A subway ride marks the beginning of my work days at America, and given the diversity of the nearly four million passengers who use New York City’s subway system each day, it offers an ever-varying picture of humanity. For commuters like me, the actual ride does not begin on the subway car itself—it starts on the sidewalk, as riders hurry along toward the entrances of their preferred stations. During the morning rush hour, some break into a jog-trot if they are running late, and on reaching the entrance they all but hurl themselves down the stairs to the platform below, then break into a dash toward the opening doors of an arriving train. If the doors are already closing, they often fling an arm, leg, purse or backpack between them. Then one can hear the voice of the conductor say—sometimes angrily, sometimes pleadingly—“Please release the closing doors.” I once heard a conductor announce, in the tone of a grade-school teacher dealing with unruly children: “We will all just sit here until the doors are released.” These battles of the human will are frequent, and the conductors invariably win.
Once aboard the F train for the morning trip to America House, I may or may not find a seat. Certain seats are sought after, especially those near the middle or the end doors. These have stainless steel arm supports that can be comfortably leaned against while the train is in motion. En route, some immerse their faces in newspapers or other reading material, or listen to music from their iPods, whose white cords dangle from their ears like misplaced umbilical cords. Or they doze. But work goes on too—sometimes by students doing their homework, or teachers marking students’ smudged assignments.
I once sat across from a middle-aged business man with a sheaf of papers on his lap and a calculator in his hand. He would rapidly press numbers on the calculator and then transcribe the results on one of the pieces of paper balanced on his knees. Now and then he would grab the whole sheaf to keep it from tumbling floorward.
He and I were on the uptown No. 6 local that morning, rather than the F train I usually take. The No. 6 cars have a new automated voice system for announcing the stops. A friend told me of his liking for that line’s automated system because of its clarity. I prefer, though, the human voices on the other subway lines—voices that represent distant countries and regions of the world. Yes, understanding their heavy accents demands close attention, but that is part of the melting-pot attraction of an international city like New York—several worlds within a world.
If reading, working or sleeping are primary activities on the subway, so is eating. Early morning riders frequently board with cups of coffee—sometimes in paper cups, sometimes in sleek stainless steel Thermoses. On the relatively new subway system in Washington, D.C., consuming food or drink is strictly prohibited, but here in New York it has long been viewed as one of those basic rights New Yorkers consider to be their own. In the evening, travel time on the subway translates for some into dinnertime. I have seen the contents of many a Styrofoam container of rice and chicken devoured before my eyes.
I myself regularly carry a peanut butter sandwich in my backpack to boost flagging energies on longer rides to the Bronx and other boroughs. But the city’s transit committee has recently established new rules due to go into effect in the near future. These will allegedly tighten food restrictions even to the point of fining those who sip from open beverage containers while on board. But banning early morning coffee? Noncompliance can be expected, with fines angrily contested.
The focused quality of people heading toward work, home or other destinations cannot hide the fact that many of the people seen in the subway system have no destination at all. For homeless men and women, the wooden benches in the stations and the seats in the cars may be the closest thing they have to a home. Many ride in the cars all night, or use the platform as an alternative refuge. When I arrive at the station nearest to America House just before 8 a.m., I frequently notice sleeping forms stretched out on the concrete flooring at the platform’s northern end. At other stations around the city, both in the morning and the evening, I see homeless people sitting upright on the benches where they have spent the day or night, sometimes covered with rough blankets pulled up and over their heads. It is not just the harsh neon light they seem to be blocking out, but the world itself—a world for which, in any case, they barely exist in the eyes of those who hurry by with little more than a glance in their direction.