I don’t know exactly when I started referring to the subway as The Cattle Cars in my head, a characterization that evolved in spite of myself and against my will, since all my previous associations with people and cattle cars have genocidal overtones. It was sometime after I stopped going into mosh pits because they felt too much like crowded trains. After I moved to Brooklyn and started spending upwards of two hours a day on the trains, pressed against people who were pretending I wasn’t there. Or, a couple times, people who were far too aware that I was there, and that I have desirable body parts. You tell yourself you’ll never put up with that shit if it happens to you. And then it happens, and the train’s so crowded you can’t tell who it is, and you’re already late to work, and you don’t want to be the crazy weirdness that all the New Yorkers watch without watching. So you shut up. Your stop is only three away. Deal with it. Ignore. Evacuate.
Late at night in Union Square station. On the upper level, a busker is playing bagpipes, an instrument not designed with low ceilings and tiled walls in mind. Every time he finishes a song, the air fills with angry shouts from the homeless men who are trying to sleep.
Even one level down, at the other end of the platform, with my music turned all the way up, I can still hear them.
In a city of eight million people, I’m the most alone I’ve ever been. I don’t really know anybody here, I don’t have any roommates, and at the mixers and get-to-know-yous and bar hours that my school’s student life organizers put together, I mill around on the edges for an hour or so before leaving without successfully talking to anyone. Sometimes it feels like days go by without me saying anything, without speaking at all. I start to listen to more Fresh Air and This American Life than is strictly necessary for anybody. Ira Glass is the closest thing I have to company. I realize that if something happens to me, it could be days, maybe weeks, before anyone at home really got worried. I start to wonder if the people on the subway aren’t just ignoring me. Maybe I really am invisible. Maybe I’m not really here.
Manhattan-bound Q train. I notice an older guy with a long face in a shabby Carharts jacket and dusty jeans, three days’ stubble scuffing his cheeks. I don’t know why I noticed him. I would have forgotten him if I hadn’t seen him again on the train back to Brooklyn hours later.
New York is probably the only place in the world where I would notice this happen and not find it sinister.
Contrary to what my relatives back home believe, New York isn’t sinister. It’s just that random. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson likes to say that in a world of infinite universes, events and people and entire galaxies are bound to repeat themselves. In the near-infinite universe of the subway, people repeat, and after so many random encounters it finally seems natural to see the same person twice. Buskers repeat. Homeless people repeat. I repeat.
Weekday morning. Q train. Manhattan bound. The train grinds to a halt between Church Ave and Prospect Park, above ground thank God, and the driver on the intercom tells us that a train ahead of us on the tracks has lost signal and isn’t moving. We’re between stations so they can’t just open the doors and let us out. The sun is shining, and the temperature in the car starts to rise. I pause my iPod, and I’m keeping my cool about being late to class, but one guy is pacing up and down the car trying to pull the doors open, and when that doesn’t work, trying to get into the conductor’s compartment, since we’re in the first car. I don’t know what they say to each other, but he somehow convinces the driver that the least dangerous option is to let him stand in the gap between cars. He stays out there for maybe twenty minutes, presumably taking deep breaths.
The train doesn’t move for over an hour.
Waiting at the Franklin Avenue station to transfer from the S to the C, I notice that somebody has been using the subway wall to chronicle how long they spend waiting for the Manhattan-bound C train late at night. 25 minutes. 37. 32. Somebody else has advised, via Sharpie, that the record keeper needs to get a life.
I think of convicts who mark off the days of their sentences on prison walls. Only at Franklin Avenue, you aren’t counting down to freedom. You can only watch as the carefully counted minutes slip into the void.
I hardly ever give subway buskers money. Partly because I don't have any, and partly because I generally don't appreciate being held hostage for art's sake. Music should be something you choose to partake in. It's not fair to entertain me when I'm not interested in being entertained.
Once there was a teenager freestyling about being homeless. I don't know if he was homeless or not, but in the middle of a flow, as he was holding onto the railing above the seats and not super-conscious of the space he was filling, the person sitting under him asked him to step back. And he did, changing his rap in mid-flow to apologize to the man, and rapped a little bit about being apologetic. That impressed me, so the kid got a dollar.
The second time I gave money, it was the same week (maybe even the day after) that my boyfriend dumped me. A trio of men came on, and sang this beautiful gospel rendition of "This Little Light of Mine." I've actually seen them twice now, and given them money both times, because anyone who makes me cry deserves money.
The third and fourth times were crews of breakdancers. It takes a lot of practice to do breakdancing and do it well, to say nothing of doing it on a moving train, hanging off the poles and the handlebars and not hitting any of the passengers.
I try to remind myself that my hours in the subway aren’t lost in the void. I try to remind myself to use the time constructively, to read or do homework, not deflate into playing Solitaire on my iPod. Taking the bus in Denver, I got through two or three books a week. Now I’m lucky to get through a book a month. I’m not sure what happened.
One of my coworkers tells me that when he moved to New York, he didn’t realize just how depressed he really was until he stopped riding the subway and started to feel better.
It’s fourteen miles from my house to school. It would probably take me two hours by bike. I am not that hardcore. Neither is my bike.
One of the books I get through is Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Patti Smith moved to New York with a change of clothes and her favorite books in a single suitcase. She slept in parks and begged in restaurant kitchens for leftovers. She haunted Brooklyn, Soho, the Lower East Side. She lived at the Chelsea Hotel, performed poetry in St. Mark’s Place, saw the murdered bodies pile up in Greenwich Village in the early 1970s, went to parties with Andy Warhol. Haunted the steps of Electric Ladyland and met Jimi, Bob, and Janis. She performed at CBGB’s. She worked at the Strand and at Scribner’s. She stole books but paid for food. At a time when New York was at its most dangerous, it took the time to nurture her.
Part hippie, part street rat, part dreamer artist, part sharp-tongued New Jersey factory worker who took crap from nobody and kept doing what she loved until she found a way to get paid for it. Her New York feels more real than mine.
She had to be scared. Any 19-year-old alone in New York City in 1968 had to be. But she flipped blind off a ledge like a trapeze artist, and found the city there to catch her.
I’m reading Just Kids on the F train back to Brooklyn. If it was a weekday, I’d be on the Q, but thanks to never-ending “service expansion,” the Q isn’t running on weekends.
I’m ten pages from the end when the train pulls into my stop. Robert Mapplethorpe is dying of AIDS. I leave the train and sit on the filthy wooden bench on the station platform as Patti says goodbye to her friend. Trains clatter in and out but I don’t look up. I don’t think I’ve ever spent time on a subway platform that wasn’t defined by waiting.
The book ends with pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe, old and young, with and without Patti. I try to look at them and see the boy that Patti knew and loved. Loves.
Then I shove the book in my bag and start the walk home, “Piss Factory” playing in my headphones.
I think I’m damaging my hearing from always having my headphones in and the music turned up in a futile attempt to block out the rushing and the thunking and the clattering. I never listen to music on speakers anymore, only piped directly into my cochlea.
I wonder if anyone ever gets infections in their ears from never cleaning their ear buds.
I start singing out loud to myself if I’m alone in a bathroom or an elevator.
Whenever I talk to my friends from home, it’s always the same. When are you coming home, they ask. When are you coming back.
Soon, I say. As soon as I can.
Maybe I’m just doing it wrong. I swung out on my trapeze, but the city doesn’t seem to be catching me.
There’s a man with Down syndrome I see occasionally on the F. He listens to show tunes on big earmuff headphones that cover the whole side of his head. I know they’re show tunes because he sings along, loudly, with no fear of key or melody. I want to tell him it’s 7:00am and I haven’t had coffee. I want to beg him for pity. I don’t think he’d mind; I know people with Down’s and they just forget people are watching them. He wouldn’t take my request personally. But he’s not hurting anyone. Everyone else is ignoring him too. I can’t tell if it’s the usual Operation Ignore, or if they just don’t know how to talk to him. A normal person would probably get told to shut the hell up.
But I do nothing. I’m getting off the train soon. Let him have his music.
I take a job as a barista, and even though I hate the closing shift, I like when the customers are all gone and I can put my music on over the shop’s stereo. I sing along as I sweep and mop and do the dishes, my hands stiffening under the soap and the bleach. Only my coworker can hear me.
 As recommended by the Association for Fostering Calm Measured Tones in Public Radio.
Not that I've tried.
I still feel vague, morbid surprise every time I get on the subway. Don’t people fall off the platform? Get hit by the front car? Land on the third rail? I’m fascinated by the garbage between the rails, by the rats. It amazes me that in this world where consumers are cautioned that bags of peanuts contain nuts, where playgrounds are padded and cars have upwards of four airbags and onboard maps, that I just walk through this turnstile and am expected to watch out for my own safety. There’s no guardrails, no guards, no attempt to keep people back other than the rough yellow floor panels. Every time I get hit with the whack of air pushed aside by the front of the car roaring into the station (which I try to not inhale), I check to make sure I’m back from the edge. I imagine London. Madrid. Die Hard: With a Vengeance. What will I do when catastrophe strikes? [It may be worth noting that I have exceeded my lifetime allotment of Law and Order, as recommended by the Association for Propagating Realistic Fears Through Television Council.] This continued fascination with the subway is probably one of the things that will give me away as a non-New Yorker, even if I spend the next thirty years here.
New Yorkers are supposed to be unflappable. Callous. They’ve seen it all, they don’t notice insanity or weirdness. New Yorkers just want to get where they’re going and not be bothered. People commented, after September 11th, how unusually nice everyone in New York was being to each other. When I moved here, wanting to witness this in action, I watched people watching weirdness—the drunks and the buskers and the beggars and people yelling at each other. I’ve decided that New Yorkers are just as put off by insanity and weirdness as people in Denver. But, like abused spouses who only want to avoid conflict whenever possible, subway riders employ the strategy of disengagement. Ignore it. It’ll go away. Ignore it. It’ll confine itself to ricocheting off the walls, it won’t splatter on me. There’s only three stops to go. It’s not worth the trouble.
I watch the people watching. We keep a close eye on the weirdness, all of us. We need to know the precise moment when Operation Ignore must escalate to Operation Mandatory Evacuation.
On the A train from JFK, two little black boys are arguing over how best to do the Moonwalk. One has the backward slide down. The other has noticed how Jackson would kick his knees forward just a little. They each have half the formula, they just need to combine it.
I make the mistake of opening my mouth to tell them this. They stare at me, stunned, unblinking. I have invaded their privacy.
I was listening to an episode of Fresh Air recently in which Terry Gross interviewed Louis CK, mostly about his TV show Louie and his recent Beacon Theatre performance. It included a clip from the TV show, depicting a confrontation between Louis and a suicidal friend of his. The friend demands that Louis give him a reason to live, if Louis is going to try and talk him out of killing himself.
“No,” says Louis, “I got my reasons to live. I worked hard to figure out what they are. I’m not just handing ’em to you. You want a reason to live? Have a drink of water and get some sleep, wake up in the morning and try again like everyone else does…You know what, it’s not your life. It’s life. Life is bigger than you.”
Most of the time, we just sort of drift through the day to day, taking care of tasks and running errands and doing the things we need to do to remain alive and fed. But it’s worth stepping back, every now and again, and evaluating just what the hell it is you think you’re doing, and why. Especially when you’re coming out of (or think you’re coming out of) a depression that paused more or less everything in your life for almost two years. One of the problems with depression is that, in trying to hard to get yourself well, you do all kinds of things not because you want to, but because you feel that you should. You no longer go to parties or concerts because you want to or because they’re fun. You go because you recognize that these activities were fun once upon a time, so clearly, to continue to do the things that you once enjoyed is good for you. And even if they no longer bring you joy–even if you end up sitting in the back of the music hall crying for reasons you don’t understand and hoping that nobody notices or tries to talk to you–certainly, staying home isn’t going to make you better. Watching entire seasons of The Biggest Loser in one go and not getting out of bed for entire days clearly isn’t good for you. Compulsively playing Solitaire on your iPod isn’t good for you. Failing to sleep and not finishing school assignments isn’t good for you. So you force yourself to do things that are good for you. Fake it till you make it, right? You can act your way out of depression, right? If you keep doing the things that you used to love to do, someday they’ll regain their magic.
I don’t want to jinx myself. I think it’s finally getting better. I have a new job (well, two new jobs, which will hopefully someday be one complete job) with people I like, that pays almost enough to live off of, and sometimes I will pause and realize I’m enjoying myself. It’s like the first deep breath you take after an asthma attack, or after holding your breath underwater for too long. Or riding my bike and realizing I’m having fun. Feeling proud of myself after I’ve ridden for 20+ miles. Do you know the last time that I felt proud of myself for something? I don’t either. And sometimes I catch myself hanging out with friends and realizing that they do, in fact, want me around.
When she was born, my father’s heart broke, and one of the things that fell out and rolled under the couch and was never found was the the idea that we can make comforting assumptions about how our children are greeted into this world.
The doctor who diagnosed her with an intestinal blockage gave my father the option of withholding the surgery and letting her die, so that he wouldn’t have to go home with a retarded child.
And when my dad called his mother to tell her about her new granddaughter, she tried to console him by saying that, “At least she’s not a mongoloid.” And he had to take a deep breath and say the words that made it true: his daughter was a mongoloid. Was retarded. Was damaged.
But when he called his friends Artie and Margie, and told them, they said,
Ever since Columbine (I was 17, at a Littleton high school, though not that Littleton high school), I've had trouble dealing with mass-murder type news stories. Which is only natural I suppose. Just like since Katrina, I've had trouble with natural disasters. I have dishonored the victims of the earthquake in Japan, hurricanes in New York, floods in south Asia, and shooting victims in Ft. Hood, Virginia Tech, and elsewhere by simply not being able to dredge up the depth of emotion that tragedies of that scale require. On some level, I feel like this makes me a bad person, but on another I don't stress about it because it's obvious, even to me, that my level of reaction is out of my control. I promise you there's only so many times you can look at a weather radar map and burst into tears before you have no tears left. And Columbine grated on my soul--over the whole community's soul--for a year or more. It faded from the national spotlight relatively quickly, but it was a constant presence in Littleton for a long time, and it wore me away. When Sept. 11th happened, and everyone was freaking out about how we weren't safe anymore, my reaction was more or less, "Well, of course not. You're just learning this now?"
Sometimes forcibly not paying attention is my only source of protection. So I understand that this is a delayed reaction of sorts, especially given our high-speed high-def instant-access world. But this is kids. Twenty kids. You can't not pay attention to that.
Who wasn't paying attention when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were asking their friends to buy them guns at gun shows? Who wasn't watching when they drove into the Colorado foothills for target practice?
Who didn't notice when Jared Lee Loughner started talking to himself, rambling incoherently, laughing at inappropriate times?
Who saw James Holmes booby trap his apartment and order 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and thought nothing of it?
“Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine...”
A spandrel is a few things. In architecture, it’s the triangular space between an arch and the rectangular doorway enclosing it (see above). They’re almost always used as spaces for bas relief and other forms of artwork; they help give a building its beauty, provide a canvas for artists to work on. Arched bridges also have spandrels.
The term was adapted to evolutionary biology to describe a trait that evolved for one purpose (ie, for an animal to keep warm) that turned out to be useful for another purpose as well (flying). Birds evolved feathers to keep from freezing to death, not to fly; that feathers turned out to be more useful for flight had no bearing on why they showed up on birds in the first place.
So, a spandrel is a byproduct that turns out to be useful, that turns out sometimes to be more beautiful than the original space it was intended to fill. A spandrel is a placeholder. A spandrel is an unexpected evolutionary quirk. A spandrel is a testament to the simplicity, to the efficiency, of nature.
Maybe I’m a bit of a spandrel, maybe you are, maybe just my writing is. I suppose we won’t know until we get there.