Thursday, March 11, 2010

Trains of Thought

This morning on my morning commute on the Q train, I realized that I feel most like myself when riding the subway. I feel most like the person I am rather than the person I want to be or try not to be... I am serene and quiet, I am anonymous and completely within myself, and there is no one to bother me. When people see me, they see just another girl who lives in the outer boroughs and commutes to Manhattan, who unwraps her scarf slightly when she enters the train car and wraps it back up tightly when she exits, who slides her sunglasses up over her hair at the beginning of the ride and puts them back over her eyes at the end. I am an anonymous person with silly little rituals that no one notices except for me, because I am just one of the millions... And it feels so nice.

Twice a day, I wait in a specific location on the platform. In the morning, I go all the way to the back of the train to make my transfer to the L easier; in the evening, the second to last car is my domain so I am closest to the stairs at my stop. If there are no seats, which there usually are not, I try to snag a spot by the door on the side of the train where the door opens less often, where I can calmly ignore the comings and goings of other passengers at other stops. When they do open at Atlantic Avenue and Dekalb, all I need to do is shift slightly to let people in and out, though I defend my spot at the door so I can gaze out the window as we cross the Manhattan Bridge, because the southward view down the East River is to die for.

Nearly every morning I see the Brooklyn Bridge standing serenely in the morning light, the Statue of Liberty reaching up over the horizon, the cars moving slowly on the FDR, the boats plowing through the water, the seagulls swooping greedily, the buildings of lower Manhattan glittering in the rising sun... I have seen this view so many times and yet it never gets old for me. On the mornings I end up on the B train instead, the view is blocked since we're on the other side of the bridge... But I get to look northward instead, where I see much more water and have a decent view of the Williamsburg Bridge. But nothing compares with the scene from the Q train...

At night, going the opposite direction, the setting sun can often be brutal, depending on when you cross the river, but if you cross it late enough you'll see the Brooklyn Bridge lit up with its necklace of lights and the cars glimmering as they speed along. Manhattan at night is beautiful as well... from a distance, of course. Everything looks brilliant when you're far enough away... I prefer the mornings, however, when I feel the most calm. The day has not brought any stress or thoughts upon me yet - I am an empty vessel that the world is only just beginning to fill with sights and sounds that I still have the option of absorbing or ignoring.

This morning I was lucky enough to get a seat on a not-too-crowded car, which gave me the luxury of doing a bit more observing. Surrounding me were a multitude of characters... A Barbara Streisand lookalike read her People Magazine.... A skinny, long-haired man read his kindle in a leather case that matched his jacket... The crazy Haitian woman who usually yells at people to move out of her way was sitting quietly in a seat moving her lips in silent prayer... An aging, handsome hipster with salt and pepper hair wore Wrangler jeans and workboots most likely for no other function than ironic fashion... The preppie girl next to me with her iPod encased in hot pink played her music far too loudly for my taste...

I was reading my book, but every now and then I'd look up and simply observe for a few minutes. The subway gives me the freedom to simply sit and contemplate my surroundings if I don't feel like reading for every minute of my ride. Sometimes I am completely absorbed in the text so I don't notice anything going on around me, and other times I need to put in silent headphones simply to drown out the noise so I can stay absorbed... Many times I just put the book on my lap and look. I don't stare blankly, I don't gaze longingly... I just LOOK. I look at the people, at the books they're reading, at the colors of their iPods and headphones, at the roots of their dyed hair and the runs in their stockings, at the shoes they match to their belts and the way their wallets have made a permanent square in their pockets. I look at the people I see nearly every day, and quickly look away. Then I look at the ones I have never seen before, or at the ones I wish I could see every day, like the woman who dresses only in purple, who has every accessory in purple, right down to lipstick and eyeshadow.

Every person is their own unique character study, no matter how drab they may seem... And yet, at the same time, they are all just a mass of humanity being carried to and from various locations that I don't know about and don't care to know about. I can shut off my interest in people and they become an anonymous crowd, with me just one small and terribly insignificant part of it... The thing I love so much about New York, and especially about riding the subway, is that feeling of incredible anonymity and invisibility, and the irony of having that feeling when you're walking and riding amongst 8 million people. What a strange dichotomy. But for a person like me who prefers to be alone, who prefers not to be seen, who prefers to stay quiet and within myself, especially in the mornings, I love the subway and the social leveling it offers. No one is better than the other -- we're literally all in the same boat and none of us is special. We're all invisible.

At the same time we're invisible, we are constantly watched, constantly watching... We watch each other like hawks and ignore each other at the same time. We listen to each other's conversations and yet block out all sound. It's so much easier to think when you can tune in or tune out all the same, and no one will care. And so I cherish my therapeutic commute before the insanity of the day begins. Every day is full of deafening silence and blindly watchful eyes... And I like it that way.

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