The New York subway is indeed a curious place. Entry to a station is, at least so far, invariably grimy and sometimes a tad taxing. Broken doors force deviations to the use of emergency exits where an alarm shrieks as egress is achieved but the woman in the ticket office doesn’t lift her head; the wait for the next train invites reading posters and pondering the knowledge that 55 people died on a subway station over 2012 – presumably accidentally, as it entreats standing back from the yellow line running down the edge of the platform. Climbing the stairs to reach outdoor waiting platforms in outer suburban stations takes a little concentration as some can move a little; the descent to urban stations also means care with footing as tiles are sometimes missing. Pondering the ease at which a limb might get damaged comes readily along with thoughts around that renowned American predisposition to sue. Maybe that too is a myth along with the dangerous reputation of travelling those lettered tracks. We haven’t been mugged yet.
Once down, under the ground it’s warm, as the folks who live there can tell you. Their bedding, tied in bundles, is tucked partly out of sight in disused doorways behind the supermarket trolleys bearing other plastic-wrapped possessions, and I’m pretty sure I saw some on a parallel seemingly (and hopefully) disused track as we hurtled along the F line into town from Brooklyn. Deep underground, looking out of the carriage windows (immediately betraying one’s status as a non-local of course) the graffiti engages until realisation dawns that it was applied between trains – the only way it could have been achieved as there is no walking room between train and walls – and it’s everywhere in sections.
Everyone wears black; from the uptown folks in immaculately cut top-coats with real fur collars or clusters of teenaged, lavishly made-up girls concentrating on their smartphones to the clearly disturbed man who held a vigorous conversation with himself about his father who he evidently held in low esteem from the repetitive use of a very limited range of expletives delivered in an agitated growl and rumble lasting the entire trip. Everyone pretended to ignore him but everyone was clearly very aware of him and keyed for action – quite what was difficult to guess.
The rhythmical clattering of fast-moving wheels on tracks is interrupted by the assortment of folks who arrive asking for your help in the form of some donation. Unexpectedly, on departing a station, someone announces their name and shouts their story, narrating a progression of mishaps with medical agencies and often being very precise about the nature of their illness (or that of their ailing child at home) and likely prognosis if help is not forthcoming; or a duo cheerfully relating about their former lives as part of the homeless community and now working the trains ‘to support those brothers and sisters still out there’. It might be a small mariachi band playing accordion and guitars singing Spanish love songs or a lone operatic aspirant with tinny recorded orchestra at his fingertips trying for some high notes or an Arlo Guthrie acolyte, celebrating the centennial of his birth, rendering “This Land is Your Land” for us all and inviting a sing-along. I’d probably have responded more generously had he played the more appropriate, “I’ll take the A Train”. This land did not seem to be measuring up to their American dreams. Whatever they were, going public underground wasn’t it.