My new friends who helped me with my first New York subway ride gave me a bit of advice: never make eye contact on the subway, if I do the person will either be a whack-o or ask for money. So, on the rest of trips on the 6 train and F train, I had a mighty fascination with my shoes or the advertisements overhead. I never felt unsafe or even uneasy. Mostly, people were just trying to get somewhere on time. Mornings and evenings the trains were packed and I panicked a bit that I might not be able to get to the door, but I always did. I preferred the F line because the cars all had interactive maps that very clearly said the next stop. I never got lost on that line. The number 6, though, was an entirely different story.
The first day I wondered around Grand Central Station a while until I finally found the escalator to the downtown trains. I knew I could take either the 4 or the 6 to the stop I needed at Lafayette Street. They both stop on the same platform but what I didn’t know was that the express trains were on the left and the local trains on the right. Yes, that’s what I did, got on the 4 line express. Luckily for me, I realized what I had done and when the train made a stop I jumped off. There was a number 6 across the platform so I was able hop on without waiting. Fine. It’s all good. I’ll get to the conference on time. No problem. Big problem…after a few stops I saw a sign out the window that said Lafayette Street with an arrow pointing up some stairs. Gah!!! I needed Lafayette Street!!! Next stop: out the door, up the steps, across the walkway, down the steps, back on the uptown train, get off at the next stop. Thank goodness, back to Lafayette, up the steps, on the street but it doesn’t look at all like the pictures of 419 Lafayette on Google Maps. No problem. The street sign says Lafayette. It can’t be far I’ll walk. Two miles later, in the rain, I get to the Project for Public Spaces. I look across the street and there it is, the station I should have ridden to.
So the day goes on, I stop sweating, my shoes and hair are finally dry and after the wine and cheese reception I cross Lafayette to the subway station. I figured out the problem. My directions said I needed to ride to Lafayette Street but the station is called Astor Place. Great. Got it. Astor Place tomorrow. Down the stairs, on the uptown train back to Grand Central Station. Just behind me a guy gets on and starts to give the car a sermon, in a heavy Irish accent, about how we should love each other and the Lord with all our hearts. He asked us to be kind to one another and pray for peace then recited the Lord’s Prayer and promptly jumped off as the doors opened at the next stop. He must have practiced because I have never seen anything so well timed. I glanced around at the other passengers and there was kind of a communal shrug as if to say, “Thanks?”
I kept waiting to hear the conductor announce Grand Central Station and realized along about 77th Street that I had somehow missed my stop. So, one more time, up the steps and down the street but wait…I had turned away from the subway line and walked two blocks in the wrong direction. Turn around back to where I started, cross the street in the correct direction, down the steps on the downtown train, got a spot close to the overhead map. I looked more closely at the names of the stops and realized the stop isn’t Grand Central Station, it’s 42nd Street. OK. Got it. The stop closest to my hotel, even though it cruises straight into Grand Central, is called 42nd Street.
The next morning I’m up and out early, confident I now know all the names of the stops I need and get to the Astor Place station way early. This downtown stop has an entrance to the biggest K-Mart I’ve ever seen so I went in to buy a Coke Zero and got lost trying to find the door to the street. I walked around the ground floor then went up some escalators to the second floor. I went through men’s department, children’s department, and housewares before I found a check out and asked how to get out of the store. Back down a second set of escalators, and finally the front door. I’m becoming an expert at getting lost.
The most interesting passengers must only travel in the afternoon. On the Saturday trip back uptown the car was very crowded. There were two guys, one sitting up and the other lying down across 4 seats with his head in his friends lap and his eyes closed. They both were fairly dirty, I don’t know if they were homeless but certain they were either drunk or high. The conversation went like this:
Sitting Guy: You know you have to transfer in a couple of stops.
Lying Guy: I want to go with you.
SG: But you have to transfer.
LG: I don’t want to leave you.
SG: You know I’ll take care of you, I love you.
LG: I know. We’re friends. I don’t want to transfer.
SG: OK, we’ll go together. I’ll take care of you, you’re my friend.
LG: I love you.
SG: Don’t go getting all gay on me.
I got off at 42nd Street, so will never know exactly how far they travelled or if they left together or if it all erupted in a major spat and they went their separate ways. I think about them a lot, though, and I suppose that’s what being a student of culture is all about. I don’t know who they are, their back story, or how they managed to get hung up on their drug of choice. I realize I, or anyone for that matter, could have been them. I happened to have made different choices that have led me to a wonderful place. I’m not better than them, not luckier, not smarter… just different.
There were so many stories from the subway: the teenagers who kept pulling each other’s hair; the sleeping people; the guy who was seat-dancing to the music from his phone; the angry man who cursed and shouted out that we were all nothing but subway bums; the lady who managed all those steps in high heels; the business man in a suit on a Saturday. I love to watch faces and stole as many glances as I could without being noticed. So many stories from the kinship of the subway.