It’s a bright morning, the end of my first week at work. I am still getting used to living on my own in New York. Along the sidewalk outside my station entrance there is always a line of construction workers. They smoke and speak rapid Spanish and spit close to my feet. I envy the way they laugh to each other, confident in kinship and camaraderie. I’m lost in thought when I reach the turnstile and realize I am carrying too much. I switch my backpack to my shoulder, shift my coffee cup into the crook of my arm, and reach for my MetroCard. The person behind me swerves to the next turnstile in a huff. I am too slow. I finally push the bar forward and I’m forced to a halt – my card didn’t swipe, again. The day I achieve smooth subway entry I idealize as the day I will become sophisticated, seasoned.
Someone holding the subway pole next to me is wearing cologne that smells of apples and pumpkins and the experience conjured is the reverse of where I am right now in such a nature-less metropolis. [Instead it is where I am from, small town Ohio: elementary school field trips to farm orchards, pop-not-soda, election ads cycling endlessly on TV, sweaty high school dances after the town Homecoming game, things I am trying to shake off this summer.]
I assume – perhaps incorrectly – that there are unwritten rules here. On my other side, a man removes his shoe and begins examining his toenails. Another person makes clucking chicken sounds across the aisle. I look around to see how people react. But they seem immersed in books, in other worlds that are not rapid transit rail systems. I try to fit in by following the rules I know. I avoid walking on the yellow edge. I don’t eat food on the subway. I pretend the crazy people seem normal and I look up to read the advertisements instead of making eye contact.
If you wish it, you can become it reads the ad above my head. I wish I could become someone with an instinct for direction. I wish I could become one of those people who writes passionately in the margins of books, who folds down page corners because they know with conviction what they find most beautiful in the world. I wish I could become someone who stops and listens to the drummer in the Union Square subway station, instead of stepping to the beat of the coffee-fueled rush hour, or who buys flowers on a whim despite their inevitable expiration. (But instead I am someone who falls up the subway stairs, losing a shoe briefly. Someone who takes the downtown instead of the uptown and doesn’t have time for dinner before the show and so ends up buying sushi from a Duane Reade and eating it on an off-Broadway sidewalk. Someone who is too focused on getting off at the right stop to read the book in her lap, containing a few self-conscious scribbles but no marginal flourishes of genius.)
Granted, the subway usually has more interesting characters than my book. Today there is a lost German family. The father wears a t-shirt with the actual subway map printed on it in garish colors. They all peer at the father’s chest, poking and murmuring in confusion. The father cranes his head sideways, trying to read his own shirt. A bystander speaks slowly, “Look, you know they have maps along the walls of the cars, don’t you?” The German man laughs and says in English, “But if I were to use the railcar subway maps, then there would be no reason for me to have bought this shirt!” The family then continues to puzzle over their location.
On a city subway, there are many other things that seem incongruous. The woman beating the subway doors in a panic, graciously taking credit when they finally open. The man in a wheelchair with long peyas but no yamaca. The teenager who speaks brassily on the phone next to me: I’m this super-optimist who is constantly being disappointed by people. The homeless woman asking for money who entered my subway car once at the beginning of the summer and once at the end – and was 8 months pregnant in her speech both times. The smell of that man’s cologne next to me: fall fruit uprooted from its origin, ectopic.
I come home late that night from Brooklyn. There are girls dancing on the subway. Their speakers rock the car. Their laughter is wild. An elderly couple makes sour faces at the music. What about the old white folk, says one of the girls. They had their time, shrugs another. A drunk man tries to join their dancing and they exclaim, shove him away. He pushes one back, and I tense but the girls just laugh, loud. You trippin’ you can’t dance. He holds two poles, his pale thin tattooed arms extended as if to give himself more surface area. Don’t tell me what the fuck I can’t do. Trying to yell but trailing off into mumbles. He sits down.
It’s dusk by the time I get off the L train. Looking across the platform to the other side of the subway, it’s as if I’m looking at a reflection of some backwards place that I can’t quite reach. The rusted beams between the two platforms seem relentless and forbidding, make the abyss between the tracks seem endless. I only have to surface from the exit and cross over to get to the other side again, but from down here you would never know. It’s like the disconcerting moment when I’m on a train and through the windows I see another train heading the opposite direction. For a brief moment I can’t tell if I’m moving or if they are – if the origin of action is coming from the world outside or from me.
Right in front of the exit stairs leading to First Avenue, there is a man who sells peonies and sunflowers and orchids. He seems to fit in here. He has an old case, refrigerated, where he keeps bouquets. It looks kind of like a funeral casket, but look closely and you can see the flowers alive like Snow White, pink and white behind the cracked glass. Who is he, with his bald head round as a bowling ball and olive skin and squinting eyes? The grim line of his mouth parallels the creases on his forehead.
He could be an immigrant, maybe a butcher from a town in Poland, somewhere as hard and gray as the subway. His father probably told him all his life that his giant hands were made for slicing meat, but now he has become expert at bundling the delicate stems of dahlias and freesias. Back home, he kept flowers the way some people keep love letters. Here, he thinks of his mother every time he sells a corn poppy. Does he recognize the people who pass him by each day on their way home, does he recognize me, does he begrudge us for never stopping to buy his plants, does his heart ever lift in excitement as someone approaches? I tell myself one rose is less than a cup of coffee or subway fare. Like some people cultivate confidence, I wait for spontaneity to grow in me.