The NYC subway is a pretty amazing place to people watch. I bring whatever book I am currently reading with me on my morning commute without fail every morning. And without fail, every morning, I never even so much as reach for it.
The subway can be a dirty, smelly, hot, cold, infuriating place. And then there’s that one ride where the most amazing violinist sits in your car and plays like he’s on stage at Lincoln Center. Or an adorable kid puts on his boom box (because yes he has a boom box) and performs the most insane break dancing moves you’ve ever seen – on a moving train – without kicking anyone in the face. Or how about when my poor sister got caught in a car with a dozen people and a rat. What sounds like the beginning of a horror movie ended up being one of the funniest stories I have ever heard. In the end everyone on that subway car laughed so hard together they cried and my sister left unharmed, smiling and feeling as though she had experienced a true New York moment. My story is not as dramatic but it too felt like a true New York moment.
On my commute home after a long exhausting day I sat on the 6 across from this tiny 60 something year old Asian lady. She was hunched over an over sized, stuffed bag of I don’t know what. She let the subway car toss her around without so much as putting a hand down to stop herself from falling over – yet still managed to keep her balance, which was quite impressive. More impressive than that, I have never seen a sadder face. I spent a lot of that ride making up the life I thought she led and considering different objects I thought could be in that big bag of hers that she held onto so tightly. Maybe her grip was just for balance. Or maybe there was something truly valuable to her in there.
As I am analyzing the life of this little lady based solely on her face and body language, two very fabulous, very large men in woman’s clothing walk in and sit down next to me. The larger one immediately started raving to the slightly less larger one how comfortable her gold ballet slippers were and how she couldn’t and wouldn’t even imagine living without them. A third man – dressed as a man – walks in, sees these ladies and starts chatting them up. Just pleasantries mostly. I think it was pretty surprising to most people in their vicinity. I look over at the sad Asian Lady and she, too, was watching this odd threesome converse with a smile on her face. As she listened, the smile got bigger, her eyes got brighter and her posture got straighter. As if that was not crazy enough, she turned over to the random lady next to her and started up a conversation about how happy she was it was already Wednesday – three days closer to the weekend. Now, this is something that is RARELY done on a subway car. No eye contact, trust no one and behave as though you’ve definitely knocked someone out before and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again are three of the main rules while traveling on the subway. Which is why when you see strangers connect like this you can’t help feel a little lighter.
I left the subway while the now happy Asian lady was still chatting away with her new friend. I guess, like all of us, she needed a little inspiration to let go of whatever she was holding onto from that day. It was refreshing to see the domino of positive energy for once – no matter how bizarre it was. Even I walked home with a smile I thought only a glass of wine after such a long day could bring out.
ps The photos above are from a photo essay in the New York Times back in 2010 celebrating the 106th anniversary of the New York City Subway. Some of these photos go all the way back to 1916!