4:39, Canal Street: As the doors slide open, the mournful strains of an erhu can be heard far off in the distance. On the wall outside, beneath a row of Chinese characters made of multi-colored tiles, someone has written “Obama is the Manchurian candidate”. Our car disgorges a handful of passengers, after which the driver announces that we are being held in the station momentarily. A woman drifts into the rear of the car; she appears painfully frail, as if constructed from matchsticks and rubber cement. An uneducated guess puts her in her late forties, but it is hard to know for sure. Her hair is prematurely gray and stringy, seeming both brittle and greasy at once. Her face is pinched and crisscrossed with deep wrinkles. An audible groan emanates from the other passengers. This woman is not a stranger to any of us; indeed, she has become something of a fixture on the R train. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “I am an out-of-work mother caring for a young daughter with multiple sclerosis. Because of my daughter’s illness I am unable to leave her to find a job. I do not have the means to afford a babysitter or nurse to take care of her. If you could please spare even a nickel or dime so that we can afford to eat.” One by one, as the woman dodders forward waving a 7-11 coffee cup ahead of her, I see the rest of the passengers checking out, mentally erasing her from existence. New Yorkers can be a hard-hearted bunch, it’s true, but I have yet to see anyone so consistently and uniformly shunned as this woman. I wonder if she is a known quantity, her story already revealed to be fiction. Either way, the others’ reticence is what prevented me from giving any of my own money in the beginning, until finally it became habit, as second nature to me as cracking my knuckles. Perhaps this is an unending cycle in which she’s trapped, where any new potential donor becomes infected by the cynicism of those around them. Why then, I wonder, does she keep coming back evening after evening? By the time she reaches the front of the car, her cup predictably empty, the doors have already closed. She will be making the trip with us to Prince Street.
4:41, Prince Street: They pile on, their arms loaded down with shopping bags – H&M, Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch. They’ve travelled halfway across the country to shop at the same stores they have in their local suburban mall complex. They are mostly women, in groups of threes and fours. They talk loudly, much too loudly for the train. I detect a panoply of accents and languages – Midwestern, Deep South, Swedish, Cantonese, Russian, German. The ones I understand recount the things they have seen that day, embellishing the good and the bad, imbuing the most mundane incidents with an almost mythical air. This is why they came to New York, after all, to be amazed. Just as I have never heard a person express disappointment in the Eiffel Tower or Roman Coliseum, I have never heard New York described in anything but glowing terms by tourists. They praise its “energy” and “vibrancy”, apparently referring to the fact that there are a lot of people who seem in a hurry to get somewhere. The irony is that if they were to look around their train car, they would notice all of us New Yorkers slumped over in our seats, nodding off or staring vacantly at the floor or out the window. New York might be called the “city that never sleeps”, but I can tell you that it’s not for want of trying. Everywhere one looks, one sees an exhausted, bedraggled people. They speak longingly of getting away, leaving the city behind if only for a day or two, just to be able to relax. What people here really want at the end of a long day is to be able to turn off. Which is why tourists – loud, obtrusive, bright-eyed – are so universally disliked. “I just love Soho!” says a woman in a University of Indiana sweatshirt, her bags smacking against my knee in rhythm with the movements of the train, like a metronome. I sigh, wondering exactly when was the moment I stopped being one of them and became one of us.
Photo by AZY_NYC / Flickr