I’m en route, for the first time in nearly a year, on the long subway ride between boroughs. Early in the morning when everyone is exceptionally grumpy and dazed, fading in and out, folded over sleeping or barely hanging on to a pole, with eyes shut tight and white wires hanging from each ear, I’m hanging onto wakefulness to take advantage of this long stretch of time to read. I’ve forgotten how long this ride is – two hours from the land of Bronck to the bay of sheep’s heads in King’s County – how even an express train can take a little over an hour to get to Union Square, how it compresses to a halt and manically accelerates between express stops – how it slows down at 149th-Grand Concourse to wait for another train and then leaves it behind, as if taunting it – how people shuffle around a crowded subway car giving just enough room for others to edge out before rushing into the vacuum left behind.
I’m convinced that riding the subway puts you in a very primal survival mode, especially during rush hour – like you’re trapped in some kind of metal-tube jungle and everyone is out to get you. Your prey is the vacant seat and your competition is every other passenger.
The evacuation from the train is a haptic dance between stationary passengers, sleepers whose legs take over the aisle and those with wandering eyes looking to snatch the next recently departed seat. Your comrades en route are just as eager and ready to bee-line for the exit. It’s just a matter of time before the doors slide open and an onslaught of ornery passengers pour out looking for their next transfer, or if they’re lucky, fresh air; while another set – grumpy and anxious – are waiting on the platform ready to conduct a full on assault on the open doors.
I felt fairly out of practice – people were whipping by me before I could orient myself among the dozens of signs telling me to go in every possible direction. One of the most precious parts about this commute is the nearly empty Q train that arrives at Union Square, newly vacated at Times Square a stop before. I’m finally riding against rush-hour traffic, because who leaves the Lower East Side to get to the butt-end of Brooklyn at eight in the the morning? But what’s better is the slow trolley-like ride over the Manhattan Bridge, especially in the early morning winters when the sky is still splashed orange-red with the sunrise and everything between the river and the glass walls lining the FDR is glittering.