I first wrote this in 2012, when I was still living in New York City. I'm splitting it up into multiple parts just to make it shorter, as it's a little long for a blog entry. The original document has footnotes, which clearly don't work as well in a blog setting; I made do by enclosing them in brackets.
It starts before I even get to the station. We’re already all facing the same direction, walking in step, and pretending we don’t see each other. If I was one of the pigeons floating free in the suburban Brooklyn sky, I would see marching lines from eight compass directions, all converging on turnstiles.
When I moved to New York in my twenties, I was actually excited about public transportation system. [Yes. I am a nerd.] Denver’s fare is the same but it feels more expensive because it takes more time and goes fewer places. Most buses only run once or twice an hour outside of the downtown epicenter, and it’s easy to spend as much if not more time waiting for the bus than actually sitting on it. New York gets you places faster (or at least, it feels that way), but besides one being underground and one being over, at first, the systems felt the same. There’s the lines, everyone trying to leave everyone else alone. People not yielding to others’ personal space. There’s the drunks and the noisy kids. There’s the guys (always guys) who spread their legs so far apart that their dick practically has a seat to itself. There’s the fact that everything runs fine until you’re running late, and then the bus will break down and sit there for twenty extra minutes.
When I was a kid, New York was NYPD Blue, the title sequence with fireworks and the Chinese dragon and percussive subways. Andy Sipowicz’s violent bluntness and Donna Abondando’s flattened vowels.
New York was gardens in fire escapes and trees growing in Brooklyn.
New York was Broadway musicals like Cats. Bright lights and businesses open 24 hours. Where I grew up, the only thing open 24 hours was the grocery store and the gas station.
New York was where the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lived. Spider-Man, Batman, the Gargoyles. The X-Men live up the road in Westchester. “11th and Bleecker? (sniff, sniff)…Nope, this is only 9th St! Get it?” (I didn’t get it, but I loved it.) Everybody (except maybe Batman) made use of the sewers and the subways. Before I knew about the actual homeless people who live down there, there were the Morlocks, unsightly mutants in the X-Men universe who live in the sewers because they’ll be lynched if they venture aboveground.
A little bit later, as a teenager, New York was punk. Cigarette smoke and graffiti. Mutilated subway cars. Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.
New York was black and white photos of skinny, shaggy-haired men in sunglasses looking unimpressed. Rock rock, Rockaway Beach. Rock rock, Rockaway Beach.
The Wetlands had all-ages punk and ska matinees every week. I didn’t know “Take the A Train,” but “Underground Town” by the Toasters was in pretty constant rotation. Nervous nun with a heavy bag shakes her head at the man in drag, in the underground town, riding on the subway in New York City.
Maybe England gave punk its fashion sense, but New York gave it a soul. Six years ago, a very hot summer night. Avenue A, with my friends, hanging tight…The air was tense, muggy as fuck, Lower East Side, running amok!
The Bouncing Souls are actually from New Jersey, but I didn’t discriminate. Punkers should be pale and pasty. The pizza here is fierce and tasty. East Coast! Fuck you! (“Fuck you” here said in a self-congratulatory way, as in, “I dismiss everywhere that is not the northeastern seaboard”.)
New York was about making your own rules and carving out your own space. New York was self-sufficiency and exploration, where only the resourceful survive.
What I didn’t see then was that with self-sufficiency comes loneliness. And while stories get written about people who have survived, who’ve become legendary, below them are layers and layers of people who came here with dreams bright in their hearts and who left with nothing but ashes. Or who didn’t escape at all.
You never read stories about them.
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 consider myself blessed that I've been to New York City numerous times.
There really is no place like it in the whole entire world. I remember being in complete awe of the scope and size of it all when I first went there as a teenager from a small island in the South Pacific. Sure, I had lush green and majestic mountains all around me where I came from, but NYC really is its own magnificent wilderness.
Looking back, I've done a few things up there . . .