“There’s no such thing as privacy on the subway,” a friend pointed out to me the other day. He gestured to the woman next to us, applying her make-up in the reflection of the dark train window; to the man wiping a bit of his egg sandwich off his suit jacket; to two teenagers in matching navy and grey school uniforms, lips-locked, backpacks discarded at their feet. And I thought to myself: My god. He’s RIGHT!
How did I never realize this before? New Yorkers do anything and everything on the subway. We eat breakfast and take shots of vodka from water bottles (though not usually at the same time). We talk finances and relationship statuses and diets. We discipline our children, feed them McDonald’s, wish they would stop screaming. We sing, dance, and strum guitars. We panhandle and sell and steal. We smell each other’s cologne and body odor when we’re pressed into each other’s bodies on a crowded train. We argue, we cry, we kiss and make up. We blast our music. We lose at video games. We read the newspaper. We sleep.
Art Garfunkel wrote a song that he performed with Paul Simon in their Concert in Central Park in 1967. I like to listen to it on the train. It’s called “A Heart That Lives in New York.” He sings:
New York, to that tall skyline I come, flyin’ in from London to your door
New York, lookin’ down on Central Park
Where they say you should not wander after dark
New York, like a scene from all those movies
But you’re real enough to me, but there’s a heart
A heart that lives in New York
It’s a beautiful song, Mr. Garfunkel, but I think you’ve missed the point entirely. You can’t see the heart of New York from the skies. The iconic Manhattan skyline, the green block that is Central Park, the wide water that drifts around New York’s many islands- these symbols certainly house the city’s heart, but just like in any living organism, you can’t know the blood pumping through its veins by observing its skin and hair and eyes. I’m not the first one to call the subway tunnels “arteries,” or to notice how they pump the 8 million New Yorker blood cells to the major organs of the city in all five boroughs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
On the subway platform yesterday, I watched a man pull a box of Fruit Loops and a quart of half-and-half out of two separate plastic bags. He poured their contents into a McDonald’s soda cup and ate his breakfast with a plastic spoon. After a moment, he produced a banana from a third plastic bag, poked it a few times, and held it up to his ear like a phone. Without hesitating, he shouted into it: “HELLO? CIA? I HAVE TO PLACE A COMPLAINT. SOMEONE IS DIGGING THROUGH THE TRASH.”
A few feet away an elderly, well-dressed couple barely glanced up from their Jersey Boys Playbill. Cloaked in her floor-length fur coat and mellow demeanor, the woman couldn’t have appeared more different than the young oddball demanding a police investigation of an imaginary trash thief; yet there they were, breathing the same air, waiting for the same Uptown train, pulsing through the same viens.
And there you go: that’s the heart of New York. You get a world that is beautiful precisely because of how little sense it makes. The subway epitomizes the diversity of New York. We are the blood cells, working tirelessly for our own aims that inherently and inevitably serve the greater good of the city. There are no walls. There are no secrets. We act as a single organism, as if we have nothing to hide. For what need have we for privacy when are all part of the same life force?
UPDATE: Here’s a comment from an anonymous poster in the great midwest:
“This post applies to C—— too.
We nurse our babies with bottles filled with orange pop. We stab each other with penknives. We masturbate behind a newspaper. We pee into a cup.
Thanks, friend. You are right. Yikes.