New York City Subway Story: 34th Street Herald Square BMT Broadway Line

*The following is an excerpt from my book Things I Shouldn't Have Said and other Faux Pas.*

The N train is a New York City Transit subway line.
I feel shabby. On the BMT Manhattan-bound platform waiting for an express train, she wore white earmuffs, a chic gray winter coat affixed with neat round black buttons, forest green stockings, and black boots.
She had a non-interested interested stare. It is a stare I have yet to master. "Waiting for the fucking train," she probably thought to herself. People have this knack of taking in their surroundings with a marked non-plussed blasé indifference. I am so blatantly curious about everything that I give myself away.

Window starers are the best.
Gone are the days I read on the subway. Damn. Not even podcasts lift my spirits. Magazines? Trashed 'em. I bought a Kindle Fire. It's a great paperweight. I've become a reader who does not read. I have taken to staring at people. It is not polite. They catch me staring back. The non-plussed woman did not notice. At least she did not commit to noticing.

On a crowded subway platform, no one is an individual. Mass transit nurtures even-spaced distances. We are there. In each other's way. But the gesture to open communication is absent. Like bees in a honeycomb, we know how to maneuver around each other with minimal contact. Businessmen in svelte suits love to fake nap on the morning commute. Ladies talk. But in whispers. Every so often co-workers discover they are on the same train and will yammer (against tradition). Straphangers forgive them and return to their solipsism.

There are exceptions. A black woman scolded an older Asian woman for not "minding her child" who had Downs Syndrome. The child was taking up two seats. "You know he has something," she paused, " … just mind your child." The Asian woman said something in what appeared to be Chinese and the child returned to his proper place. The black woman fumed the rest of the way on the Broadway line until they both got off at Canal Street. That is emotion. It seethes out. But most of the time the commute is innocuous. Banal almost. To the point that I entertain myself. Which is why I look. That's the thing. No one pays attention. Or maybe they are more discrete. I am blatant. I don't mind that people know I am looking at them because my intention is not to flirt in public places. I am looking for humanity. It is a lonely world. And nothing makes you feel more lonely than being in a crowded train filled with strangers. Don't you want to know something about their inner life? I know. It is true that most people don't have an inner life. I used to think I was daft to believe this but I have come to believe it. Not everyone is seething with inner imaginative thoughts. That is why I stare. I am unabashed and unapologetic.

I think David Foster Wallace said something to the same effect, something about that is what writers do – they stare at people. Writers are creeps. I pay more attention to other people than I do my own self. Look. When the black woman on the train was scolding the adults with the Downs Syndrome boy my mobile phone slipped out of my goddamn hand. I wasn't paying attention. I didn't even pick it up. Also, I was breaking Transit Authority rules by eating ten-piece chicken McNuggets. I love the Honey Dijon sauce. Dipped that shit the whole ride. I was wearing a white button-up shirt from friggin' Uniqlo. Smeared it all over my shirt. Had to teach that way too. I am an underpaid adjunct instructor at nonesuch college in Manhattan. No one minds if I come into class ready to teach French Existentialism with a hearty smear of sauce on my chemise. Fuck. I had a paisley print tote with me that my coworker said was a clutch. No. Take that back he said it was a purse. And I said a purse is something a woman carries around - usually black - with a gold clasp. And he said, "No, Greig, that's a clutch." Touché.

I have a few artist friends here in New York and they are better dressed than me which I find fascinating because I always associated art in New York with Bohemia. But then I realized Bohemians were probably well dressed. I am just a slob. Everyone in this city is classy. Even the middle class although I should say I don't think there is a middle class in New York City. They all moved to the suburbs. There are only the children of the middle class. The poor. And the rich. But they have no taste. The rich, I mean. A hasty generalization I will make about rich people – they love to buy sophisticated art objects but they won't talk about art. "Oh, you have a Mondrian? What got you into abstract art?" "Oh," they'll say, "I bought that on our trip to Austin, Texas."

The poor have taste. I saw a guy on the Second avenue asking for quarters and my friend Patrick and I saw him again next to the Alamo sculpture having an argument about why the awesomeness of 1970s graffiti art in New York City is lost on most people. This was just after I saw a girl tell his boyfriend, "Why don't you level it up a bit? Take me to Chipotle." The guy said, "Baby, you know that shit's too expensive." Three levels down from Chipotle are the Halal guys, dollar pizza and hamburgers from Checkers.


When the express train arrived the woman with the white ear muffs got onto the car but she vanished into the crowd. Kierkegaard said once that the crowd is untruth. No matter how hard I try to resist I get caught up in the crowd. By the time the train went over the Manhattan Bridge I had lost myself. When I looked up I noticed that I had not paid attention to anyone. Let alone the station stops. I was one of them, I thought. Coming to awareness I looked and noticed the Honey Dijon stain and thought, “Fuck, this will never come out,” and I noticed that other people had stains on their clothes too. All this time I thought fashion sense was impeccable among the hoi polloi. Boy, I am one of them. Reading a hardcover novel the thirtysomething adjacent to me had a dribble of what looked like hardened ketchup. Looking down, sure enough, the lady next to me had a tear in her stocking. Smiling I took the empty seat after the mass exodus at Pacific Street and on the rest of the ride home, I was jollier than a well-dressed Bohemian.
If you liked this story read more from the book Things I Shouldn't Have Said and Other Faux Pas.
Image source: World News

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