Cora LeCates describes her fascination with the sights, sounds, and adventures of commuting to school via the New York City subway.
No one could understand what the man over the loudspeaker was saying, but we all inferred that we would be stuck underground for a little while. It was 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and my face was still puffy from sleep. I’d been commuting for almost an hour already, and the earbud in my left ear (only one of the earbuds worked) was blaring a song I’d already heard twice that morning. With my right hand, I held my biology notes, and with my left, I clutched the subway pole and tried not to think about traces of the bubonic plague that could be found on its surface. Pure joy filled my heart.
Growing up in a small town in New Jersey, I had a little more patience for the trials and tribulations of life in New York City. It was a pleasant change from the repetitive nature of my childhood. To me, there is nothing quite as enthralling as the MTA system (despite its many inconveniences). My subway love story began when I was four, and my parents took me to see The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. The bold, unwavering chaos of the underground took me aback, so much so that I could barely pay attention to the dancers. My mind stayed fixed on the sliding of doors, the crashing of train cars, and the whirlwind of people.
When I entered high school and started commuting to school, the magic was steadfast. Every morning I stared in awe at the flashing lights and the glaring people with their treasured MetroCards, my ears ringing and my sleepy head spinning. When enchantment became routine, I greeted performers, built a soundtrack to my travel, and smiled at passersby (though they would never smile back).
On this particular morning, I was frantically studying for a Biology test that I was set to take first period, my notes jumbled and unhelpful. I barely had time to smile at the woman with the Pomeranian in her purse, and I couldn’t appreciate a small child’s gigantic, sequined scarf. It felt, for the first time, as though the subway’s vibrancy was dulling. My previously infatuated heart was slipping out of time when it used to beat in sync with the spinning of turnstiles.
That is until the train I was on screeched to a halt in the middle of a dark tunnel, and the loudspeaker man’s low, garbled voice sounded like the song of an angel. My route’s sudden interruption flung my heart back into the rhythm of MTA life. I would miss first period — I could reschedule my Biology test. My eyes widened at the micro-world I had ignored, my temporary living space (if just for a few minutes). A system of authentic, unapologetic people encapsulated in the same metal tube, deep below their different and sprawling lives. People sitting, standing, sleeping; people staring, sneering, smiling.
I noticed, for the first time that morning, the people only a few feet away from me. How had I ignored their whimsicality? What great stretches of fate had brought me only a few inches from the woman in front of me who wore her bright, blue lipstick with such swagger? How could I have missed the hands folded neatly in the lap of the man sitting behind me, decorated with such an abundance of rings that I could barely see the skin on his fingers?
My small-town heart was again set aflame, in love with the flickering lights and the crinkling of newspaper from the man to my right. Oh, bubonic-plague poles! Oh, gigantic rats! Oh, empty Coke bottle rolling on the floor! How could I be so blasé to this fascination?
That Thursday morning, I fell right back into love, and the 35 minutes I spent unmoving in that tunnel are still fresh in my mind, as if I had seen that fleeting coexistence just yesterday. The eccentricity of a simple New York City subway ride never ceases to amaze me.