In the city, which never sleeps, it is difficult to find a napping New Yorker. Even on the subway, there are restless multi-taskers swiping away at their ipads and cell phones. Some balance laptops on laps, while others can be found with a thick pile of papers atop their thighs to prepare for an array of early morning meetings. New Yorkers are always busy and because of this preoccupation with always doing something, they tend to forget to notice what exists around them.
Underground, we seek out seats and balance the weight of gym bag and yoga mat and briefcase and backpack and pocketbooks the size of small suitcases. There are rare moments when the doors open and you have many seats to choose from. During peak hours (and in New York, all hours are peak), you must shimmy your way in and do your best not to let you hands wander; humans get very, very close underground.
Amidst this overcrowded chaos, there are moments where humanity exists in the most symphonic way. Look to your left and you may catch the little girl around 4 or 5 years old singing nursery rhymes to herself as her mom or guardian looks on. A guy at the end of the train seems to have forgotten that he is not in his bathroom, as he lifts bare feet up and begins clipping his toenails. I seem to be the only one in fear of a flyaway piece of hardened keratin. A female nuzzles with her lover: another young woman with a tattoo of a dragon on her forearm. Many act as though they cannot be seen and this is when we can catch bits of uncensored New Yorker emotion.
This is what I look for.
This is what reminds me that although we go home to different sized apartments (some have no home to go to) or engage in lifestyles of varied monetary styles, we are all here on this train together. Religion, race, economic background, or educational history do not matter.
The cover charge is the same for everyone: $2.50 per ride. As I look, I take out my red notebook and begin to write what I see.
It is impossible not to notice the color of May sky on her fingernails. Blue unlike turquoise or swimming pool or deserted-island ocean. Blue like the color of sadness. And she was crying. This young woman, perhaps around twenty-four or younger, had drops of salt falling from her eyes, brown like dug up earth. I sat across from her on the 3 train heading back into Brooklyn on a Sunday. It was early and it seemed like she may have been wearing last night’s attire: carefully ripped stockings, short black skirt that was neither leather nor linen. Cotton spandex mix? Her shirt was also black—true New York fashion derived from the allure of midnight: dark and slimming. Her hair was tossed up into a high pony tail/bun combination. I couldn’t stop staring.
Sometimes I really believe I am invisible as I travel underground from one borough to another. Brooklyn into Manhattan or Queens to the Bronx. Strangers stuck in a train with windows, which do not open. We involve ourselves in technological distractions: the latest popular downloaded game on fancy cell phone; rapper-endorsed headphones over ears blasting shuffled music; travel-sized electronic books. Some sleep. Some sneak sips of beer hidden inside brown paper bag. I have seen mothers nurse their babies and change diapers. I have seen fancy-suited proselytizers. I have seen guardians hit their kids. I have seen the beginnings of sex, heavy petting and deep-rooted foreplay. There has been vomit and piss and spilled meals and grime and rain all staining the floors and seats of these trains.
On this particular Sunday, I want to offer this young person a tissue. I want to climb in the empty orange seat next to her and hold her painted fingers as we sit in silence. I want to ask her what happened. I look around and wonder if anyone else notices what I am noticing or if they are stuck inside the NY code of contact to ignore, ignore, ignore.
Some occurrences on the subway elicit a response. Whenever God is mentioned, there is someone else on the train ready to retaliate. A man screams at his girlfriend and several people get involved to protect. A kid screams his/her way into a deafening tantrum and everyone rolls their eyes at once. But sadness tends to induce complete disregard. Perhaps it is so elevated in ourselves that it is too difficult to notice it in others. So, when this girl cries into her hands, she becomes deeply ignored. All eyes look away, except mine.
There are many rites of passage as a NYC subway rider. The top three that tend to eventually baptize commuters into “true New Yorkers” are: falling asleep and missing your stop, vomiting on the subway and crying while underground. I have reached all three and some more than once.
We tend to notice what we want to notice. Or sometimes we see what we want others to see in us. I notice the sad. When I am stuck on a train full of laughter, my eyes will gather steam from the couple at the far end who are nodding off, track marks on exposed forearms and twitching with each stop. Maybe I feel the need to notice the forgotten humans—the ones cast aside because they look crumpled or lost. The ones who smell. The ones disconnected through distracting electronica.
This particular woman still has the stain of Saturday’s lipstick on lips. I can tell it is from yesterday because it is darkest on the ends and far more faint throughout the rest of her mouth. I watch her take out cell phone and rub finger along screen. She is scrolling up and down, reading something. I imagine her reading text messages from whoever or whatever she came from. Perhaps she is reading something that birthed these tears. A text-messaged break-up? Her lips move as she silently reads from the screen. Her forehead squints into furrows. Her tears stop and now she looks angry. What is happening? She looks up and notices me noticing her. I look down because maintaining eye contact with this beautifully sad woman is far too intimate for me at this time of the day. I prefer being unnoticed or maybe I just enjoy having control over this noticing. It makes me wonder if anyone is noticing me.