Life Underground; New York City Subways

March 10, 2011

I’ve been taking the subway in New York City since I was very young. I remember the first time or close to the very first time that I rode the subway with my mother as she showed me how to get to my high school which was forty-five minutes away, in another borough. I was shorter than I am now, and bright eyed at the prospect of this traveling independence. It was like learning a new language. Which trains go where – how many stops till here – where to transfer – the exact place on the platform that will put you next to the exact door in the train car to make it faster to exit at your stop. I became quickly fluent, parents rules of not riding the train at night became riding the train with a friend at night, and again became riding whenever and wherever. The rides were meditative. After spending a considerable amount of time traveling to and from school for four years, I developed a deep appreciation for the quiet time. Reading, thinking, listening to music, people watching. I would fall asleep and wake up moments before the doors open at my stop, never missing it. I have a long standing personal history attached to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The tunnels run through my bloodstream. There was something about trains that had always just calmed me down.

In September of 2001, I was riding on the 2/3 line directly underneath the World Trade Center station on my way to school just one hour before Flight 11 hit the North Tower. We watched the rest of the morning unfold from across the river. For the remainder of that school year, the trains were rerouted and I found a different way to get to Brooklyn. It required both transferring trains in each trip as well as traveling over the Manhattan Bridge. While the view was beautiful, for a long time I couldn’t go over the bridge without holding my breath. I was terrified there would be another attack in some capacity. If the train was stalled for even a minute on the bridge, I had these horrible thoughts that there would be an attack on the bridges and we would happen to be in mid-bridge at that very moment. I got so paralyzed by my fear that I would occasionally get off the train at Canal Street right before it went over the bridge, just to calm myself down in order to get back on the next one that came.

The fear subsided eventually (I after all had another three years of subwaying in order to complete my high school education) and when I went to college in Philadelphia, I started taking Amtrak back and forth from one city to the other to visit home and my love affair with trains began to grow again. There is something romantic, nostalgic, and tragic about trains and their stations. Maybe its just me, but Rick reading Ilsa’s letter in the pouring rain as the ink is running off the page just before he lets the train carry him away in Casablanca, or as Samuel and Susannah with conviction and love step off the train that has taken them into the Montana mountains to the Colonel’s retreat from the madness of war in Legends of the Fall both get me every time. Aside from my emotional sentiment, trains are one of the oldest, strongest symbols of human expansion. The Transcontinental Railroad was the first built to link the East and West coasts, create a transport system that would modernize the movement of people and goods, and populate the West. In India, the trains are a symbol of independence and freedom and in China, they are known for their speed and efficiency.

I have always seen the light in the ability to connect closely with the human condition through the heart of movement. We stand inches from each other sometimes, knowing nothing more about the other person than perhaps what perfume they wear, if they’re solitaire or sudoku fans, whether they washed their hair this morning, or that they enjoy listening to Justin Timberlake at eight o’clock in the morning on a Wednesday. Sometimes we’re shown how children are treated by frustrated parents, racial fights between young men, homeless men and women, and one-legged beggars. Still other times we’re privy to lovers’ embraces, best friends giggling, babies being carried in the bodies of their mothers, and old school acapella groups singing Motown just right when you didn’t even know you needed to smile.

Nothing about any of them will ever be the same as it was before. The train car is the quintessential blank canvas over and over. The combination of lives and energy in the same space will never look or feel the same again. This is not a project, but something that runs deep into the fabric of my being. I know nothing of these people except what they choose to show me. The way they sit, if they’re reading, sleeping, thinking, watching. They are chosen for their communal solitude. They are not chosen at all. They choose me. We live our lives separately, and as yet, are constantly colliding with one another.

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One Response to “Life Underground; New York City Subways”


  1. […] From my article, Life Underground: New York City Subways, found here […]


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