Monday, February 12, 2007

Overnight on the One

As the sun sets behind the Palisades on a frigid January Sunday I go underground at Times Square, board an uptown 1 train and stand by the door, not planning to get off until sunrise.

In New York, to be hemmed in is to be lonely, and one is always hemmed in. New York loneliness is seeing a poster for a film you will never see or walking past a crowded cafe you will never eat at or passing a park filled with lovers you will never love. New York loneliness comes from a fear of forgottenness, that you can never do it all, that even you if did the city would still move on around you, without you. Nowhere are we more hemmed in than the subway. And nowhere are we more lonely.

The subway cannot be summed up in a routine ride or even a lifetime of rides. But perhaps, I thought, a continuous ride without destination in which I recorded everything that I experienced can reveal something significant. Here is what I saw:

At 145th a homeless woman with a puffy parka and puckered face walks through the car. “Good afternoon, I’m homeless,” she says, in a raspy voice through shattered teeth. “Good afternoon, I’m homeless,” she repeats, leaving the way she has come.

At 191st a kid in sweatpants with a beige scarf wrapped tight around his neck runs to the middle of the car and climbs onto the orange seats, presses his forehead to the window, cups his hands against the glass and stares at the subway tunnel blackness.

After 215th the 1 crosses the East River into the Bronx, goes through a short tunnel and runs above ground.

At 225th a black man with bright blue shoes and a blue bubble coat hurries onto the train carrying two black plastic garbage bags, speaking rapidly into his cell phone.

“Yo, where are you?” he says. “Okay, I see that. That’s why you never tell no one.”