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Beneath New York

Before I left New York for a change of pace I rode the subway. I rode it as often as I could. I loved both the anonymity it provided as well as the communal experience and it's equalizing nature. Something thousands do together everyday in such close proximity, but you all come and go without having to engage in polite conversation or handing over any credit cards or having to exchange anything at all other than breath. And there's no business or first class on the subway. People wearing $1,000 shoes and $25,000 wristwatches ride in the same cars as those who toil for $10 an hour. At least, that's the way it used to be.


If I was lucky enough to get a seat I would sit a silent witness to environment within the subway car. If you look at people - especially straight in the eye - they do tend to leave you alone - which I know is the opposite of common sense - as long as behind that look is either confidence or apathy. Anything else is providing an invitation to engagement. If I had to stand, I would read the poetry that was posted by some community program, or glance at the ads, or study the subway map if it was within my sight - taking in the surroundings with my peripheral vision.


Sometimes I'd just get on and ride. Get out at some random stop, grab a snack somewhere and get back on. I was never afraid.


Motion always tends to spark my creativity - and somewhere, buried in my boxes of things there is a bunch of poems called, generically, The Subway Series. Some were observations on the literal day to day occurrences that I would see in the comings and goings. Some were random pontifications on matters of the heart and mind of a 17 - 22 year old. I wondered if one day one of them would wind up in the printed inserts in every other subway car.


People that have a problem with the subway are the people who don't ride subway regularly. They expect it to be run like an attraction at an amusement park, with some sense of order and direction. Veterans of the experience know it's more of a dance - somewhat choreographed, somewhat improvised, all the moving bodies having the same intrinsic goals - and really no one wants to get in anyone else's way and all the parts move without commentary, sliding in and out of complex configurations, sometimes defying logic and capacity. If there were loud pockets here and there typically they were from out-of-towners - not necessarily tourists - who came in for a quick night on the town.


When I was younger, the NYC subways were much grittier and uncomfortable - and that's what I was raised on. Somewhere in my mid to late teens the city started cleaning them up, and I remember being simultaneously happy about the inside of the cars being updated and spiffed up and sad that all the graffiti that adorned the outside of the cars was being stripped away. While I knew comfort and safety were important, I didn't understand why they had to erase all of the character.


There were plenty of odd smells, and sad sightings throughout the system - travelling in and out of the tunnels and train cars - life was raw...bare...unedited. Some would probably say I may have seen more than I should have at a younger age - but it depends on perspective, I suppose. I appreciate the exposure I had to the type of life I was lucky enough not to be living. It made me ever so grateful and planted the seeds of compassion and empathy that living in the suburbs tends to go missing if one stays contentedly ensconced in the bubble.


The subways are no stranger to violence and crime. There was a time when pushing people into the tracks seemed to be a horrific trend. Muggings, drug deals, sexual assault - you name it, it's happened down there. Beneath the streets. In the guts of the city.


And while there seems to be a spate of high profile incidents in the past year as the city slowly lurches back into some semblance of normalcy - mass violence down there is quite rare. The belly of the beast is relatively calm - since the 1980's there have only been a handful of incidents involving shootings or bombs - which is really quite remarkable when you consider the millions of people who have been using that system for decades. So when I learned of the recent incident in Brooklyn - where a gas masked man opened fire and detonated gas bombs and injured at least 10 people - it really took me aback.


I pray for those injured - and am stunned that no one was killed - and hope they find this lunatic and lock him up, away from the others - clearly he cannot play well. The people of NY will soldier on. The subways will be full again. The doors will open and shut. The shuffle of humans of all sizes, shapes, backgrounds, colors, faiths and wealth will continue, rumbling in the darkness.








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