I ride the subway so often that I’ve started to have a very strong psychological response to it. I stand, often in a place that is cold, dark, and damp with a sort of generic, don’t-forget-you’re-underground dampness, and I peer and hope into a tunnel, deep and long to the point where my vision is swallowed up, and then suddenly, in a rush of noise and motion, rattling and shining, this beautiful silver train comes, and it will take me from where I am to where I need to go.
And once I’m safely, warmly cocooned inside, there are all these people. Wrapped in their different clothes, and the public-private faces of the subway commute. There’s something about the particular blank expression that people wear on the subway that, paradoxically, feels very intimate. Here, with these strangers, I don’t necessarily smile, or animate my thoughts in my eyes and cheeks and mouth. I let my face be still, and so do they.
They are many, my fellow travelers. I see all shades of skin, all lengths of limb, all variations of shape and dress. Once, a woman with a body in a large male shape, or perhaps a man wearing womanhood for the time. Not drag though, what was worn was easy, comfortable, an everyday identity whether or not for every day. Soft brown skin. When there was a train wreck in my mind (they happen more frequently here than in life, let us be grateful), I imagined this person carrying me free of the wreckage, and setting me back down on the street. There was, I guess, instinctive safety in the motherly form and the masculine strength.
Another time, a group of teenagers dressed in hip-hop array sat across from each other and signed, their variously colored fingers dexterous and animated, their conversation dancing into the air near where I stood. I watched them slice through my prejudices about race, age, ability, and appearance that made me surprised to witness such a thing.
A pale-skinned young man in a yarmulke sat beside me once, a bit uncomfortably close, and initiated conversation, a bit uncomfortably loudly, with the slight slur of some kind of disability, about his time at a Jewish school nearby, and the movies he liked to watch with his friends. We shook hands when he left.
There are busy people who bump into me, and people I bump into. People who take up too much of the seat, and people who stand shoulder to shoulder with me when it is too crowded to hold on. People I telepathically urge to get off the train when I am cranky and there are too many people and I want to sit down and read my book, but I am stuck standing, gripping a hand-hold that is too high for me, or too square, or too full of hands already. People whom I enjoy judging, quietly, for their opinions that they share with one another.
The subway is not a utopia, by any means, and sometimes I find myself fixating on some particular person and thinking maybe that person is going to freak out and attack everybody in the car, while we’re stuck here, helpless. Those rides are not so fun. But the subway does often feel graceful—here we all are. We are vastly different, we do not know each other, we may never meet again. But we ride together. We want to go the same direction, and we share. When I sit next to someone and our legs touch, it is actually a calm feeling. Warm, comforting contact between my body and a stranger’s. Peacefully we ride, with blank faces. Sometimes that peace feels like a symbol of community in a large-scale, crowded environment.
But sometimes I think that it is not enough. This woman comes in and bangs some kind of homemade drum, and raps about how she’s just trying to earn money for her daily survival, and I smile, and give. A man walks on dark, gnarled, bare feet, holding out his hand, and I stare at his feet, and do not give. What does it mean to be in a community when I do not treat it as an emergency that people are living outside in the cold I hurry so quickly to escape? What community am I in? Why is every response so inadequate, so that no response occurs, so often, so much out of fear?
Who is my neighbor, in a city of 8 million people? Who is my neighbor, in a world of 6 billion?
My neighbors do ride the subway with me, I know that much, and sometimes I joy in them, and sometimes I am blank with them, and sometimes I fear and disparage them. Pray for me, that I find the way to respond more frequently with love.
One last story. I got on the subway one night and there was this man, slumped so far over his knees that his knuckles grazed the ground, his body flopping around with the motion of the train. It seemed wrong. So much motion, with a total lack of response.
After one stop, I walked over and touched his shoulder, nudged it, very tentative. What if he were dead? There was no response, but a group of young people standing in the next doorway got involved, pushing at his shoulders and speaking to him until he finally sat up, and looked at us, at our ring of multicolored faces.
“We just wanted to see if you were ok,” somebody said.
He nodded. He seemed to be somewhere far away, so tired, or so drugged, or so crazy, but maybe just so tired. He made the sign of the cross and held his hand out to one of the young women, in thanks.
He flopped back down. He went back to sleep. He dropped his mitten, and somebody picked it up, and poked it back into his hand.
Rebecca Lynne Fullan lives in New York City, and has a long commute to work every day. She is grateful for the good neighbors she has known.