It was the subway. The very same subway I’d been riding all my life had become, almost instantaneously, unbearable. Perhaps it was always unbearable, but now I could no longer actually bear it, if you follow. It was, probably, the summer of 1999. I don’t want to live here anymore, I said to my then-husband, and he was delighted. He, who had been raised in a tiny farm town in western Massachusetts and had come to New York City for college, delirious with joy, was, after 15 years of living in the city (including Avenue D in the early 90s, for fuck’s sake), done with it. He was just waiting for me to come around, which, quite suddenly, I had. And so we planned our escape.
I look at those photos of the subway cars in the 1980s, when I presumably was riding them, and they look terrifying to me, but they never did then. Except when my dad had us walk between cars while the train was moving to get to a less crowded car (or maybe just a car that was closer to where we had to get off) (I have inherited his near-obsessive efficiency). Walking between cars while the train was moving seemed like something a grown-up couldn’t possibly be doing, and I followed along, thrilled and terrified, looking straight ahead. Anyway, those photos. I don’t remember a single other scary thing happening on the subway during that time. The graffiti didn’t seem remarkable to me, since I’d never known anything else. I remember the Guardian Angels too. Again, unremarkable.
When I was in my senior year in high school, taking the train uptown from my job at David’s Cookies on 42nd Street, my coworker Debbie Dunston pointed out that you could always tell a train was coming when you felt that hot air blowing on your face. Believe it or not, someone actually had to tell me that.
At some point, in our early 20s, my friend Christina and I rode on the D train drinking whiskey out of a paper bag, which was perhaps the high point of my subway riding. The near constant steel drums reverberating in the 34th Street station was probably the low point.
Though what really did it for me were the crowds, the people dangling from the straps and poles all around me, squeezing in through the doors. The moment it occurred to me that I was trapped in this mass of people I was done for. I developed an instant claustrophobia that seemed to get worse by the day (once, years after I had left New York City, I saw a photo of a packed subway car in Tokyo during rush hour, and I actually started to hyperventilate). How had I managed it for so many years? I had spent my childhood in the Bronx crammed into city buses (the way you mostly have to travel in the Bronx) and almost found it fun at times, as the bus lurched or stopped short. And I’d been on plenty of packed subways too. One morning, I saw a young woman faint, but because the car was so packed, she didn’t really hit the ground, far from it actually, she just sort of sank a bit, and then was, with ease, lifted upright again by some men nearby. Due to this maneuver, she was not one of the proverbial “sick passengers.” Half the car didn’t even know about it.
But one day, I’d had enough. Like a switch was flipped. I would get into packed subway cars only to step out of them one stop later. At the time, I worked near Penn Station and lived in Carroll Gardens. Many times, coming home I would walk to the tip of Manhattan just to spend the shortest amount of time on the subway. When we knew we were leaving the city, I would count the days until I never had to ride the subway again.
So that now, when I visit the city (17 years after I left it), I find that if I spend as little time on the subway as possible, I mostly enjoy my time there (except for, sometimes, the filth and the crowds on the street and the way you have to spend like $1000 a day no matter what you’re doing). But really though, I will walk 70 blocks to avoid taking the subway, which is just fine because that is exactly what I want to be doing in the city anyway. My kids (country folk) think my hatred of the subway is crazy since every single thing about it is somewhat thrilling to them. Also, it’s hard not to notice that the subway seems to have reached peak misery right about now.
But here, I leave you with a happy subway memory (I have plenty of these despite my grumbly opinion of them now). My dad and brother and I are heading back on the D train from my aunt’s house in Brooklyn to his apartment on 73rd Street. My dad is reading a story I wrote. My brother is playing a tiny harmonica. It is 1988. I am 18 years old. The subway is unremarkable. The city is easy.