Park, which is not as well-lit as the other side of the street, but instead I have the glow of the frozen lake by my side.

I pass a group of thuggish youths.  It makes no difference to me until one of them skates too close to me on his skateboard.  He has massive dreadlocks.  I jerk my head at him with a what’re you doing scowl.  This is a last resort on my part, because in New York, people don’t look at each other.  Maybe the fact that the city is so congested necessitates a culture in which not acknowledging each other is a matter of maintaining 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.  So I glare at him.  He says, more to his friends than me:

“Oh shit!  I thought you was Tyrese!”  Really?  With my sheer dress billowing under my coat, and my patent-leather high heel boots?  He has a charmingly impish face and his eyes sparkle.  But I find I’ve clutched my purse tighter to my body, and in this moment, I realize I’m no longer a New Yorker.  I only hope he doesn’t notice how tightly I hold the purse.  For all I know, his friend “Tyrese” could be a petite transgender with a 20’s bob like mine.

I continue walking to the subway station and the dreadie dude and his group scatter in the opposite direction.

I haven’t lived in New York for fifteen years.  When I visit, I revert to being a tourist, and this 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 architecture is varied and often spectacular, and for some reason, it all feels magnified like I’m seeing it exceptionally 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 this category, even if I’ve chosen to continue living 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 Angles, there is space, physically and therefore psychologically, and this gives one the luxury to make eye-contact.  One feels no need to block out passing connections.  Leaving one’s self open in this way in New York would assault one’s psyche with the bombardment of other colliding psyches.  The co-mingling energy of New York versus individual insulation in Los Angles 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 Angles, 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 cosmos, which causes you to retreat into an impenetrable shell.

I take two different trains to Williamsburg in Brooklyn.  The subway cars are over-crowded and sweltering under my winter layers.  Keeping my layers on while trapped between people is the most efficient way of transporting the clothing from the swarming underworld back to the cold where I can’t do without them.  There’s no available hand space on the poles and handles, and I actively avoid thinking that the jostling train isn’t throwing me around only because I’m held up by the weight of an entire subway car full of people from all sides.  To Zen-out in the middle of your claustrophobic nightmare is the only hope in preventing a mental breakdown.  Panic only speeds 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.

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

I’m over the party by 4 a.m. and let A. know I’m fine to leave on my own.  He knows better than to stop me, and can’t come with me because he’s waiting with some others for food to be delivered.  Navigating through the crowd on my way out of the loft, I lose my scarf.  I drop down to search 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 look with me.  But really, he’s there to strategically intercept my face with his.  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; he 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 movie cliché, which is precisely why I don’t return his call the next day.  Or ever.

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 has taken me to attempt double diamonds.  Also, rats scare the shit out me.  And sometimes in the ocean, I imagine sharks, and then I have 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 definitely 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, the card doesn’t work in the turnstile.  I approach the booth to remedy the situation, but the caged attendant is slack-mouthed and snoring away.  I utter one or two tentative “excuse me, sirs” to no avail.  He is so deeply delved in his private world of slumber that I can’t bring myself to wake him.  This is not only out of consideration, but because it feels too…intimate.

At this point impulse takes me over.  When this happens, I’m already in the midst of an action before thinking it over 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 the Chanel boots, as I do jumping the turnstile 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 I discover what might be worse than a claustrophobic, overpacked subway system, is an utterly deserted one.  It’s like everyone’s gone from earth and I’m left behind in a dingy purgatory.

I laugh at myself.  Seems I have complaints about both the presence of, and lack of people.  Then I marvel at my 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 look around again at the deserted passages, and I begin to skip.  For this moment, it all belongs to me.  If I knew how to do cartwheels — and if the ground wasn’t so filthy — I’d have endless space for them.  Instead, I skip with arms waving in the air until I reach the stairs to my empty 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.
                                                           

 Subway Car

                                                                                                                                                       

Cathartic Monkeyism

None necessary.


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31 comments

  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. “…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. 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. I. Heart. New York.

  10. 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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