New York’s subway system is the most fantastic display of humanity’s beauty on planet Earth.
The pullout couch from which I am currently writing is situated a few dozen feet from the entrance to one of the single most fascinating places on the planet. It is a place that is truly global, with millions of people with strongly diverse backgrounds, languages, and attitudes congregated together in a witness of humanity’s flaws and beauties.
That place is the New York City subway, a place where life stops and one is forced to sit back, observe, and possibly interact with other human beings.
I’m currently in New York for what should have been my best friend’s wedding. My buddy David was all set to get married to a wonderful girl until her parents interrupted their lives and forced upon him a pre-nuptial agreement that would have forced him to screw himself financially if he didn’t toe their “party line.”
I couldn’t cancel my plane ticket without forfeiting a refund, so I braved the 30 hour journey door-to-door from my apartment in Ramat Gan, Israel via Moscow to my friend’s studio apartment in Harlem.
When I landed at JFK airport and hopped on the subway. sitting in front of me were two 300 lb+ African-American women wearing nothing but skimpy swimming suits after a day at the beach. They joked at the top of their lungs, dropped the f-bomb repeatedly to emphasize their sentences, and slapped each other on the ass to tick each other off. The woman on the right was missing one of her front teeth and spat repeatedly on the subway floor. While some aspects of their behavior were repugnant, these women amazed me because of their zest for life, punctuated by their outlandish laughs.
A man from the Indian sub-continent dozed next to me, his odious body smell penetrating my nostrils after no doubt a long day’s work in a blue-collar job. All around me, Chinese women spoke quietly to themselves in their native tongues, and a few preppy-dressed white guys stared at their IPads with headphones inside their ears.
This was a beautiful experience I thought. One I was unlikely to experience anywhere else in the world in all its intensity. Not in London, Hong Kong, Sao Paolo, or Mumbai was I going to experience this diversity of humanity.
Walking off the subway, I looked down at the floor and found a woman’s wallet. A man from Croatia stopped alongside me to try to help me find the owner’s phone number. The owner’s name was Katie, she was from Colorado, and was an aspiring actress. I wrote her a message on Facebook later and told her to get in touch to get her wallet back. She didn’t write back.
And that’s how life is on the subway. You meet someone in person or through their wallet for a second, you have a connection, and then they disappear forever.
I was heading to a meeting at Glamour magazine yesterday morning on the A train heading downtown. I was reading a memoir on my Kindle, trying to ignore the legions of people surrounding me in all directions, when a woman crying right above me got my attention.
She was older, nearing retirement age, and she was balling her eyes out in her hands. I quickly stood up and gave her my seat. I asked her if she was alright and she told me that yes she was, but that she was feeling really dizzy.
That answer seemed strange. She seemed visibly upset by something not dizzy. Gradually, all the people around us offered her attention and care. A Latina woman gave her a mint to awaken her senses. An Asian-American doctor gave her his unopened water bottle. An African-American man sitting to her left waved his handheld electric fan at her face to cool her off.
It was a beautiful site that I felt was unique to this place and this city. After the ride, I rode the subway another six times throughout the day, each time having a positive interaction with someone who I normally would have never spoken with.
There are many aspects of the New York subway system that need improvement. The air conditioners are often broken, the trains shake and make screeching noises, and delays and construction hamper anyone’s ability to be on time for anything.
But the cramped feeling on the subway, the sweat pouring from people’s skin, and the unavoidable eye contact people are forced to make causes the people most different from us to become the most familiar. And that is an extremely beautiful that makes the world just a little bit smaller and more friendly.