SOME RULES ON LOOKING.
YOU CAN LOOK AT PEOPLE’S SHOES ON THE SUBWAY--this passes for Lost In Thought.
YOU CAN LOOK AT KIDS ON THE SUBWAY— all seem to agree.
YOU CAN LOOK AT PEOPLE WHO BROUGHT FRIENDS—especially if they are peacocking, showing non-aloneness off.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE PEOPLE LOOKING AT OTHER PEOPLE—If they catch you, they are also caught.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE PEOPLE EATING—they tend to be looking down, not proud of where their lunch or dinner is set.
YOU CAN LOOK AT ANYONE WHO MIGHT BE CAUSING THE SMELLl--it's your right to glare at who flavors the air you have to breathe.
YOU CAN LOOK AT PEOPLE DEEP IN NAPS--they've gone away and let you.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE CURL OF THEIR LIPS AND THE RISE OF THEIR CHEEKS--and develop suspicions that they are not in fact asleep.
YOU CAN LOOK WITH ENVY--coveting the tunnel they've found that gets them out of here.
YOU CAN WISH FOR A WAY TO FOLLOW--off the train and down the tunnel, to wherever it is that people almost smile.
YOU CAN'T GET TO WILLIAMSBURG WITHOUT A BIT OF WHIPLASH. Whoever drives the L is intent on roughing up every hipster on board. Whoever drives the L plunges so hard and fast under the East River like the aim is to knock someone with a mustache or a beret down.
It's a standing room on the L, always. That's working in his favor. To keep on your feet, You have to plant your feet far apart; you have to press down into both. The pole is too many bodies away to hold; all balance must be found through your feet. A man in the same predicament is right in front of you. You are facing this man, and close enough to smell his toothpaste. Were he to lift his head, he'd get a microscope's look at some forehead freckle.
So you look down, and so does he. You look to the right side, and he picks the left. It's a tacit coordination--you both know the whiplash is coming, and you both feel this is way, way to close. It takes you until Bedford, on the river's other side, to figure out what this feels like. It's something from childhood, something you used to watch years ago on TV from a couch in Buffalo, New York. You're not bowling pins, about to teeter over. You're something more elegant, way more in sync. You are figure skaters. It's your moment. You are frozen in starting position, waiting for the music, about to push apart from the whetted blades of your skates.
When you hear the word Bedford, that's what you do, without ever looking up.
EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, you love New York hard. You're running down the stairs at Atlantic, the mega terminal, about to hit the Sea of Everyone, and at high tide no less, the thickest possible current of nine different trains. You’re ready to play hustle and pivot, halt and dart, when you see a clump of people right below you, down at foot of the stairs. Everyone in this crowd is mannequin still, and you cannot see why. You take the stairs faster. Each downward step shows you more—more and more frozen people. And you hear it now: the beat of Billy Jean. Someone's dancing. You imagine a squad of muscular boys, back-flippers and cart-wheelers who trounce everyone in contests. You want to see. You can’t see. Someone must be on the floor. Someone is performing the miracle of stilling the Sea of Everyone, of making New Yorkers forget they are surrounded on all sides by coming and going trains, passing chances to move on to the very ends of there days. But why can't you see? Who's the miracle worker? Impatient now you make the rude choice to cut right in front of their entranced faces, and that's the only way to see him, finally: wife-beatered, black gloved, moon-walking: the tiniest midget Michael Jackson in all the world.
A CONDUCTOR YOU CANNOT SEE CALLS IT A DOOR PROBLEM. Ladies and Gentleman there's a door problem on this train. No shit there's a door problem. The doors have attempted to close 26 times and flinched right back open, like they have a phobia of sealing. We've got a DOOR problem ladies and gentleman, the voice announces again, like this is new news. Like someone new might have slipped through the flinching doors, and wanted to know. A door problem. The sound of the door problem is as grating as a fish thrashing on a boat's deck.
You look around and survey everyone else's choice. To flip out, or turtle in. It's fifty fifty. Some people are so deeply inside themselves they don't even hear the word "DOOR." They read another paragraph. They hold a page with a gloved hand. They listen to the singer of a private song like it was written for them. We are a long mile from where all of us work, get paid for showing up. They are missing a meeting or a transfer or the chance to begin their day feeling on it, put together, tall.. But you've never guess it.
Others are doing what you're doing: scanning the car for proof that someone else pissed. Someone's about to blow. The conductor voice sounds more baffled every time he announces it's a door problem. People like you want to see someone freak out, act out on their growing urge. This is one way to weather Door, Etc problems of the underground, if you're not willing to call attention to yourself. You can find the person a couple degrees more pissed than you, and watch them blow. It can feel like a release for everyone. It can feel like a public service, to be the one who says, we fucking hear you. Fix your fucking door..
THE MORNING FOUR TRAIN CAN FEEL LIKE A BOAT. On weekdays. The bumping melody, the balance challenges. People sway. They look down and they sway. The train feels neither fast or slow. Just rocky, and packed. You have to reach through arms and past ears if you want to hold a pole. Whenever the doors close, the last person on sucks in, reaches up for ceiling. Having a bag poses problems for many. You carry an overnight bag on the Monday morning 4 train: you want to write an apology on it. You are making things harder for everyone down in the dregs of this boat.
The morning four train rocks you ungently. You bob like booeys. It sounds like there are logs tumbling around in the bottom of the boat. You can listen to this or to the tinny music leaking from a near person ears. It's a sacred quiet, an uncanny stillness, given that we're all together here because we're rush rushing to work.
Under the river, speed gains. Past the river, you start flying past the littler stops, the minor players, fadeaway words. In minutes, Manhattan will break apart the morning boat train from Brooklyn, pack, the sacred quiet, the forebearing dregs of the morning Brooklyn boat, but for these last few minutes, rising up to the city that will pull everyone off to very different days and very fast, it feels like the bottom of an old boat on a choppy sea and it feels like you're something you're all in together.
SOME MORNINGS, you step onto a train where all the benches seem taken by nurses. They got on somewhere before your stop. Scrub-wearing, bible-reading, kindle-reading, serene-faced, white-sneakered, the nurses who claim the benches with feet planted look like the most sturdy people on this earth. You imagine they're all on time for the same shift; that coming home, they'll stock the same trains too. You once read the story of the subway's beginning, back in 1904, when New Yorkers dreamed of living far from work. The dream of the subway was liberation from what was walkable. The chance to spread. It does sound like a marvel, until you fast forward a century and step into a car where the black women of Brooklyn have to travel an hour to care for the withering old white people of the upper west and east sides.
MESSAGES DO REACH US FROM THE STREET. It happens at only a few stations. Nobody knows why, but everyone knows which stations, where they can catch messages from the city above you. At Atlantic, Fulton, Borough Hall, your phone quivers or chirps and glows. You can't help but notice: other peoples' do too. A girl beside you has a giant rip in her jeans--like a tiger got one good slash. She's whacking her cell phone to the bared knee, until suddenly, under Atlantic, it awakes with light. You notice first. She's deep in banter with her friend, her match, a woman as sassy and arresting to see. They're the force of your subway car, uncontested. They break hearts; you're sure of it. Parties transform when these two choose to go. A man across the aisle has been watching them, as much as he can, as much as the rules permit. You can watch him, not them, but when the phone lights up, you get to see. What's up love. You sneak a read at proof of her power, proof that what women who carry themselves--women who double their force with beautiful friends--drag the attention of men wherever they go.. Men cast about to know what they're doing, where they are, hungry to know anything even if the answer is a tardy 2 train, just past Atlantic. You watch her go back to waving her phone like women in a parlors with a fan, not bothering to tell him. You have just enough time to read what this woman has named this man in the great, vast rolodex of her cell phone: "Potential 2."
MONDAY MORNING ON TRAINS
THERE'S A FRESHNESS ON MONDAY MORNING TRAINS THAT' IS SURE TO EVAPORATE BY 9:30, By night, the feel of every train will be grime and fatigue. But In the first hours of the first day of the week, people feel straight from the shower. They look flossed and combed, creamed and spritzed, cleansed of whatever they did this weekend. You needed your shower. All weekend, you dated. You kept booking dates. Soon as you got home from one, you confirmed the next. You fought the fallout of one with the luster of a next. Any next. You'd forgotten his name until you went online and pulled up the plan. "Come to Franklin…" You come home from dates all down Franklin and delight Leslie with the sound of these mens names. At least you delight Leslie. At least Jove's name was Jove. "JOVE!" she bounces the word right back at you, thrilled. "Doesn't that mean "son of the gods!" Maybe. At least Leslie loves the sound of Jove. At least there was some version of delight in looking up at Jove in the way that says kiss me on a corner Dan stood a chance of walking by. At least you could imagine Dan watching you kiss a tall man while the tall man's belly pressed a little too noticeably into yours. At least Jove came to Franklin and so did all the others, at least they came to life from the web and came to the rooms of the bars that Dan haunts. At least the internet makes it easy; gives you some sort of action steps; you swipe a finger and answer a hey. You pick the spot and someone comes and looks like his internet picture.
Monday mornings come right when you need them; right when you can't bear the hope and the hurry, the sameness of first conversations and the abiding possibility of Dan. Monday mornings come right when you ache to cleanse yourself of everything. Every man, every drink, every guacamole frosted chip. Monday mornings come, always, and you love them for this, so much better at Mondays. On Monday mornings, the train comes faster and looks stronger and you don't even mind the crowds. They feel clean. '
You tuck into the only slot of space that remains, just inside the doors. By Atlantic, you're surrounded by men. Men who tower, men who could lift cars, men whose hands leave you very little pole to grip. You're encircled, and suddenly you realize that no man you've dated in weekends (Son of the Gods excepted), you have not gotten this close to you..You sit across tables from Internet men; you share meals and clink drinks and overlap for hours but very rarely do you get this close. On the Monday morning train, clean men can smell the spearmint of the gum you popped in lieu of a breakfast, so hungry to melt away the excess of another weekend.
MORE RULES ON LOOKING
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE BOYS WHO BOARD IN A PACK, BOUND FOR NOWHERE SPECIAL. You can watch them and foot-tap and pole-smack and catch sooty, floopy baseball caps on the edge of their noses like circus seals, to the beat of music no one else hears.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE PEOPLE OPTING NOT TO WATCH THE BOYS AND THEIR HAT TRICKS. You can look right at them, because it's a boycott against paying with attention, and New Yorkers are stubborn boycotters.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE BUM WHO BOARDS AND CALLS HIMSELF A POET. You can watch and say nothing when he asks someone to speak a word that'll spark a spoken word poem.
YOU CAN LOOK DOWN THE TRAIN CAR TO SEE WHICH OF THE BOYS SPEAKS the WORD. Hope.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE BUM SLAMMING THROUGH A RAGGED POEM THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HOPE, and hope the boys doing hat tricks win the attention of the subway car back.
YOU CAN LOOK AT THE WHITE LADY WHO LOOKS STRAIGHT OUT OF THE ARIZONA SUBURB, and wonder why she's tearing up. Whether it has anything to do with is. The reason she gets up like a person plumb fed up.
YOU CAN LOOK AT ANYONE AND ANYTHING ONCE SOMETHING OF EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING ON YOUR TRAIN CAR; once it feels like nothing has link with anything else, and like centerstage is no one’s and instead like this is a circus show made up its very own confused audience.
PEOPLE YOU NEVER SEE ON THE SUBWAY
Plastic Surgery Ladies
Men to Whom Time is Serious Money
Heads of State
Babies So New Their Eyes Look Glued Shut
People who Truly Need their Canes
The Very Shoe-shined
The Bed Bound
The Just Married
Live-in Nannies with Little Kids
People Bringing Home Giant Plants, Hanging Lamps, Works of Art
People in Hospital Gowns, Ball Gowns, Negligees, Jail Suits
Graduates in Full Regalia*
Babies in Triplet, Quadruplet, Quintuplet, So on, So forth
People from Movies
Singers of Very Known Songs
Anyone Wider than the Turnstile*
The Newly Dead, and Those Who Bear Them
Mailmen, Firemen, Priests*
The Larger than Life; the Nearest to Death
Little Boys on the Missing Posters
People You Saw Yesterday, People Who Know Your Parents, Kids You Used to Babysit
People You’re Thinking About, People You Buy Gifts for; People You Touch by Choice
People Whose Voices You Recognize With Your Eyes Closed.
Anyone You'll See Tomorrow
*People You Have Subsequently Seen on the Subway
ANNA BOUNDS INTO THE CAFE IN A SUNDRESS, OBVIOUSLY PREGNANT. You saw her five days ago, when she was pregnant but not obviously so.. Five days ago, this was cause for Anna to pout--the baby adding weight but hiding still. Five days ago Anna felt unseen. Fresh off the subway, today, she's holding her belly like there's a real baby in it, "Two people offered me their seats!" is the first thing she says. New York just confirmed, months after conception, she is truly pregnant.