Six Subway Rides

It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art . . . That man who can easily wed the crowd knows a feverish enjoyment which will be eternally denied to the egoist, shut up like a trunk, and to the lazy man, imprisoned like a mollusc. The poet adopts as his own all the professions, all the joy and all the miseries with which circumstance confronts him. What men call love is very meagre, very restricted and very feeble, compared to this ineffable orgy, to this holy prostitution of the soul that abandons itself entirely, poetry and charity included, to the unexpected arrival, to the passing stranger.

-Baudelaire, “Les Foules” (“Crowds”)


The platform was crowded, the crush was increasing. There was some kind of delay, but it hadn’t been acknowledged, and when the train came wheezing into the station at half speed, the crowd surged. The train was already packed, save for one nearly empty car.

In the summer you know that it’s a hot car, no A/C. My dad taught me that, riding the Long Island Rail Road together. “Hot car, hot car, hot car,” he’d mutter, and herd me with his shirtsleeved arms, papa duck-like, into the crowd already thick at the door of the next car. He’d nudge me down the aisles, quacking, “not-near-the-bathroom, not-near-the-bathroom,” till we settled in our seats under the blasting vents and smoothed our feathers.

But when you see the empty car in winter you hope somehow the other thousand people on the train just didn’t notice it. Maybe somewhere downtown part of the platform was blocked off. Maybe a giant church group just emptied out at the last stop. Maybe the people inside were inflatable and just deflated.

No such luck. In the middle of the car was a splatter of fresh vomit, covering a wide radius. A comical splatter, like a logo on Nickelodean. I thought of that show where slime fell on people, orange goop, proto-reality TV. Vile liquids pouring from above the shape of things to come.

Some people shrugged and sat down at the edges. It’s cold and flu season, maybe they couldn’t even smell it. Not me. I battled against the crowd, back to the platform. I didn’t want to ride with the vomit. I have limits.


Again, the empty car on the overcrowded train, but not as empty. I had forgotten about the vomit. I got on. It smelled like a horse paddock, minus the hay. I sensed a general avoidance of a certain area of the car. Looking around, I couldn’t place it. The car was a refuge of the insane and deformed. Babblers, droolers, mutterers, the morbidly obese and the absolute wrinkliest human being I’d ever seen. Religious ideas about foot-washing skittered through my mind. Whose feet would I wash first, if I were as kind as Jesus? In this car, Jesus wouldn’t know who to pick.

Then I saw him. A bum, a hobo really. A derelict right out of portraiture. Silvery stubble, crumpled hat. And on the floor beneath him, a puddle of his own animal-smelling urine. He sat right in it with his hobo dignity, nodding out drunk but sitting up straight.


Rafi makes his rounds, selling his papers. I’ve seen him for years, first on the F, then on the L. He always says the same thing. “Selling papers isn’t the best job in the world but it’s an honest living. All I have to look forward to tonight is a hot meal and a place to sleep. If I don’t sell these papers I don’t eat tonight, so ladies and gentlemen if you can find it in your heart to give me some money, I would be very grateful. I hope you get home safely tonight and God bless you.”

From the marks on his arms and the boniness of his body, I think what Rafi looks forward to at night is shooting up, but who am I to judge? I give him money, only sometimes. Everyone gets a personal compliment, very heartfelt. I always get “beautiful eyes,” even when I’m wearing sunglasses.

Usually he picks his way nimbly through the car, talking all the time. “Thank you, beautiful,” “God bless you, my friend,” “Excuse me sir,” “Excuse me, miss,” “Beautiful smile, mami.” In the dozens of times I’ve heard Rafi do his schtick I don’t think I’ve heard him say anything he hasn’t said a thousand times before.

Tonight, though, he stops in front of a young woman a few seats away from me.

“I don’t like ugly people,” he tells her. “Ugly people are angry at everyone. Always in a bad mood.”

She doesn’t respond, but kind of half-nods, half-smiles, the way you do.

“Tonight, after I’m done here, I’m gonna go to JFK. I’m gonna get on a plane. I’ve got a ticket and I’m gonna fly away from here, to my own apartment, and when I get there, I’m gonna do whatever I want!”

“All right,” says the girl.

Rafi hitches up his pants triumphantly, flashes his broken grin, looks over his shoulder in that rodential way of the addicts of blissing drugs both fairly innocuous and slowly ruinous and leaps into the next car.


A shameful thing that happened involving begging:

One night I was running late, came bursting up the stairs at 6th Avenue and 14th full speed. I kicked over the McDonald’s cup of an elderly beggar working the corner silently, sitting in meditation on a milk crate. His change scattered all over the street. It was dark, it was cold. I looked at down all the coins, then up at the clock on the bank, and rather than help him pick up the change I threw a five-dollar bill in the empty cup and ran on. The few minutes it would have taken to gather his day’s work were hardly worth it to me, monetarily speaking. Cruel world.


A couple, so in love. There are many couples in love on the trains, but this couple is so in love. They have their arms around each other and they are talking and laughing and kissing. She lays her head on his shoulder and closes her eyes, he strokes her fingers, and then, just as lovingly, the part of her purse they’re resting on. I am reminded of that part of Franny and Zooey where the guy Franny’s making out with kisses the collar of her coat because he can’t differentiate between the girl he loves and the things she owns. The girl opens her eyes and they kiss and start talking again. Everything they say leads them to laugh or kiss softly. It’s not showy or gross or annoying, just beautiful.


Rush hour, and I am trying not to panic. Maybe it’s some kind of reptilian-brain past-life Jew thing, but I really don’t like being smushed into train cars. It’s different than a mosh pit–more brutal somehow. Despite the trancelike state of people under the spell of music, despite the aggressive release of a violent and sexual energy, despite the palpable smell of hormones, the mosh pit is more orderly than this. It surges this way and that, like seaweed in an invisible tide. If you fall you are caught. If you go limp you are carried along. If you spread your feet and stand firm you are (marginally) safe. Everyone is looking in the same direction, moving to the same music.

The subway is not like that. It’s not a tide. It’s more like peristalsis, gorging and disgorging, swallowing up and spitting out. But in rush hour it’s always bloated, and the eyes of its human food are empty. In the mosh pit if I am crushed it is by the writhing, flinging bodies of the ecstatic. If I am kicked or printed with a slick of someone else’s sweat it is the transfer of a wild energy. Here the woolen coats and nylon bags press tighter and tighter, with no hope of a downbeat to send them in another direction. Such a joyless and grudging group hug.

I turn my iPod up, up, up and dance minutely in my non-place on the train, imagining the dead-eyed commuters to be a mosh pit instead. Miraculously, the seat in front of me opens up, and the tightening plunge at the next stop forces me into it. Next to me is a woman my age and she, I can see, is really on the brink of panic. “One more stop,” she breathes quietly. “One more stop.”

The crowd spits a little boy practically into my lap. He’s small, four or five, and his chin rests on top of my bag, which rests on my knees. His curious face occupies the space the New Yorker would, if there were room to extract it and open it, which there is not.

“Hey,” I say to the kid.

“P!” he shouts, pointing above my head. “P! P!”

I twist my neck slowly to look at the advertisement. There is no “P” in it, but I want to be encouraging.

“Yes!” I say. ” ‘P’ is one of the letters!”

“P!” he shouts again.

“P!” I reply.

It’s quiet for a minute.

“What’s dat?” He’s pulling my sunglasses.

“These are sunglasses,” I tell him.

He puts them on. They cover his whole head. He looks like a tiny jazz musician. He preens, swiveling his head back and forth, up at his mom. He takes them off and puts them back on my face, then starts poking at his own reflection.

“Hey!” he says. “Hey, hey, hey, hey!”

“That’s you,” I say. “Do you see?”

“Don’t touch the lenses,” sighs the mom from above, so far above. Even seated, I am not down quite at his level, but I see how disparate are the kid and adult worlds. Kids live in the undergrowth. The adults are the forest canopy, looming.

The kid stops poking and makes funny faces at his reflection in my shades. We get to my stop and I burrow through the crowd in a crouch to get off the train. I suck in a giant breath of stale, subway platform air. I try to see if the kid’s tired mom got my seat, but the train is too packed and as it trundles north all I make out is the strange geometry of reluctantly tangled limbs.

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