To outsiders, New York is a strange place – part Broadway glamor, Wall Street hustle, and a dash of big city crime. To those who live there, it’s an even stranger mixing of varied cultures, contempt, love, and confusion. Ride along with columnist Kevin MacLean as he travels New York by subway in search of common ground with the city and the patience to love it.
I hate 34th St. Station at Herald Square. Do you remember in Star Wars when Obi-Wan said about Mos Eisley: “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”? Well if by scum and villainy he meant garbage and homeless people then he would have said the exact same thing about Herald Square.
I don’t mean to sound insensitive to the plight of homeless people. I always make sure to donate money to them whenever I see those guys on the street corners with the empty water cooler jugs. But they smell. They smell really bad, and for some reason, a huge number of them call 34th St. home.
Then there’s the garbage. A block from the Empire State Building and beneath Macy’s, Herald Square is one of the largest shopping areas and tourist spots in the city. So naturally, there is a lot of traffic coming through there on the day to day. But there are plenty of stations in the city that have just as many people going through it and yet 34th St. is the only one where the tracks are literally filled with garbage. Even if it didn’t smell horrible it can give you a pretty demoralizing outlook on the human race when you see how people can so blatantly not give a shit.
There are 842 miles of total running subway track in New York City. It was ridden 1,620,000,000 separate times last year or more than 4.4 million times a day. And so, you might imagine there are a lot of crazies riding down there.
On St. Patrick’s Day there was this Jamaican lady who wanted to shout about some Christianity cult and the cult’s pamphlets. The woman came into the car at 7th Avenue in Brooklyn and began sharing her memorized reasons for becoming a better follower of Jesus today. But then, when the train reached Dekalb Avenue, she had an important decision to make: get out and move on to spread the good word in the next car, or stay in the same car for the ride between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
About a third of the way over the Manhattan Bridge, her memorized factoids began to run thin and she resorted to repeating herself over…and over…again. She desperately searched for something, anything else to say about the miraculous saving power of accepting Jesus as a Lord and Savior. I tried to ignore her and think about how nice a day it was outside and how it was pretty cool to have St. Patrick’s Day off from work but it didn’t do much good. I wondered if it would have mattered if I had spoken up, “Hey, you know what lady? This is all really great and all but we’re all already really good Christians so you can just leave us alone.” I would’ve liked to have been able to say that, but everyone knows you never, ever, talk to the crazy people on the subway.
Over 40% of the city’s population was born outside of the continental U.S. There are more Jews in New York than any place in the world outside of Israel. There are more Puerto Ricans in New York than any other place outside Puerto Rico. New York has the largest African American population of any city in America. You go down some streets and you might think you’re in a different country. But everyone gets along just fine as long as no one goes and does anything too wild or original.
Grand St. is the last stop in Manhattan before you go over the bridge. All the posters there are vandalized by the local punk community. I call it the “Asian Migration.” If you’ve ever ridden through there you know exactly what I mean. If you’ve never ridden through there I mean that there are a lot of Asian people who get on and off there.
Asian culture is different. Really different. Just go walk around Chinatown sometime. It isn’t just a neighborhood, it’s like a whole ‘nother country. Part of it is a generational thing. Most neighborhoods you go to where you have a lot of first and second generation immigrants are like that. Kids will be walking around in True Religion jeans and Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses then their parents can barely speak English.
The places tourists would go that’s white Anglo-American culture. That’s really what upsets people, even if they won’t admit it. It’s the same everywhere you go; a kind of primal jingoism brews up in people when they see others refusing to allow themselves to be assimilated into the mainstream. It makes people angry, confused, nervous, and even afraid.
Especially afraid. It is why you don’t talk to the crazy people. It is really what people are saying when they say “Oh I really hate those people.” Fear fuels lots of people through their day. They keep their mouths shut and keep their eyes on their shoes until they can hide into their room and wait to do it all again tomorrow. It doesn’t matter who you are. Asian people are afraid of black people. Black people are afraid of white people. White people are afraid of everyone. I’m lucky that I don’t live my life that way. The only thing that scares me is that I could one day.
One day, a man got on the train at Broadway-Lafayette and started begging for change/complaining about Asian people. As he walked down the train he said something like, “I would give all the money I’ve got today if one Asian person would smile at me.” Someone laughed when he said it. His words made me think about two things. The first was that a bum should never complain when he is asking for money. The second was that Asian people might not be the friendliest people around but you never see them on the train begging for your money either.
The man then got out at Grand St., probably to move on to the next car.
It’s not always easy getting along with everyone in a big city. Lots of people in smaller towns around the country, or as Sarah Palin calls it, “Real America,” think that people from New York are all mean spirited, cold, rude, and generally the reason for all evil in the world. But what those people don’t think of is that in their hometown, where everyone says hello to you, gives you a lift home, and pays for your lunch when you’re a dollar short; they all know you. Over 8 million people live in the five boroughs of New York and millions more visit the city everyday. It’s hard to be best friends with all of them.
They say on Avenue Q that “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” There are a lot of strange places in the city. And even the most open, liberal people like to have a good handle on what is going on around them; that’s hard to do when you can’t understand what people are saying and why they’re doing what they’re doing. It gets frustrating not understanding what the hell is even going on around you. That jingoism starts to surface and you want to shout at someone on the subway platform, “Hey! I don’t know how they do things wherever you’re from but around here we let people off before we get on!” (or something). You’ve got to have a lot of patience; patience is hard to come by in the Big Apple.
You see a bunch of different people when you ride on the subway. You see a lot in the way people act towards one another. There is a lot of ugliness out there when you look at it from far away. You need to look at everything one at time, up close, to really see what makes anything special.
One thing that I love and hate all at the same time are the various performers on the subway that move from car to car. Part of me thinks, “Oh cool, gonna get to see a little show.” But then another part of me thinks, “Ugh, I’m gonna have to spend an extra dollar on this train ride.” Usually the best ones involve younger people but I try to always give a little money regardless. At least they’re trying down there.
A really great subway show does the same thing as a really bad delay; it brings everyone together. They don’t happen very often, but when they do, moments like that remind you that you’re not the only person in the world that’s actually human. You’re all still riding alone, but you’re alone together.
There is a secret in Brooklyn on the Manhattan bound B and Q trains that only those who ride know about. Just before the train goes above ground to cross the Manhattan bridge there is a giant zoetrope mural on the Manhattan-bound side called the Masstransiscope. Squares and circles roll and flop and a rocket ships blasts off and flies by. There isn’t any part about riding on the subway that you could say everyone loves, but the Masstransiscope probably comes pretty close.
Going over the bridge at night is something I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of. You get a great view of the skyline and the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge all lit up but also, everything is calm. Everyone is a little more relaxed. In the morning rush, there is an intensity between everyone that fades at the end of the day. Everyone is too tired to care about their differences. It doesn’t matter what language anyone speaks or the color of anyone’s skin. We are all going home, and it feels good to know that.
Check out more of Kevin’s writing on his blog.