It is true that I fall in love at least a dozen times a day, sometimes more depending on how many subway rides I might take. Some of these little romances take place for 30, 60, even 90 seconds. Some can last as long as an entire commute if I'm lucky, but they all end in relatively the same way. One moment I'll be sitting (or more often standing and bracing myself against a pole, trying to avoid the sharp elbows and shoulders of others around me) with my nose in a book, and then I'll look up as I turn the page and catch my eye on a person for whom my heart melts like hot butter. Almost as quickly as they appear, they just as easily disappear and then the day continues on...
One evening while changing trains in the labyrinth of tunnels that are tangled beneath the 42nd Street (Times Square) subway station, I took the immense transverse that runs beneath 7th and 8th Avenues. There are times of the day when the maze of tiled passages contain streams of tens of thousands of people all scurrying about rapidly in different directions like ants coming up out of a crack in the earth. There is always the distinct smell of ancient grime, mechanical exhaust and fried food that expands and contracts depending on the weather. Within this vast network of chutes and ladders one can find a wide variety of entertainment from performers to evangelists hoping to make any sort of dent in this ceaseless rumble of footsteps and voices echoing below the city's surface.
At one point there is a very long and steep ramp that runs between the number 7 Train and the A Train. It is lined with mosaics and often with large posters advertising current Broadway showsthat can be seen on the streets just above. On this particular evening, I had run out of batteries on my iPod, and as a result, I was unusually more attentive to the sounds around me than I would be otherwise. From the bottom of the great ramp, I could hear something in the distance which was sweet and melodic cutting through the thunder of stampeding humans bounding down the tunnel ahead. It was the faint sound of a violin, singing a sadly beautiful theme. There are often musicians and beggars who frequent this corridor, but rarely do any sound quite as gracefully as what I was vaguely hearing from afar. My pace quickened as I headed forward with curiosity into the great crowd around me. My heartbeat began to hasten as I recognized the tune playing was Chopin's Nocturne. As I drew closer, it echoed through the walls of the tunnel, transforming it into a concert hall rather than a dirty metro station. The tune was being performed with such intimate familiarity that it sounded mournfully sublime. Finally, I was close enough to catch a glimpse of the musician.
He was a smallish man, probably in his mid 30's. He was clean and simple looking. His eyes were closed and his expression was fixed somewhere inside of his mind. He had a black violin case lined with red velvet opened in front of him, and passersby had dropped a few small bills and coins inside. For the most part, he was passed by without a great deal of attention, for after all, a subway station is not a place one generally goes to doddle. Although I had somewhere to go and a train to get to, I stopped for several minutes and listened as he continued to play. If he would have asked me at that moment, I would have surely agreed to marry him, but his eyes never really opened and his awareness of anything but his music didn't seem to falter. Reluctantly, I left after depositing into the velvet-lined case all the change I could find in my pockets (probably amounting to about $1.25). As I turned the corner and the sound of his music faded into the sea of strangers passing by, I made my way to the Uptown A Train with a smile on my face and song that repeated in my head throughout my journey home.
There is a section of the A Train that runs express (without stopping) from 59th Street Columbus Circle to 125th Street in Harlem. It is one of the longest singular uninterrupted runs one can take on the New York City Subway. If things are running smoothly, which is often a gamble, from stop to stop it takes about 8 or 9 minutes. This gives one enough time to get involved in some sort of diversion that can make the trip more pleasant, if not interrupted by preachers, political activists, performers or starving mothers begging for change. After a long day of work and running around the city, it's a little treat I often look forward to. I've seen so many peculiar and noteworthy things during this special ride that I could expound for volumes, but at the moment one particular story stands out.
It was one night when I had met a friend for a beer after work at one of those chintzy little Irish pubs that line the streets outside of Penn Station. Was it the Molly Wee Pub, The Blarney Stone or perhaps the Tempest? I'm not quite sure. All I remember is that I had a couple of good stouts in me and I was feeling hopeful about the world. I got on the uptown A Train at 34th Street and by 42nd Street, a group of fashionable young girls got on in my car and took a seat across from me. They all had thick Boston accents, and in their "foreign" dialect, they chattered about nothing of consequence, but the sounds and phrases they used were quite entertaining to me. One of the girls had a particularly flashy pair of boots on, something one would probably find in a mall somewhere in the middle of New Jersey, complete with all sorts of dazzle that made a sure statement of taste. Despite this, and perhaps because of the warm glow I was feeling from the Guinness I had been sipping just moments before, I decided I'd withhold judgment and observe the entertainment before me without expending the unnecessary energy required to mock silently in my own stream of consciousness (or at least I kept it to a bare minimum).
We had passed 59th street, making our way on the long uninterrupted express journey to Harlem, just as one of the girls started talking about something related to Baseball that began to derail my interest. I noticed a hand moving ever so quickly across a page out of the corner of my eye. I discovered a dark thin man in shabby jeans with ink-stained fingers sitting a few seats away from me on the same side of the train car. He had a head full of curly black hair that was pulled back into a little pony tail, revealing a square jaw and a long angular neck. I looked down and saw that he had also made notice of the ridiculous boots of the Bostonian girl in front of us, and he was quickly trying to capture them in a drawing with his pen. He had written some sort of caption above, which I was not close enough to see, but I hoped it said something like "Boston Bedazzled." From what I could see, his line quality and style were reminiscent of Egon Schiele (one of my favorite artists) and for the next 4 minutes I had fallen in love. In my head, Franz Liszt's Liebestraum played, and the rest of the ride was a joy until, inevitably, I had to get off at 125th street and head home to my apartment with visions of the curly haired artist accompanying me along the way. I never saw him again, nor the girls from Boston, but just the same, I'd fallen in love for a good several minutes of my commute which is more than most can hope for in a week.
The Google lackey:
Manhattan decidedly has now joined the world of the tech industry with several large Silicon Valley entities setting up sad little East Coast satellites in old industrial buildings that had seen much better days long ago. It wasn't enough that we in New York had to control publishing, news media, the stock market, the fashion industry, the art world and a number of other trades, but now we've got our fingers in the ever expanding world of the intangible "tech bubble." Situated in Chelsea, in the old Port Authority of New York building, the fortress of Google looks out over the Hudson river, developing new ways to add the woes of New Yorkers to a collection of monetizable analytics. In this relatively new fortress exists an army of awkwardly intelligent minions that can be often recognized without a great deal of effort. They're generally a shade or two more pale than the average person, with insect-like reflexes, a style of dress that reminds one of the folks seen waiting in line at the last Star Wars premiere, and then there's the unmistakable Google lanyard many of them forget to conceal when they leave the building (although I think that some of them purposefully display it as a badge of honor).
One morning, as I stumbled upon the train to work, bleary from an eventful night before, I happened to get squished quite compactly into a very full car. Some insufferable old woman demanded to change seats after the train had already begun moving, which stirred the condensed soup of people into new directions of consolidation. As a general understood rule of train etiquette, once the train begins moving, wherever you have found yourself, you will remain until at least the next stop. The only people who are exempt from this rule are the elderly and Eastern Europeans who just can't seem to get it together on rapid transit. In all the commotion I found myself pushed up against a tall thin man with glasses and a backpack with a water pouch built in. He had the first three signs of Google: the pallid skin, the Lord of the Rings T Shirt and the most definitive - the multicolored and iridescent Google lanyard! My face suddenly found a great smirk growing across it, although I knew not why. I thought to myself, "What about this person makes me chuckle? Sure, he was probably a member of his High School's Audio Visual Club and he probably has a collection of Babylon Five DVD's in his apartment, but how is that so different than me? After all, I was in my school's Lunchtime Library Book Group (which had about 5 members) and I have a whole collection of Woody Allen films in my own apartment that I've memorized forward and backward..."
As I had this little existential debate in my own head regarding which person's brand of nerdiness was more noble, I noticed that Google boy had a pair of very beautiful green eyes behind his glasses. In fact, with less hair gel and perhaps a more neutral T Shirt, Google boy would have been very handsome. Then I looked down and saw that he was reading a biography of Beethoven which made me think of my favorite Beethoven piece, the 2nd movement from Sonata Number 8 (the Pathetique). In realizing that our mutual brands of nerd-dom had found a middle ground, I found Google boy to be quite loveable. For the next two minutes, I debated whether or not backpacks with water reservoirs inside were really so aesthetically bad. As the crowd expanded and contracted at the next stop, he was wrenched from my sight, but throughout the rest of that day, bleary as I may have been, I had a new appreciation for Google.
• • •
There are many other stories I could tell, but these give a small sprinkling of what awaits passengers on the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York. I'm not sure what the moral of the story may be, or if there really ought to be one, but suffice it to say that the older I become, the less I can control my own ability to fall madly in and out of love within the duration of a train ride. Some of these little experiences offer me insights into myself, others offer me warnings about myself, but mostly they are a good source of entertainment that I couldn't imagine finding anywhere else.