Hell of a Town: “On Subterranean Stew”, by Catherine Northington

My commute to school is an easy one. Sometimes.

It’s straightforward—for New York, anyway: I hop on the ⅔ in Prospect Heights and ride that sucker all the way to 96th, dodder across a platform and hop the local to 116.

Direct and doable. In theory.

But city life is rarely the romantic abstract we make it out to be. Several times a month—and that’s being generous—“easy” trips like mine transform into Odyssean webs of reroutes and unexplained delays.

Subway bullshit is such a natural part of life here that New Yorkers develop a sixth sense for it. I’m convinced I can sense something amiss almost the moment I leave my apartment building: There’s a raging mist in the air, a hostile strain of humidity lingering above the grates. But I swipe my Metrocard anyway—I must!—and am absorbed into the Rage Hive, another paying patron at its mercy.

We’re conditioned to accept a certain degree of inconvenience when we ride the subway; those discomforts are part and parcel of living here—and they’re one of the city’s most unifying forces (who among us has not bonded with a near-stranger over a particularly gutting reroute or missed appointment?).

Problems are inevitable in our vast cavern of transit, but by God do I reserve my right to make a huff about them. And delays are just the beginning of it.

Every day, millions of us descend into the subway’s gaping maw.

In doing so we all harbor the same tacit, desperate desire: to get from Point A to Point B as quickly and smoothly as possible. This thrusts us—The Commuters—into direct competition with one another: Awkward, angry shuffling; dramatic dives toward that one empty seat—none of it makes for a pleasant crowd.

Crowd. That awful word—and one so abominably, intrinsically linked with the New York Subway System. Crowding leads to closeness leads to touching. And I, for one, don’t like being touched. Not unless it’s on my own terms, ideally in private and by someone with clean hands (a reputable doctor or a fastidious lover).

On the subway, touching is flagrant, inevitable, and never on your terms. It could be someone innocently grazing against your elbow or someone deliberately squeezing your ass cheek or anything in between. Jostlers, lechers, and bystanders are all lumped on top of each other on this, the city’s Great Equalizer.

A few years back I was on the 344 bus in London, chortling over the Lambeth Bridge. The bus was quiet, near-empty, and repulsively fluorescent. I was biting my pen, working a crossword in the Evening Standard, when a man sat down next to me. He put his coat on his lap and started kneading my thigh.

“Nah. That’s not happening,” I told myself simply, squeezing closer to the window, sweat prickling my neck. I pretended—for whose sake? His?—not to notice what was going on. A large part of me truly wanted to believe (and had, I think, convinced myself) that it was “just an embarrassing mistake.”

Unfortunately such instances are not “special” or “different,” or even uncommon. Last summer on the 4 train in Manhattan, a man made eye contact with a woman on my car and started masturbating. I still come close to tears when I remember her incredible nerve—she screamed at him until he left the train. Creeps are all over, and they range widely in their modus operandi. But public transit, with all its requisite proximity, draws those shitheads in like moths to light.

I’ve cauterized the wound of that moment in London with near-ridiculous levels of caution. When I board the 2 / 3, I squeeze myself into a compact ball of torso and limbs, folding each over the other like a sailor’s knot. If my pinky makes fleeting contact with someone else’s, my heart jolts; I recoil, apologize breathlessly, feel implicated somehow.

I recently sat down next to a man on the 2 and left a conspicuous 3-inch buffer between our legs. I free-fell into a paranoid thought tunnel: Does he notice that space? Am I profiling? Wait, what if he notices and gets mad at me for assuming he could be a threat? Or maybe he’ll see it and just feel sad about the shitty, suspicious world we live in. How could I explain myself to him?

While I don’t think about the bus ride in London every time I step onto the subway, it would be impossible not view my commutes through its prism: Brown buildings whisking by, a cold black April night, a humiliating hand on my thigh, and the suffocating impossibility of escape.

Fondling, grazing, glaring, toe-stepping—crowds suck, for reasons minor and monumental. Particularly when you’re hurling through the world in one.

Beneath the seething, occasionally sinister madness of the crowd lurks the subways’ sonic hellscape—a moaning, rattling, screaming soundtrack. Subway noise cannot be run from; no empty car or platform corner will save you. How do the rats manage?

Subway screeching can probably be explained by science: Steel wheels, steel rails, friction, whatever smart words might apply. I, personally, choose to interpret the noise as a personal attack. Noise levels correlate directly with my emotional state: Every mote of goodwill within me is snuffed out with the whoosh of tunnel air that accompanies each ear-shattering train. I have actually welled up in tears at the arrival of a G train. I can barely tolerate the sound of forks clanking into a silverware drawer—what the hell am I doing here?

Yet I am here, living a life that relies daily on the New York Subway (I will be the first person to kick myself in the proverbial nuts for that decision). But as long as that’s the case, I’ll give props to my soundproof headphones, which the MTA should be handing out in gift bags to every poor soul with a MetroCard.

The Final Bosses of achieving subway-car nirvana: Musicians and panhandlers.

When I’m on a moving train without the option to escape, ignore, or say “No” to sounds or solicitations—that’s a problem for me. Like most New Yorkers, I am skeptical as hell about giving my money to someone who’s asking for it (and, it must be said: there are many people asking for it). But I particularly don’t want to give money to someone subjecting me to sounds I did not ask for, and frankly did not want to hear in the first place. Technology today affords me the option to listen to an infinitude of podcasts, radio shows, movies, or sound effects for God’s sake. And I’d rather listen to an MP3 of an airhorn for a full hour than someone turning over a Rubbermaid tub and slapping it til we screech into Times Square.

Then there are the solicitors who ask for money directly. This no-frills approach is often accompanied by an impassioned plea to the full car. I feel for these people, and as much as I will myself not to listen, I do. And my guilt consumes me before, during, and after they’ve said their piece.

But how does one avoid becoming jaded? How can one trust anybody? Twice in the past month I’ve encountered someone asking for money who then cursed out the entire train car. Sometimes the takedowns are interwoven with the actual panhandling:

God bless God bless God bless we have to support each other God bless Goddamn Goddamn fuck we have to support each other fuck all of you…

Any change please…change…if you touch me I will FUCKING kill you. Don’t you dare fucking talk to me or I will knock you out, anyone spare change…

You only have to be cursed out by one person asking for money to start asking yourself—Do I owe this shitty, cruel world anything?

Despite my ranklings, the rube in me is secretly awed by this whole enterprise: Underground tunnels?! Millions of people?! I’m willing to concede the subway’s a staggering feat of engineering, considering it was built just a little over a century ago at a time when people were almost exclusively using horses to get around Manhattan (HORSES, FOLKS).

Of course, this could be the propaganda talking. A few Fridays ago I stopped by the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn and could feel myself succumbing to the MTA’s wiles. I was the only person in the museum besides some loud teenagers who probably would have been making out had I not been staring at them from behind an acrylic cutout of a sandhog (if you’ve visited the museum, you know the lingo 😎).

Anyway, the MTA got me good. I cried at a picture of some bus they refurbished after 9/11 in a “show of resilience.” Or maybe I was crying at the fact I spent $15 on admission, which is the same I’d be paying to visit the Met. That said, the Met doesn’t have a line of clicky model turnstiles that I can spend ~10 minutes walking through with glee.

Okay, I’ll can it with the “Maybe the MTA isn’t so terrible” bit; I’m just trying to give ‘em a fair shake. And you have to watch yourself in New York—to express anything but disgust at the subway here is considered deeply uncool, bordering on offensive. Fortunately, I am a perennially unpopular person and there is little at stake when I voice my terrible opinions (while I’m at it: Wings is a great band).

Plus, whatever abstract incredulity I harbor is far outshadowed by my rock-hard hatred for the subway’s daily workings. Unfair? Probably. But riding this moldy claptrap every day really gets to a person. Tough to feel psyched about your long day of class or work—or about anything, reallywhen you’re being stepped on, bongo’d, and inhaling literal shit smells en route.

Still, if writing this has reminded me anything, the subway makes for some pretty good stories. And that’s the sort of currency a writer can use.

PS: Don’t even try to go anywhere on the weekends.

Sometimes I feel like New York was designed specifically to spite me. Like scientists engineered me to be the polar opposite of everything this city embodies—its glitz and glam (Frasier-watching on a futon is my natural habitat; when I do leave the house, I dress like a child en route to a soccer scrimmage); panting, heaving crowds (human stampedes are my Number One Fear); disturbing loudness (I can barely handle clatter of silverware being loaded into a dishwasher).

Why do I live in New York?

I’m writing this column to regale you with the ways I’ve fucked up here, the ways it’s messed with my head, and the ways it’s made me better. The ways it’s begun making some perverse sort of sense for me to be here.

Catherine Northington is a nonfiction writer from Philadelphia. She likes Forensic Files, bad sports teams, and Paul McCartney’s eyelashes.

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