It was interesting, she thought, how the subway worked.
Not the electricity of it, nor the detailed system of underground tunnels that spread out under the city like some kind of rat-filled, vibrating bedrock, not even how fast it moved. Those were engineering details that held no particular fascination for her. What she found interesting were the details inside the subway cars. Everyone at any given time who was riding the subway had one thing in common: they were going someplace else.
But didn’t that hold true of anyone she saw out and about, riding on a crosstown bus or in the back of a taxi? That was different. There was a freedom in getting around above ground, an openness. You could wave to people outside as the sunshine gathered extra warmth from the window glass before settling on your arms and your face. Hi guys! Look at me! On the bus! To walk down the steps into the rank-breathed mouth of the subway system was to surrender yourself to the underworld of the transportation industry. It was dark, dank, and moody, like the graduate student she once dated who chain smoked and wore turtlenecks and a beret non-ironically. To ride the subway was to make the conscious decision to step down, to where the only ones who could see you were the others who had made the same decision.
Yet she rode the subway every day. From the first day she’d moved to the city, she knew that her overpriced and undersized address in the village would only get her so far. If she wanted to be a real New Yorker, she had no choice but to step down. Taxis and buses were for tourists and locals who lacked imagination. The subway was for hard-core New Yorkers, who got on and off the trains with a bored expression, if they even looked up from their book at all, and never trailed a finger over the red or yellow lines on the map or strained to hear what the conductor said. They just knew. They always knew. Ask any New Yorker on the street what subway to take to Times Square, or Battery Park, or Junior’s Cheesecake, and they’d rattle it all off, including any place where you’d have to change trains, without hesitation.
Instead of finding this intimidating when she’d first moved to the city, she’d been intrigued. She wanted to learn this language, to crack their code. For awhile, it didn’t seem she ever would, but one day she found herself getting on the train and getting off four stops later without thinking about it. She’d become fluent when she wasn’t paying attention.
Riding the subway was hardcore. It was about getting from one place to another without seeing anything along the way apart from aged tiles flashing past in the cracked yellow light. Sometimes the cars were virtually empty, but during rush hour people were pressed together, feet fitting around each other like puzzle pieces, bodies bumping, hands jockeying for pole space, armpits swaying closer to faces than faces would be comfortable with in any other setting. But on the subway, it was just a fact of life. Even the times the train would abruptly stop and go dark, everyone shrugged and waited it out.
Coming up from the subway always made her feel like a mole, surfacing, blinking, trying to get her bearings and refamiliarize herself with everything she’d left behind just moments before. She’d jumped on a blind bullet that transported her to another part of the city and anyone who didn’t find that fascinating was, as far as she was concerned, missing a vital point the city was always trying to make about what it really is, underneath.