Day two of the 2005 transit workers strike: We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and looked behind us. What seemed like everyone in the borough streamed over it and gushed into Manhattan. Without a subway, New York was a giant overflowing bathtub. Unable to pour into the city beneath the city and flow through its tunnels, millions of people spilled into streets, over bridges and packed taxis until faces pressed against windows like pancakes. Without the subway, not only does New York cease to be the city that never sleeps — it ceases to be.
The restless, nervous energy of New York, the sense that anything can happen — is happening — rises from below. Our subway drives the city’s mythic image as a dynamo churning at the center of the world. And yet our natural attitude toward it is a blasé annoyance. It’s loud. It’s crowded. In winter it’s a homeless shelter. In summer it’s freezing with conditioned air. It’s dangerous. A bomb could go off so if you see something, say something. The subway is always wrong in some way. We have this infinite grievance because the subway shapes us against our will. Whether we are born here or have arrived fresh from a state with too much sky, the subway imperceptibly transforms us into New Yorkers. Each ride teaches us to think like New York. We learn to judge, to hustle, to posture and to ignore. We learn the city, unconsciously; until one ride, somehow we know to wake from a nap at our stop and stumble through foggy sleep out of the train. That is when we arrive in New York. That is when it gives us its invisible urban dictionary.
Each city has unspoken rules, a tacit collective conscience. New York’s rules on race, class, nearness, trust and who to value or throw away are first ground into us in the rackety trains rocketing through the dark. If we could materialize that invisible urban dictionary, here are a few of the entries we would read:
The Hush In the subway, silence is a social fact. New Yorkers enforce a moratorium on noise with extinguishing stares or sighs, tactful isolation or an outright “shut the fuck up.” A loud rider is like a man smoking in a submarine, a polluter of confined existence. But the silence is not emptiness.
Crisscrossing it are stares of surveillance or voyeurism of ethnic, class and sexual others. But once the appraisal is done, the hush congeals into a mood more desperate than courteous. Rocking like infants in the train we go from being vulnerable to strangers, to being vulnerable with them. In the hard seats, half-asleep or half-dead from the city’s endless dynamo, we ask and are asked for quiet and realize we usually have no choice but to say yes.
The Security Gaze The shouting Pentecostal Jamaican holy-roller is annoying but safe. The homeless man shaking invisible bugs out of his hair is not. Each subway ride, New Yorkers scan each other for danger. When we walk into the train car a single sweeping gaze maps the safest space to wedge our bodies. In that instant, skin color, clothing and body language are filtered through the city’s ideology. At the safe pole are white-skinned, nicely dressed riders and at the menacing pole are dark-skinned, foreign and poor riders. Black teens are terrifying. Unless of course you are one. Then, the terror comes at being targeted. Ride after ride the security gaze becomes embedded in our minds. It follows us to the surface of the city where, if you are targeted by its cross-hairs, a single wrong move can end with death. Like Sean Bell. Like Amadou Diallo.
Musical Chairs The moment comes when you look and look and look again. No seat is open except next to the smelly homeless man. And you take it. Because you’re tired. Because you ache. Because the subway is a game of musical chairs. And you steal it quickly before the other rider does, who now turns and looks with a scowl for a place to stand. You won a seat. But as the train rolls along the tracks, the friction of bodies against each other rubs off the psychological armor of the self. You are learning, against your will, to share space with those you fear or feel disgust towards. Sitting cheek by jowl, they are too close to you to be anything but human. The make-up and religious markings, the skin-color and foreign language become transparent and their face shines in a radiant reflection of your own. It doesn’t happen often, this epiphany. But it does.
The Monologue She was talking to herself, staring plaintively up at an invisible listener. A few eyebrows lifted and then papers were held up in front of
faces, or the screen of the iPod suddenly became interesting. She walked up and down the train pleading with a phantom, and then left at the next stop. None of us felt scared. But we did feel oddly embarrassed for her, a woman who if not starry-eyed crazy had at least forsaken the world we lived in for her own.
Here we live in public isolation. We don’t expect to listen to each other in public. We wade through the crowd to that person waiting for us on the other side. Or we talk on the cell phone as those around us become a blurry backdrop of faces. And while doing so, we pass those who talk to themselves out loud, the Ranters, the Crazies. In New York, a comforting line is drawn between them and us — but if you look at it closer, you see a spectrum. Who among us hasn’t finished an argument, half muttering, half yelling at the absent other on our way to the subway? Who hasn’t re-enacted a scene while inside the train, your face moving as if the other was truly there and then looked up and saw someone was watching you? New York is a city of eight million stories and we each tell our own in a constant and lonely monologue.
These are only four subway dictionary entries. Each one materializes the invisible, unspoken definitions we inherit from New York about New York. Hundreds more can be written. Because how we travel underground, compressing time and space in a shared silence, in shared surveillance, in contest over space and in pity for those unashamed to spill their private worlds into public, in all this is the experience that defines how we live above ground. The subway is the center of our city; it makes us into its image even as we ignore this humming beneath the ground, constant and like a glorious song rising through us.