The 36 lines of the New York subway system have long served as the arteries of the city, beloved by locals and tourists alike for their ability to transport you across almost every borough for just $2.75. But subway crime has been up over 70% since only last year; a figure not even including the April 12 mass shooting on the N train in Brooklyn. In the wake of this spike in crime, many New Yorkers have begun to feel afraid of public transit and stopped taking it altogether.
The subway has always been the crossroads of New York; hardly anywhere else can a Wall Street investment banker and a McDonald’s employee be subjected to the same grimy seats or maddening delays on their commute to work. Our newfound lack of faith in it, which has grown with the recent uptick in crime and the pandemic, suggests a rupture between the people of New York City and the nuances of our life here that once connected us. This pains me to say, because I love the subway — more than the skyscrapers, the parks, the theaters; the subway to me is the heart and soul of New York.
I took the subway with my father every day from kindergarten to fifth grade. I learned the subtle differences between the West Side lines: the C train was slow, but it had air-conditioning and bright lights, where the A and D trains were hot and dark. My father picked me up from school in the honeyed air of late New York spring and we marched to the Columbus Circle station, riding the local down to Canal Street.
While some fifth-grade students might’ve talked to their dad about homework, or sports practice, we played a game called “Observe, Perceive, and Wonder.” The idea was to pick a fellow passenger, observe the details of their facade, then form some perception about their character or personality. Once that was done, you would let your imagination sweep you into a story about their life.
I scanned an older woman perched on a handicap seat at the far end of the car. She was clutching a purse on her lap; her fingernails painted a dusty red. Her eyes were fluttering as if in and out of meditation. It looked like she wasn’t going home – that she had somewhere to be, and yet she didn’t carry the anticipatory air of someone excited to be going out to meet friends for a drink or dinner. There was a feeling of fatigue about her.
“I wonder where she’s headed,” I said.
“Dig deeper,” my father said, “it’s a game. Have some fun with it.” So I unleashed my imagination, like un-caging a tiger. Perhaps she had her nails done because she was headed for Times Square to take the shuttle to the East Side for a meeting at the UN, and in her bag was a confidential letter containing details that would plunge us into war, or end world hunger. Maybe she was worried, tired of all the secrets to which the fate of the country were tied. A spy with a touch of vanity ... My dad liked that one.
I turned to a young couple right across from us: hands intertwined, in what looked more out of habit than affection, a tied-up Ikea bag at their feet and headphones in their ears, two sets. Maybe they were moving in together. Maybe they just bought their first chest of drawers together, and were realizing what that might mean for their future. A year from now would they bicker over whose clothes were taking up too much space in their cramped West Village apartment? I wondered if they ever wanted to get off the C train.
On and on we went, my father and I, stifling giggles over the roar of the tracks as our subjects transferred at West 4th Street and new ones gave us new stories so engrossing that we barely noticed the nauseating flicker of the old overhead lights.
Now, I take the subway alone. Off to meet friends, off to do things on my own and make up a life my father won’t be part of. But every now and then I find myself dropping into a game of Observe, Perceive, and Wonder. In these moments I realize the influence that strangers had on my upbringing, the curiosity they unknowingly fostered within me that has come to shape who I am. In wondering about other people’s lives, I meet the wonder of my own. I meet some aspect of myself in the mirror of others as I imagine them to be. Most of our time in New York is spent trying to get through the city, get through the traffic, get things done despite the impediments, the crowds, the expenses, the difficulties; spent trying to hold onto our little piece of privacy and avoid colliding with each other. But a subway car is a strange psychic space in which we can let our imaginations roam, in which we are suspended beneath the comforts of distraction and confronted with the variety of life that it seems we are always too busy to appreciate.
I felt this at six years old, and I feel it now: an overwhelming allegiance to my fellow New Yorkers, as for a brief moment I am part of their lives, and we are one, all traveling together under the city. United not by our destinations, but by our journeys.
You just can’t find that in a taxi.
India Brown is a high school senior and native New Yorker who lives in Tribeca.