I spend a minimum of 9 hours a week in public transportation. You would think I’d be a pro at it by now. And you would be correct. Providing you want to get from my apartment to somewhere I have been before. Otherwise I’d have to guess. But you probably don’t know where all the streets in your town lead to either.
So… while my commute is a lengthy one I usually like it. I like it because I have learned how to be a New Yorker by riding the train.
Becoming part of a culture is more than just knowing about it- it’s actually participating in it. And I know I’m a New Yorker because I understand things that only New Yorkers understand. I think things- things that make perfect sense to me now- that people in Indiana have no occasion to think.
And since I’m a list person I’ve decided to make a list- of all the things I’ve learned to think by riding the train.
- I’ve learned the terms. If I tell you that the train to the city is a block from my apartment don’t ask me how far you have to walk to get a subway to Manhattan. The answer is- one block.
- I’ve learned the importance of planning and the cause for commuter impatience. It’s kind of like when you’re driving your car and you don’t change lanes because you know you’re turning soon. Well, it’s kind of like that. But different. It’s car commuter planning on steroids. Because when I ride the train I plan for more than just traffic. I plan for location destinations. I know that if I hear a train from my apartment and leave immediately I will arrive at the train station at the same time as the next train. I also know that I get on the J train by this sign I will end up by those stairs- which lead directly to the Q. And if I walk to the end of the platform for the Q I don’t have to walk far to the stairs to the 1 at Times Square. And I know going home that if I walk to the end of the platform for the 1 and then take the second stairs (not the 1st like everyone else) to the A I will end up by the ear sculpture at 14th street- which coordinates w/ ending up by the stairs at Broadway Junction. And if I’m closer to the stairs then I can beat the crowd to the next stairs. And as the masses get caught riding the escalator I run those stairs and sometimes catch the J and sometimes wait by the sign- but always at the start of the platform because in 4 stops that will put me by the doors to the stairs to the street to my apartment. Follow me? Maybe it’s one of those ‘you have to be there things?’ But this kind of planning eliminates more than pointless walking. It has helped me catch many a train- which is important because missing a train can add as much as 15 minutes to my commute.
- I was amused to learn that I’ve also gotten pretty good a reading train related body language. Checking the shifting weight or rapid running of others as I approach my platform is a great way to tell if my train is here or not. But on the train the other day I heard a faint sound rise above the music in my earbuds and felt the shift of the crowd and knew a ‘crazy’ had just entered our [subway] car and was talking to himself. I pulled out my earbuds to check. And I was right.
Okay. I’m tired of lists now. But I still have more to say about the train.
You see- there are rules on the train. It’s like we have a bubble around each of us to protect ourselves, to preserve our privacy in a city of perpetual closeness to strangers. And the fuller the train gets the smaller our bubbles become. But as the train empties our bubbles grow and shift again- always remaining equidistant from the other circles around us. What is interesting about this is when people share a circle. I am forced to shift my space this way so that you can stand with that person. I watch your expressions and listen to your frustrations and you somehow know to never look at me- never invite me into the conversation. We have private phone conversations, rides with colleagues, family, and friends- and everyone seems to know not to give input on topics- to live as if we are deaf and listen as if we are spies. And then my friend gets off at her stop and our spheres of communication separate and I am part of the unfaced masses yet again.
But what is poetry to me about all of this is the way we band together- popping our bubbles with one swift gesture- when the occasion arises. It may be as simple as clapping for an artist, directing tourists, aiding the sick, or avoiding the strange. But it is that thing that makes us interdependent individuals individually interdependent. And until you understand this you are lacking something of newyorkitude (that which makes us NewYorkers).