Thursday Dec 6th I took a B train from Brooklyn to Manhattan to rent a minivan to pack full of everything I own and then to drive to North Carolina. A moving van. I was moving after 10 years of living in the New York area. I had been talking about moving for a couple of years but had delayed for various reasons. Now it was finally happening. I had one day — this day, December 6 — to pack up, drive down to NC, unload, and return the vehicle to a Hertz location in Durham.
Knowing it was my last subway ride for the foreseeable future, everything took on the glow of rite. Entering the station. Swiping my card. Walking down the steps. Jostling past my fellow train-waiters, saying excuse me, or not. Craning my neck to see when the train was coming. Feeling a slight whoosh as a territorial pigeon flew a little too close to my face. Seeing, finally, the glow of subway headlights approaching. Stepping on the train into a waiting press of fellow humans. Grasping a pole and situating my body into some kind of tenable position while the doors closed, then opened again, then closed.
Here’s my position on riding the subway. If you are well-rested and energized, there is no more exciting and fun mode of transportation. If you are tired or sore, there’s no more agonizing and miserable mode of transportation. The morning of Dec 6th, I was tired and sore from having spent most of the previous night packing boxes. The subway car was packed full of morning commuters, jostling for position, avoiding each others eyes, looking down, away, or, eyes closed, not looking at all. The seats are bright orange trimmed with beige and the walls are chrome. The light is a dim orange and there is an everpresent whining hum.
One thing I learned is that subway drivers are like regular drivers. Some of them are not very good drivers. There were several delays on this trip. This subway train lurched to a stop a lot. It seemed like the operator was riding the brakes. Every lurch was comprised of several smaller lurches. Every stop was rough, every start-up was also rough. When the train lurches, bodies tense and shift, stumbling, rebalancing. There were several announcements of “we are being held momentarily due to train traffic ahead of us. Thank you for your patience.” Faint mutters and rueful groans in response. Several times the train stopped dead for what felt like minutes but was probably just 10 seconds or so. A couple of times the lights went off and the electric hum ceased. During these pauses you can hear people’s ragged breathing and the tinny drone of someone’s earbuds. Some people are reading, Some people swiping idly or tapping madly at their phones, or just standing still looking vacantly into the middle-distance.
My back hurt. I wanted to sit but no seats opened up. I would have liked just find a wall to lean against and press my lower back into, but no walls opened up either. Just humans on every side. A man’s shoulder kept bumping mine. I resisted the urge to react, or look at him. I just breathed, and prayed — for him, for me, for everyone on the train and for everything — remembering that this was my last time.
Here I’d like to pause to tell a story. If you ride the train or subway you’ll sometimes hear a warning or see a sign saying something like “watch the gap.” That means watch out for the space between the subway platform and the subway car. One time while racing to get onto a train I failed to watch the gap, and instead stepped right *into* the gap. One of my legs went straight between the platform and the car and my butt landed hard on the platform. I had a guitar on my back. I was momentarily as helpless and dependent as a baby. Instantly, a sea of hands belonging to concerned faces reached down and out to me, and, not waiting for me to grab ahold of them, seized ahold of me and yanked me collectively up and into the car. Someone said “You ok?” and I nodded as the train pulled away and people returned to their books, phones, and idling thoughts.
Whenever I’m tempted to think the worst about human beings and about New Yorkers in particular, I remember that day and those people who had my back and possibly saved my life.
Back to December 6th. This particular lurching crowded B train escaped Brooklyn and made it over the East River, to West 4th street. I walked up the stairs and out into the street. I found a wall and pressed my lower back into it, breathing in the pale winter air. Ahh. That’s the stuff. Tired and thankful, I walked to the Hertz location on Morton Street in the West Village.