Subway Stories

My daughter (I love saying that) and I are going to New York City today, to attend the every-other-month book discussion of the Greater New York Chapter of the Betsy-Tacy Society. Part of our trek from suburban New Jersey to lower Manhattan involves riding the subway. My daughter loves the subway. I do, too, although an an ex-commuter to New York, I have a few painful associations with it as well as pleasant ones.

Starting with the pleasant, here’s a poem that serendipitously came in today’s Writer’s Almanac.

Riding the A

I ride
the “A” train
and feel
like a ball-
bearing in a roller skate.
I have on a gray
rain-
coat. The hollow
of the car
is gray.
My face
a negative in the slate
window,
I sit
in a lit
corridor that races
through a dark
one. Strok-
ing steel,
what a smooth rasp—it feels
like the newest of knives
slicing
along
a long
black crusty loaf
from West 4th to 168th.
Wheels
and rails
in their prime
collide,
make love in a glide
of slickness
and friction.
It is an elation
I wish to pro-
long.
The station
is reached
too soon.

By May Swenson from Things Taking Place: New and Selected Poems. © Little, Brown, 1978. Reprinted with permission.

As for the painful, I remember the very first time I took the subway by myself, on my very first day of work in the city. I came up in the World Trade Center station — remembering that is very, very painful now — and felt like a real New Yorker, until it was time to go back home. I foolishly got on the same train I took in the morning, which quickly whisked me to the Bronx instead of to my desired stop, Penn Station. After sheepishly finding my way to the other side of the tracks and getting on the correct train, I felt relieved, but I didn’t feel like a New Yorker any more. Earning that distinction took some time. Subway-wise, it including sweating along with hundreds of other sweaty people underground, enduring the occasional drunken passenger, and surviving frightening moments when the subway train just s-t-o-p-p-e-d and the lights went out — but only for a moment, thank God.

Some final points:

  • The sound of a steel drum band playing in the underground terminal is a little bit of heaven.
  • The sound of a fine violinist playing on the platform is heaven.
  • Hanging on to a metal pole and swaying in sync with the car as it careens along the curved track is a special kind of dancing.
  • Watching the people — all kinds of people — and guessing where they’re going is a special kind of game.

So today my daughter and I will ride the subway. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about the book discussion.

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