Sunday, September 10, 2006

There's a world going on underground...

Besides the people, what I liked best about living in New York City was the subway. Coming from a place where people have to climb into their cars to buy milk, such a device seemed like a ridiculous luxury. You just climb the stairs into the city’s great basement, pay your fare, and go shooting off to anywhere you want. Even after I had ridden it a thousand times, I could still become as giddy as a six year old when the train clattered over the bridges or under the deep, dirty harbor. To me, it was a staggering engineering feat. It was part of the ambition and restlessness that made New York a wonderful place to be young: there, they didn’t care if there was a fat river in the train’s way—they’d just soar over it or burrow under it to get to the other side. New York is about limitless possibilities, and the subway is a big part of that. A car is a curse in that city, but there’s freedom to be had in the tunnels below.

I used to have random afternoons off and, since my friends would all be still at work, I used this time to ride the trains to all the city’s far-flung enclaves. I take pride in the fact that there are very, very few New York neighborhoods I haven’t set foot in. I’ve strolled down broken-glass carpeted alleyways in the South Bronx just after the streetlights came on, making my path sparkle and glow. I’ve had bagels in Brighton Beach with a horde of Russian retirees. I’ve wandered among mysterious Syrian cafes and ostentatious Italian Christmas light displays. I’ve had my hair trimmed by some surly Italian dudes in Soho and I’ve puzzled over the Greek signs in Astoria. I’ve shopped for hip-hop CDs out in Jamaica, Queens and I’ve spoken bad Spanish up in East Harlem. Each subway stop was like another world, and the only passport you needed was your fare card. Which was lucky for me, a guy with incurable wanderlust, since I was too poor to travel anywhere past New Jersey.

But it wasn’t just the destination that made the trip so great, it was also the ride itself. It’s hard to be a bigot in New York. Bigotry thrives on never actually encountering the people you want to disdain, in keeping whole sections of the human race as distant phantoms that your stupid imagination is free to abuse. It’s hard to have this happen on the subway, though, because you get crammed in with all the living, breathing people and not the feeble shadows that your ignorance gives you. You have to stand there, gripping a sweaty iron pole, your hand squeezed in among the hands of a bearded Muslim, a business-suited Jamaican, a geriatric Puerto Rican, a hip-hop Korean, and a Hasidic Jew. There, underneath New York City, racial and cultural tensions dissolve and the great, diverse mass of humankind becomes united in their seething dislike of that bastard who’s blocking the door with his stupid suitcase.

The New York City subway: it’s sort of like “We Are The World”, only with more swearing. And more crazy people. And there’s less Michael Jackson. And it smells more like old pee.