Monday, July 12, 2010

Breathing the Air Down There - NYC Subway

by Sophie

So I think I'm going to do us all a favor and roll out a definition for our theme this week (thanks Wiki):

Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, and/or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambience, morals, sociocultural direction or mood of an era (similar to the English word mainstream or trend).

Now pardon me as I wander just a little bit far afield. I was up until 3am last night - the last night of Thrillerfest in New York City, where I'd been cavorting for nearly a week. (It pains me to admit it, but this is actually an improvement over last year, when I and three friends stayed up until four am after the awards dinner.) Then up early this morning for a flight out of Kennedy, which brings me to the subject at hand, because I decided to save fifty bucks by riding the subway to the AirTrain, a short connecting rail that takes you from the Howard Beach subway station in Queens right to Kennedy.

I LOVE the New York subway system. LOVE IT! It is one of my happy places, and I adore everything from the smell to the swelter in the summer. I love watching the people, eavesdropping on conversations. I love tracing the words carved in the benches and reading the graffiti and listening to the accents. And most of all I love the zeitgeist of the thing.


This morning, on an odyssey that took me nearly two hours and involved a dozen flights of stairs lugging my monster suitcase and lifting it over turnstiles (there may be a better way to do it, but I took the shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square, caught the 1 to 14th, took the tunnel to catch the F to 4th St. where I got the A to Howard Beach - but all for $2.25) I was thinking how fantastic the subway zeitgeist is. For instance, somewhere in Queens I found myself sitting next to a couple of thirty-something surfer dudes (fedoras, long bleached Aerosmith hair, flip-flops) on one side and an orthodox Jewish man taking notes in a careful script in a notebook on the other. The former wore far fewer clothes and might have been more comfortable if they weren't so obviously hung over. There was an elderly couple dressed for church, the wife sleeping on her husband's chest; he occasionally kissed her hair gently so as not to wake her. There were three bewildered people who asked me for directions - probably not their best move. There was an old man singing to break your heart - "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" never sounded so croaky-good, definitely worth a buck in his plastic bucket.

I lived in New York for a few months twenty years ago, and the thing that made me fall in love with the subways first was the mosaic. I have always loved mosaic, and when I found out that Italian craftsmen had been brought to our country just to create the marvelous station signage, I used to imagine what it must have been like for them, practicing their painstaking art down in the newly-built tunnels. Did they learn English from the laborers working all around them? Did they miss the sights and smells of home, and what did they think of the dimestore counter lunches? Did they fall in love, or long to return home?

Nowadays when I'm in New York, I can afford a cab now and then, but I'll take the subway at the drop of a hat. I took it down to the Battery the other day to join my brother and his family on a trip to see the Statue of Liberty. Went underground in Midtown, surfaced in the canyons of Wall Street, the harbor laid out before me like a picture postcard. Gave me a shiver just like it did the first time I ever saw it.

I long to have an apartment in NY some day, and sometimes I wonder if the thrill will wear thin after a while, if I'll start resenting the wait time on the tracks and my maloderous fellows, the shoving and the scowling and the out-of-service hassles. I suppose some of that is inevitable, but for now it feels like my own little corner of heaven.

Photos: Bernard Safran, Paul Mijkesenaar

11 comments:

Rachael Herron said...

I feel the same way. The 6 line is my personal favorite -- something about it is just right. I always end up on the 6. It's NOTHING like silly little BART (although I enjoy that too). Riding on the subway feels like watching Audrey Hepburn in the opening seconds of Breakfast at Tiffany's, when she's wandering in the black dress. So very New York and so very right.

Juliet Blackwell said...

I'm with you, Sophie. I like going to Noah's Bagels just so I can look at the subway map poster while I wait.
Wish I could have been there with you, wandering the streets and UNDER the streets, looking for mosaics, stories, and trouble ;-)

Sophie Littlefield said...

oh, the subway could kick BART's ass all over town. I am grudgingly grateful for BART but I'd give anything if SF could have a subway like NY's. wouldn't that be fantastic??

great line, by the way, R darlin' - you know the one :)

And Julie...it would have been great if you had been there. I managed to get into only a fraction of the trouble I could have with you

Gigi Pandian said...

I don't like having regrets, but one of the very few regrets in my life is that I didn't live in NYC for a time when I was younger. I chose London to run away to after college instead, which I definitely don't regret -- but I wish I would have done both :). I think I must go to Thrillerfest next year!

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Although I often get lost/go the wrong way (for anything other than uptown/downtown trips), I do love it too.

P.S. If you want to sharesies on a NYC flat, I'm in! I won't need any closet space...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Gigi, there's still time! I think everyone ought to live there some time even if it's just for a few madcap weeks. My dental hygeinist this morning told me she's never been...but she goes to Cancun a lot. Me, i'd pick nyc any day.

Mysti....I have no sense of direction at all. When we live together, we will get lost a LOT (but who cares?)

Camille@minichino.com said...

My guess -- the thrill will never wear off, Sophie, because in NYC the thrill is always changing. Today a Picasso, tomorrow the IRT or a half and half cookie ... I lived there for 5 years and it was just a tease.

Sophie Littlefield said...

and camille get this - now they're making chocolate-covered BACON!!

Marlyn said...

I've never even been to NYC, save for a short layover at JFK, but I've always wanted to go there!

Adrienne Miller said...

Sophie, I think if you can find it within yourself to love NYC in 100 degree weather, then there's nothing out there that's gonna break that chain :-)

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