|207 Street Station Postcard, New York City, 2010|
The IRT 207th Street Station of the New York City Subway is on what is today the 1 line, located near the University Heights Bridge. Not to be confused with the IND 207th Street Station on the A line, parallel to where I stand now. At surface level, 207th Street on the east side runs directly below the Manhattan train yard to the north. The street is unassuming. Dull, really. I wish I could be on the A line now, so I can wander through the elevations of Fort Tryon Park.
Planning to Write about the New York City Subway
Here on the 1 line, I am convinced the neighborhood has nothing distinctive to offer that the other northern Manhattan and Bronx elevated stations of the IRT division have already offered me. I already feel like a worn-out straphanger who has grown accustomed to the repetitive re-iteration of station after station. Does technology point to an anthropology? Are we just cookie-cutter human-shaped-molds without unique attributes? One damn cut-out after another? Observing the majority of commuters on this train, it is easy to judge that not much makes us different from the other.
I grow easily tired. I think of my friend Ecce, a freshly minted Ph.D. student, who had laughed when I had told her I was drawing inspiration from subway stations for a possible book. "What are you going to call it?" she had asked me at a bar in Greenpoint. "I don't know," I said, suddenly feeling self-conscious. She smiled. "You're definitely new here," she said. "You better write that book while you at least have some modicum of enchantment left in you." "Why is that?" I asked. "Eventually you'll get bitter and just want the damn train to arrive in the station so you can get to wherever you're going."
I think about what she said to me as I walk to the end of the platform to get a better view of the train yards. I still find pleasure in the MTA system. I wonder if I will ever lose a fascination with iron and electricity. I hope to see a surplus train veer off from the track spur into the yard below, but I am antsy and decide not to wait. The backpack I wear is heavy. I am not in shape. The joints in my knees send a sharp pain to the pain receptors in my brain. I am sadly a normally sedentary beast. I tend to find solace in the undisturbed moments of casual book reading in a library. I write at a pinewood desk.
Finding Inspiration from Straphangers and Writing on the Move
Here in New York, I find myself writing on the move. I am here. I jot observations with a pencil into a black Moleskine. Writing is my sole occupation. I write about the subway because I am drawn to it in the same way Roger Ebert is drawn to write about movies or Christoph Niemann draws pictures of he and his children on the NQR or romping the galleries at the MTA Transit Museum. I am not sure I want to join the ranks of graduate school or not. I am unemployed. I have enough money to buy one last unlimited subway card pass. On the train into Manhattan from Marble Hill, a smallish boy purred at a woman. Purrrr. I took out my moleskine and jotted down the incident as if I had suddenly become a vigilante journalist. Then the boy leaned against the un-sterile pole of the subway car and eased himself down on the train floor into Indian-style and sat self-satisfied. A skinny girl whom I presume to be the boy's sister ignored him and gave her sole attention to another boy whom I assumed to be her boyfriend. The car was not crowded, but the temperature was stale enough to create slight discomfort.
Not getting the attention from the woman, the boy proceeded to unleash a chain link with a padlock from his belt. He affixed himself to the pole of the subway car. The woman noticed and turned to her girlfriend, "Only in New York," shaking her head in a tsk-tsk fashion. Eventually, bored with his self-inflicted incarceration, the boy, who was probably only ten or eleven years old, got up and curled into a ball in the crevice between his sister and the edge of the seat.
Is it cliché to say the city is my text? I say it with the most emphatic sense of authenticity I can manage. To ignore the goings-on in a town like New York is to be like a visitor to a foreign land who never attempts to learn its customs and language. People are on display in this city. Especially in the subway.
The Social Contract that Governs Riding New York City Transit
But, it is a display guarded by a simple social contract. People can display their desires, frustrations, even act them out — like the boy who handcuffed himself to the subway pole. But the social contract of the subway for the rest of us is to act as voyeurs. We are allowed to watch. Unless the performer permits us to engage, we are passive onlookers onto a vast dramatic, in-motion stage. For me to write what I see on this stage is only appropriate. In fact, it is silently acknowledged as not only licit but encouraged.
Like clicking on a remote control, the next station stop is a change of the channel in which I can choose to remain in motion or get off. 207th Street does not promise to be as voyeuristic as a train of people, but I feel obligated to continue my creative project elsewhere. I am hesitant to make writing my way through the subway stations artificial, as if I have to construct a piece of art out of every encounter I witness. I have an appointment at Fordham. My real-life intrudes onto my art. I am not only on the subway car so as to postulate a work of art, but I too am a straphanger. I am both an observer and potentially one to be observed.
The area west of the University Heights Bridge in Manhattan is an industrial rectangle. Car garages and grocery stores, mostly. It is on bridges one finally sees that there are people on the move. Pedestrians on bridges do not like to stop unless they are tourists, or like me, a writer-tourist. At the middle of the bridge a man sells bottled water for $1.50. "Get 'em while they're cold, miss," he says to a woman with corn on the cob breasts and a lazy eye.
The Harlem River is blotchy brown. The edges of Manhattan and the Bronx resemble two green hands wishing to shake each other. I am late for a job interview for an adjunct position. I am hoping to get a position teaching Renaissance literature. Tucked into my messenger tote is an accurate resume. But, I am not sure I want the job. I could probably get by teaching Paradise Lost and the Metaphysical poets, but God help us all if I have to teach the Faerie Queene. Adjuncting is tantamount to prostitution, anyway. The pay is a mere $2,350 a semester. I teach one course to college freshman which equals out to three times a week until December. At that time the powers that be may deem it appropriate to extend my contract to teach World Literature in the Spring.
In My Own Life, I Am at a Crossroads
I moved to New York City to find an intellectual home. Standing on the ledge of the University Heights Bridge I feel intellectual. The city seems pregnant with possibility. I sense I will get a job soon. It seems totally absurd that I could have made it this far and only find myself having to pack up everything and return home again. That is not something I am determined to do.
I buy the bottled water from the street vendor. "Hey, man," he says. "You better be careful. This city'll eat you alive if you're not careful." "Yeah, you're right," I say and laugh. Not sure what else to do or say, I walk towards the Bronx. The August heat is direct. A biker dings his dinger and motions me to get the hell out the way. I realize if I live life as a Bohemian — or as a loafer — I'll end up dead on the University Heights Bridge. I need a job. And I decide — at that moment — to go to school. I have to set a telos before me if I don't particularly feel comfortable with the notion of telos. I walk to the Bronx to unpack my fate. I figure New York will be the place I finally get my Ph.D. Now, I hope, academia will at least do her job and lend me a job.
Travels on the IRT: 207th Street Station Postcard
I am an educator and a writer. I was born in Louisiana and I now live in the Big Apple. My heart beats to the rhythm of "Ain't No Place to Pee on Mardi Gras Day". My style is of the hot sauce variety. I love philosophy sprinkles and a hot cup of café au lait.