Every day I ride the subway. Descend the worn steps down into the bowels of the city. The carved out antiquated tunnels that have never seen sunlight. Past the more modern turnstiles with their automated ticket readers, down more steps to wait on platforms. To squeeze into crowded cars, packed tightly, hip to shoulder with a bunch of strangers. Eyes focused diligently on books, cell phones or e-readers. Old women with bags of groceries, tired tourists with overstuffed suitcases headed to the airport, fashionable young men with scruffy beards, eyeing every stranger who gets on.
When Carlos points out that the subway is over 100 years old, I am amazed. In places like Grand Central or Penn Station you can see the decaying grandeur and imagine how splendid it must have been when it was new. Even in it’s current, crumbling sprawl it is amazing. A modern marvel of ingenuity funneling millions of locals and tourists all over the metropolis every day. I’ve never lived in a city where traveling was so convenient and reliable.
I cling, ape-like, with one hand on the overhead bar, going to shops, museums, or more lately job interviews. Shouldering my messenger bag with a portfolio containing copies of my resume. I dutifully put on a tie and fake a smile and firm handshake for temp agencies. Selling myself as a “people person” and “outgoing” to get some entry level job that pays half of what I was making in Seattle.
I’ve applied with every staffing agency listed online. Most recently I found myself at a staffing agency that was designed to help people with disabilities “live and work with dignity.” When I submitted my resume, I didn’t notice their mission statement, so I had an awkward interview with a woman who no doubt wondered what an able bodied person like me was doing there. For me it was another demoralizing blow in an already humiliating search for a source of income.
Sometimes, after these interviews, after taking tests to prove that I can file, or type, or use a web browser, I don’t want to get back on the subway right away. To go back to the coastal neighborhood with the thick, Queens accents and weathered boardwalk. Sometimes I find myself sitting in a park, watching the hustle and bustle of the city. The people in newer, more stylish clothing walking with purpose from high rise office buildings to wait in line at Starbucks or a hot dog cart. Sometimes I find myself reluctant to walk down those steps again, and join the other runners in the race.
At first the well mannered, southern man in me felt compelled to relinquish my seat to every woman standing. But this sentiment quickly faded to cynical feminism after a few weeks of being on my feet all day and having an hour and a half commute out to Rockaway Park where we are staying. Now pregnant women and the elderly are the only people I’d even consider giving up a seat for.
Some of the subway platforms are well lit, spotless. Most are dank, trash strewn, and crawling with rats who scurry through the debris oblivious to, or completely unafraid of, their human observers. Carlos, who has a misplaced fondness for rats, will inevitably exclaim, “Oh look, a baby!” I’ll turn, to see a mouse scurrying between the tracks. All I can think about are germs, and I find myself holding my breath and hesitant to touch anything.
Sometimes it is hot and humid, the air heavy and hard to breathe. The musky stench of sweat and stale breathing. Sometimes it’s freezing, and people huddle together or shiver in winter coats. Sometimes we’ll walk into an auspiciously empty car, amazed at our luck in finding a place to sit when the other cars are full, only to be confronted with a homeless person reeking of a year old sour milk smell, or a schizophrenic prostitute pacing the length of the car swearing that she’s going to have the President impeached. We sit, not making eye contact, and quickly change cars at the next stop.
Often people are selling things. A kid who calls himself “The Candyman” sells cookies and candy for $1. A pair of gentleman have a whole, polished comedy routine as they sell pirated DVDs of movies that aren’t even out in theaters yet. Other times musicians, a family who plays the accordion, a man in a wheelchair who plays the electric guitar, or pan flute players will get on, play some tune in varying degrees of incompetence, then walk (or roll) through to collect change. There is a group of women (at least three distinct ones) that get on carrying a toddler with a sign saying they are homeless, and asking for money. But they all have the same accent, nice clothes, and the exact same sign that makes me think that it’s a scam and they’re going back to some nice apartment with their plunder.
Occasionally the person next to me will speak about the weather, or the delays when they happen. Once a signal problem held up all the trains going through one station for over an hour and it took us three hours to get home. But most of the time the trains are running on schedule. I’ll answer politely, pleased with the unexpected human interaction, and then look at my hands again.
We usually ride the A train because it’s the only one that goes to Rockaway Park. For reasons unknown to me, there are two A trains, and a couple of times I’ve gotten on the wrong one, and had to transfer to get back to where I was going. Sometimes I look up to realize that I’m the only white person on the A train, which is an odd sensation, especially moving from Seattle where the lack of diversity sometimes made it feel like a city of Aryans. As odd as that situation seems at time, I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the train. Sometimes I find myself riding just to ride. To go somewhere. Anywhere.
Tomorrow we’re moving to Brooklyn. The A train will be replaced with a hub, a slew of options. There is a new neighborhood to explore in our second-choice borough, having been denied the apartment we were applying for in Manhattan.
Right now Carlos is at work, and I’m sitting in a coffeehouse in TriBeCa with free wifi. I’m wearing a shirt and tie and my nice shoes on the off chance that a temp agency wants me to come in for a last minute assignment in midtown. But as the day wears on, even this hope fades, and I look at my overpriced cup of hot chocolate, thinking better of having spent the money on something nonessential.
He gets off at 10:30, and we’ll go, one last time to the old haunt in Queens, to pack up our things and take it to our new room in Brooklyn. We’ll sit side by side on the orange, or yellow seats that haven’t been refurbished since the 70s it seems. I’ll hold the bag of groceries for him. His knee will press my knee, and I’ll look at him and smile. This familiarity in a strange city, a bit of warmth as we take the long subway ride home.