The Uplifting Act of Picturing Strangers Smiling

Creating little moments of joy on the New York City subway.

Lauren Harkawik
Sep 14 · 4 min read
Photo by Jamie Brown on Unsplash

Life in New York City, storied as it may be, is a series of mundane acts.

It’s waking up in a small apartment and moving about the space in the same paths each day. It’s locking the door; walking down the stairs; walking down the sidewalk.

There’s a lot of walking.

It’s a turn of of the body into the stairs of the subway; it’s the bounce of the stairs under your feet as you go down. The swipe of the subway card becomes muscle memory. You could forget whether you’ve swiped if you weren’t already on the platform.

Sometimes, in some stations, there’s a wind you feel on your face when the train is approaching. So your body straightens and you get ready, and then when it’s there, the doors open, and you move on autopilot — together, all of you — and you find your spot.

And then there’s motion, for the train anyway, but for you, there’s stillness. You might find a seat or you might stand, which will mean swaying, but that movement is considered standing still for New Yorkers. Your body adapts to the ebb and flow of the subway car. You don’t notice, nor feel off balance.

You zone out.

For four years of living in New York City, I spent 40 minutes each way going to and from work every day. On the weekends, I’d spend longer — there’s often a train to hop on between destinations. Back then I was used to the stimulation the city provides. Today, when I visit, I find myself feeling overwhelmed. Sometimes, I take the subway just to escape. It’s a place where my body relaxes and my mind settles. Still today, I can easily doze off.

There was a time in my journey in New York when being around other people, especially on the subway, was distracting and sometimes even difficult for my soul. I have trouble not creating narratives about people when I observe them. I often found myself getting wrapped up in the dramas of the people around me on the subway.

Some of those dramas were real, which I could tell because they were spilling out of their souls in verbal arguments, or tears, or laughter. But many of their dramas were my own fiction, spun from scant clues I’d discover on them. A woman wringing her hands — she must be nervous, I’d think. A couple sitting solemnly next to one another — what argument had they had?

I was projecting my insecurities on these humans, but of course, I didn’t realize it. Nevertheless, I’d leave processing these stories — really my own — and feeling anxious, or sad, or unsure.

But then something shifted, because I developed a tool. A game I play with myself to ground my soul. A window into appreciating the people around me. I used it back when subway rides were daily and I use it now, when they’re a fleeting respite. I’ve used it other places, too.

I picture the strangers smiling.

People on the subway — or in other crowded places where what you’re really doing is standing idle, like in a train station, or in a doctor’s office waiting room, or at the terminal at the airport — generally bare blank expressions. They are human blank canvases.

I watch them, and then I close my eyes, and I picture them smiling. Sometimes I transport them to somewhere where they might be happy. A family dinner. Christmas morning. A surprise reception at work. Sometimes the images take the shape of photographs. Sometimes it’s just as though they’re standing right where they are then, waiting for a train or a plane or the clock to run out, smiling. Beaming. Full of contentment.

I’m still making up narratives about them, arguably more fictional than the ones I used to spin. But now, instead of getting sucked into their dramas (and really filtering them through mine), I’m seeing them at their best. Seeing them at their best lifts my spirit. And it reminds me to see myself at my best, too.

Photo by Mathias Konrath on Unsplash

Lauren Harkawik is an essayist, fiction writer, and local reporter in small-town Vermont.

Lauren Harkawik

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Essayist, fiction writer + local reporter in VT. She/her.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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