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.”
When the subway stops at Van Cortlandt, the end of the line, it is just after 6:00 p.m. and dark. I am alone in the car.
Near Christopher Street appears a skinny white kid with a red scarf and face white as gypsum. He sits hunched in the corner, head bent, facing the shiny metal wall of the subway, looking as if he were throwing up, or sneaking drugs.
At Houston Street seven loud black kids get on. They wear warm-up pants and matching jackets and are filled with the energy of youths who have just played sports. One is eating McDonalds and the smell of fries quickly fills the car. Another two scarf ziti from Styrofoam containers. At Canal, the gypsum-faced kid gets off. I notice a fat black Sharpie in his hand. He meets a friend on the platform who had been in an adjacent car and together they start sneering at the black kids.
“Come in,” taunts one of the black kids, “You scared?”
The subway begins to pull away and the second white kid runs after it. He reaches up and with a thick piece of white chalk scrawls something on the window.
“What he write?” yells one of the black kids.
“He wrote nigger!” says another.
“That white boy wrote nigger!” says a third.
They inspect the graffiti. There is an “N” but the rest is scribbles.
At Chambers the black kids get off and I walk over to where the gypsum-faced kid had been sitting. Freshly written on the metal, in the shaky scrawl of a teenage boy, is a list. The first item is blacked out, the rest reads:
I reread the names then turn around to see if anyone is watching me, I am alone. I am dumbfounded. I am ecstatic. I want to shout my joy to the world. This is the scream of the age-old, aching, restless New York youth; Walt Whitman’s yelp and Alan Ginsberg’s howl and Holden’s fuck you and Kerouac cruising west.
I am alone through South Ferry, the other end of the line, and at 7:28 p.m., pass Times Square and complete my first loop. At Van Cortlandt, the conductor announces the train is headed for the yard and I get on the subway across the platform. The car smells of flowers and chemicals. I look out the window and see a nearly full orange moon rising behind silhouetted trees.
At 23rd I look to my left and notice an old man with a white beard and blue cap lying across three seats with legs outstretched. He is completely cross-eyed and looks insane.
“Excuse me, South Ferry?” asks a man with too-short gray slacks that reveal bruised shins. He has a thick Russian accent.
“Yup,” says the insane man.
At South Ferry both get off. A dread-locked man keels over a garbage bag with his head lost under a hood, his socks are curiously clean. At 14th an older woman with permed gray hair wearing a dress that looks like it’s made of fake denim peeks her head into the subway car. “Is this going uptown?” she asks. No one responds. She holds the doors open with her arms, and thrusts her upper body into the car. “Is this the 1,2,3?” she asks again.
“Yes,” I say.
She wears several layers of clothing below the dress and wore a jacket over it all. Trailing her is contemporary with a fake leopard skin purse, a flowing black dress and a suede jacket with fox lining. I instantly detest them both.
“What is that?” the woman who had held the doors open asks with disgust as she passes the dread-locked man, still resting against his garbage bag.
“That’s my dad,” I say snidely.
“That’s disgusting,” she whispers to her friend.
At 12:22 a.m. the doors open at Van Cortlandt Park. The train is going to the yard, this time there is no train across the tracks to transfer to, I must wait. It’s the coldest day of the winter, temperatures are in the teens and a howling wind makes it feel like below zero. MTA workers wearing orange and yellow reflector vests carry large plastic garbage bags. Several wear ski masks, which hide all but their eyes. They move like drones. I feel as if I have been transported to some apocalyptic future. The world is a vast icy wasteland covered with garbage. The garbage pickers are the only ones who still have a purpose. The rest of us merely stand behind poles, trying to escape the wind. A hunchback with a puffy red parka staggers past me, stops at a pole and urinates.
Five minutes later the train comes. I walk through three cars until I find one where the heat is working. At 145th the guy next to me begins snoring, making a noise that sounds like a mating seal: “schwick schwack, schwick schwack, schwick schwack.” Near 96th, I fall asleep.
Down and back. I dread another wait in the cold on the platform, fortunately the next time another train is already there. At 231st a man with a paper bag, a tan cap and shoes that are gooey and melted, as if he has been walking on lava sits down and begins examining the ads on the ceiling. We are alone until 137th, when two high school age kids embark. One is white, the other is Puerto Rican.
“If we get pussy we get pussy,” says the Puerto Rican kid. He has bushy eyebrows, a shaved head and wears a camouflaged jacket. The white kid has long blonde hair, a goatee and a ruddy face. They are planning some sort of escapade.
“Yo,” blurts the Puerto Rican kid, “I like Jenny, she’s mad dope.”
“Tell Jenny to come with us,” says the white kid. “Jenny is mad cute. If you can get that shit, mad props.”
The Puerto Rican kid tells a story about a time when he was hanging out with Jenny and someone had asked her if they were married.
“Jenny is a girl you can settle down with,” says the white kid. The Puerto Rican agrees.
At 225th Street I look outside, 6 a.m., the sky is purpling.
“I’ll see you up there in about 15 minutes with milk and sugar, okay?” says a woman to her son. I think about the wonderful feeling of knowing a cup of coffee is coming on a cold morning. Outside, factory smoke billows. At each stop the subway grows colder as doors remain open to let in the crowds. My knuckles go blue and green. Has my skin changed color, or is it just my eyes?
At Van Cortland, a handful of young perfumed women get on. I wonder if I will I get off before them. A man by the door reads a Russian newspaper with what looks like a UFO on the cover. We reach Times Square just after 7 a.m.. I get off, as does a man beside me, kicking the door with rage as he goes.
Perhaps we get angry at New York because we know it will go on despite us. It’s a churning mess, set in motion thousands of years ago when advancing glaciers first scraped its slate free. The city exceeds us, splashes over us, swells around us, skins us, sometimes sinks us. The only way to stymie it is to slow it down, and the best way to do this is to sit down, and observe. And what better place to observe than the subway, where immigrant workers first blasted tunnels through bedrock, the heart of the city jack hammering into the heart of the city, creating a living conduit that conducts its charge continuously, every day, every minute, every second.
I climb the steps to Times Square. The sun has risen, the night is over.