Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

April 6, 2009
By
More by this author
Every day I walk down the same path, to the same hole in the ground, to the same spot next to the same faded blue beam, and I wait. Every day I pass the same black spots on the ground, remnants of pink, green, or blue bubble gum; how long they have been there nobody knows. When I take those first steps down into the abyss that century-old smell hits me, I can feel it fill my lungs, and I wonder how many other people have inhaled that smell before me. Millions of people know the odor; it is a mix of mold, dirt, grease, and oil; it is the smell of humanity. The tinted yellow tiles follow me down the long corridor and they reflect whatever slivers of light make their way out of the fluorescent bulbs. The grubby silver and blue attendant’s box contains a lone person inside. He stares back at me as I slip through one of the four turnstiles that stand next to him like soldiers. The tiles, the box, and the turnstiles have all taken abuse, but they have survived.

The scenery around me helps make time pass as I wait for the train to come. I look down at my feet and see the peeling yellow paint that outlines the periphery of the platform. Everything below the platform has an aged layer of brown on it, including the trash in between the tracks. Plastic soda bottles, newspapers, candy wrappers, potato chip bags, all dot the landscape where the wooden cross-pieces support the tracks. Weaving in and around these discarded objects is a continuous trickle of water whose origin and end point are a mystery. Occasionally a rat dashes through this rugged terrain; he is in synch with the subtle vibrations of the tunnel and comes out to look for food, get a glimpse of light, or explore the unknown. Farther up the platform a payphone sits snugly between the two sides of a beam; the receiver is off the hook, blowing in the wind from the incoming train. As it sways back and forth, the stringent silver coiled wire and dented yellow earpiece reflect the thin streaks of light that illuminate the area.

As the C train pulls into the station I watch the shiny shell come to a halt while people hold their ears to block out the screech that emanates from the rusted wheels below. The ridges on the outside of the car fold in and out like the inside of a corrugated box and as I look farther down the platform I see the grooved outline continue into the abyss. When the conductor opens the doors the people stream out of the train. Almost as one, twenty people exit the four foot wide doorway, each one in a rush to get to their destination. As they depart, the others who remain in the car readjust and move into newly vacant spots like hermit crabs. Once I finally enter the subway car, I writhe through the throngs of jackets and overcoats that have just come on to get a hold of a pole. The reflective stainless steel poles reach out to me and give me, along with the ten other people holding on, the support I need to make it through the ride.



When I am on the subway at 7:30 in the morning, faces, hundreds of faces, are all around me, each with their own story and background. The college student sitting in front of me looks frustrated as he goes through his textbook highlighting important information. The woman with scrubs on underneath her jacket looks fatigued with heavy circles under her eyes. The man with Timberlands and paint-covered pants looks solemn as he is rides with a firm stance. Two tourists try to decipher the map in their hands, while the others gawk at the advertisements around them. The eyes of the little girl holding her mother’s hand look refreshing and hopeful as she gets ready for a new day of school. All these people are cells that make up the organism that is the subway.

The subway has a different meaning for each of its riders. For most people, the subway is simply a means of transportation, a utility, a conveyance. But for some, the subway is a place to express themselves, a place to perform, a place for art. I have seen dancers that move to the beat of their boombox, singers that like to hear their own voices, musicians that play saxophones, bongo drums, or guitars, or even the occasional preacher that has received the word of god and wants to spread his message. The subway is a stage and all the men and women are merely performers. For some the subway is a place to make a living; whether by selling bootleg batteries and DVD’s, M&M’s and candy bars, or a self-published book whose author is waiting for their big break. For some the subway is home; the benches on the platform or on the train are their beds, and they are constantly on the move. Each of these people plays a specific role in making up the overall identity of the subway.

Like the silver poles that weave in and out of the straphangers’ hands, thin white wires run from people’s ears down into their pockets or bags, and while they listen to their music they escape into a world of their own. As the headphones around me play different rhythms from the songs the people are listening to, the beat of the wheels rolling along in the background adds to the symphony of the train ride. Whenever I peek out the door window as I am riding, I try to get a glimpse of anything that I can make out. It is as if I am going through a black hole and all around me stars are passing by at the speed of light. Like an old-time film reel playing in a movie theater, the images on the other side of the glass are intermittently interrupted by the black beams that support the street above. The blackness on the other side of the car could contain virtually anything, and we may never know what exactly that is.

As the train arrives at my final stop, the people tilt like dominoes and follow the momentum of the train until it comes to a complete halt. The standard announcement of “Fourteenth Street” trickles out of the speaker in the diluted language of the subway. While I stand in front of the doors waiting for them to open, anticipating the hustle of the crowd that will exit behind me, I think about how many years I have taken this same route and stared at these same doors that reflect my blurry image. The constancy and endurance of the subway brings me a sense of peace for a moment, and when I walk out of the car and up the stairs, back to the surface world, I revel in the idea that the subway has been here for over a hundred years and millions of people have taken the same journey that I take every day.





Join the Discussion

This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

ZadaRox101 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 26, 2010 at 2:29 pm
very descriptive. To be honest, I'm scared of the subway. I was on it at rushhour one time and was stuck in the middle of a bunch of random strangers. *shudders* I am now clastorphobic! lol very good story!
 
SirJay said...
Dec. 9, 2009 at 1:28 pm
This was really good! It made me view the subway in a new light, and a more appreciative one to be sure. I've never looked at it the way you seem to, but I've only ever just visited New York and rode on it a few times.
 
Brooklyn500 said...
May 5, 2009 at 4:18 pm
Nice essay. The subways in NYC are a unique place. They are orderly, yet they defy order. I especially like that you documented the different uses of the subway. Your article provided a real sense of the underground milieu.
 
bRealTime banner ad on the left side
Site Feedback