This one isn’t about a book.

Like I’ve said before, I get awful headaches reading on the subway, so I can’t read during my daily commute (at least 2 hours total every single day). But this didn’t fit in the Omens section, and it still seemed like something important to say.

For me, the subway is my zen zone. The in-between where I am going and where I’ve been, a place where it’s just me, my iPod, and the rest of New York.

Yesterday as I sat on the 4 train headed home, listening to Noah and the Whale’s “Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down” (an album I recommend to all), it came upon me suddenly:

This is my life, as I’m living it, right now, right this second, this is it.

That instantaneous intake of breath, and for the first time in a long time I am aware of being exactly where and who I am. And then the second breath:

Where have I been all the rest of the time?

I know I spend so much of my life in anticipation–of the next day, of the next audition, rehearsal, date, phone call, text message, email, tweet…of the next song on my playlist, of the next month of the year, of the next phase of my life…of the next job, of the next real love, of the next anything.

As I wait for all my nexts, I miss my nows. Until suddenly, I look up, and here I am. On a crowded 4 train, in the most beautiful place on earth, and no, I don’t have a job or a boyfriend or any typical validation from the world that I’m on the right track; I’m not sure where I’ll be in three weeks, much less three months, and it makes me sad a lot of the time.

But I am here, on a 4 train, in the most beautiful place on earth. I am here I am here I am here. And I smiled, and I thanked the universe that I could be so lucky.

Noah and the Whale says,

If you do what you do, yeah well you’ll do fine.

And I think I will.

Rebecca

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Stumbling on Scientific Proof

In “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert presents a logical and entertaining, if not particularly conclusive, explanation for why we human beings are so dang bad at predicting how the future will make us feel. Many of his points were particularly applicable to this morning’s subway ride:

  • When ordinary people want to know whether two things are causally related, they routinely search for, attend to, consider, and remember information about what did happen and fail to search for, attend to, consider, and remember information that did not.

FOR EXAMPLE: I happen to know that anytime I am running late for work, I always miss my subway by this much, and then I always have to wait a whole six to eight minutes for the next train. This morning was no exception. Rounding the corner to the subway entrance,  I heard the smug female announcer’s voice waft up through the subway grate in the sidewalk, declaring that “The next. L. Train. Is now arriving on the. Manhattan bound. Track,” I took off at a run. I raced down the first set of cement stairs, pulled out my Metrocard, threw myself and all my belongings through the turnstile, raced down another set of cement stairs just as the conductor sounded the ding-dong and the silver doors closed in my face.

  • We cannot feel good about an imaginary future when we are busy feeling bad about an actual present.

Sure, I’d probably still make my transfer at Union Square with plenty of time. And sure, this delay would actually allow me an extra six to eight minutes of reading which otherwise would be spent working. In fact, the next train would probably be less crowded, and I might actually get a seat. But just like Gilbert predicted, I wallowed in my misery, refusing to imagine a happy future filled with less work, more reading, and my butt on a nice hard plastic bench.

  • Feelings that one interprets as fear in the presence of a sheer drop may be interpreted as lust in the presence of a sheer blouse– which is simply to say that people can be wrong about what they are feeling.

No sheer blouses for me- those are reserved for the young men in Gilbert’s study who are approached by an attractive young woman while crossing a rickety suspension bridge. She gives some men her number while on the bridge and others just after crossing it; those who receive her digits while hanging over the gorge are more likely to call her, apparently because they have mixed up their fear of dying with an interest in the aforementioned blouse.

Racing down all those terrifying cement stairs got my blood pumping pretty good, and after I hurled several angry expletives at the train as it zoomed out of the station, I looked up and realized I wasn’t the only one left high and dry on the platform. (We almost always see ourselves as unique, chimes Gilbert’s voice in my head.) There’s a guy- a very cute guy in fact- and he’s smiling. At me? He’s smiling at me! My heart was already racing and my muscles were tense, so I quickly began to mistake my anger and anxiety about missing the train for lust, when I arrived at another of Gilbert’s lessons:

  • In order to maintain the delicate balance between reality and illusion, we seek positive views of our experience, but we only allow ourselves to embrace those views when they seem credible.

Yeah, no. Not credible, I think. He’s way too cute. He must be staring at my bizarre-o outfit. What was I thinking when I got dressed this morning?Or maybe he thought I was nuts for yelling at the train to HOLD THE DOORS!! while I dashed down the stairs.

It could have been worse. I could have had to wait 35 minutes.

I stared angrily at the clock.

  • We are more likely to look for and find a positive view of the things we’re stuck with than of the things we’re not.

It’s true. What can I do? Nothing, of course, but pull out my book to find the moral of Gilbert’s tale:

  • There is no simple formula for finding happiness. But if our great big brains do not allow us to go sure-footedly into our futures, they at least allow us to understand what makes us stumble.

I’ll buy it. As long as all the stumbling is over happiness and not down the stairs onto the subway platform.

Posted in Non-fiction, Psychology | 1 Comment

The Subway Times’ Tuesday Times

As I was riding over the Manhattan Bridge on the Q train late this afternoon, a question, posed to me by a friend in reference to the Brooklyn neighborhood in which I lived, popped into my head:

“Do you feel safe?” she had asked me.

I told her I did, and it’s true. I do. My neighborhood is mostly Hispanic families living in four-story apartment buildings. Kids throw balls in the street and open the fire hydrants during the summer. There’s a hospital, the Fire Kutz Barber Shop, dozens of places to eat polla a la braza, and all the auto repair shops you could ask for. The neighborhood has a history of poverty, crime and violence, and still has a number of run-down buildings and shady businesses, but ask anyone in the neighborhood, and they’ll tell you it’s changing: kids like me, too broke to live in Williamsburg or the East Village but too rich to move home to our parents, are flocking to neighborhoods like Bushwick where the rent is relatively cheap and we can feel relatively safe. It’s hard to know what’s the cause and what’s the effect, but there are clearly more police on the street corners, more recognizable chain restaurants, and a whole section of Boar’s Head cold cuts in the local grocery store.

My friend’s question came to mind while trying to understand, as best I could, the news via the New York Times. Someone had given me the paper before I got on the train, and with no other reading to attend to, (I had just finished Love in the Time of Cholera), I started to skim the headlines.

Libyan War Traps Poor Immigrants at Tripoli’s Edge,” a headline read. I started in on the article, the first of several in the front page section about the current situation in Libya, but I had trouble focusing. The truth was, I didn’t know anything about the situation in Libya, and the more I read, the more information I realized I was missing. I skimmed the sentences four, five, six times, but I didn’t recognize the jargon, the players, the cities.

While the sentences themselves continued to lack clarity for me, the overall tone of the articles suddenly came in to focus: There’s a war going on in Libya. An uprising. People are revolting, risking their very lives, to oust a dictator.

People are risking their lives.

And then my friend’s question: Do I feel safe?

Another headline: “Absent Police Chief Fired in Mexico.” The article was short but clear. Twenty-year-old Marisol Valles Garcia, hired when no one else would take the job of patrolling the “drug ravaged border town,” requested a three day leave of absence to care for her baby son. On Monday she failed to show up for work and was promptly fired. The article speculated on the cause of her disappearance: Did she run off because she was threatened by the drug gangs? “A previous police chief had been beheaded… Town officials, however, were not alarmed. ‘We are confident that she is safe in some place,’ Mr. Morales said.”

Do I feel safe?

Autopsies in Tucson Are Released.” It took me two paragraphs to recognize this tragedy, but when I did, I was shocked I could have forgotten those images played over and over on the TV at the gym: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on that strecher, being raced to the ambulance with her life-saving aide at her side; Jared Lee Laughner’s smile and his orange jump-suit; Christina-Taylor Green, a 9/11 baby and the recently elected student council president at Mesa Verde Elementary, eagerly awaiting a meeting with her councilwoman. “Yellow metal earrings with blue stones are in place,” read Christina-Taylor’s autopsy report.

Do I feel safe?

The real question, I began to think, was how could I feel anything but safe? My sense of security is such that I take it for granted. Sure, sometimes this gets me into trouble (see previous post). And sometimes I get edgy when I’m walking home late at night and I hear someone’s too-eager footsteps following me down the block, or when a cat-call is more of a threat than a compliment, or when I step off the curb only to jump back on it, narrowly avoiding the Mac truck hurtling down the street. But with my wits about me, and good luck protecting me, I rarely feel in danger.

How did I get so damn lucky?

I have a friend who would call me out for whining about what she’d term my “first-world problems.” Whoa is me, I can’t understand the news. Whoa is me, I’m safe and I feel guilty about it. Whoa is me- what if my luck runs out?

Sometimes I worry that my life lacks excitement and glamour, that I’ll wake up one day and wonder how I managed to live out my years without anything ever really happening to me. But then I pick up the paper and remember- there’s nothing like reading the news to make me feel gratitude toward a life that is so safe and boring.

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Love in the Time of Subways

I want to fall in love on the subway.

I have it all worked out:

It’s been a long day and I’m tired. I’m waiting patiently for the L at Union Square. The platform, instead of being packed out like it usually is at midnight on a week night, is empty. I bide my time reading something sophisticated and impressive- Infinite Jest, perhaps, or something by David McCollough. When the train arrives, I get on and stretch out on seat at the rear of the car. The automatic PA voice is requesting that we Stand Clear of the Closing Doors, Please as a man comes bounding down the stairs and slips onto the car. As the doors slide shut behind him, he grins at his victory and plops down onto the bench across from me.

He’s tall, handsome, and wearing a shirt and tie that were probably much less disheveled three hours ago. He rolls his weight onto his left hip so he can pull a worn copy of Slaughterhouse Five out of his right back pocket. He opens it up, but then can’t help noticing me. I mean, my book. He can’t help noticing my book. He’s read it before, he tells me. He loved the part when…

And the rest, we’d say at our rehearsal dinner, was history.

Unfortunately, outside of fantasy land, the only men who strike up conversations with young women on the subway tend to be panhandlers or drunks. And while I’m not ruling out the possibility that I could fall in love with that type of man, they never seem to want to talk about books, so…

I did almost get a lead today. I’m reading Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I picked it up in a bookstore on the recommendation of a friend and cried after reading the first line. It’s genius. I can only say READ IT. Now.

There I was, reading it, when I hear a guy say, “Hey.” I can feel that the voice is directed at me and I look up, thinking maybe I know him.

I don’t. He’s young-ish and almost cute, though a little to grungy looking to convince me that he’s not one of the aforementioned types of subway-chatting men. “I saw that movie,” he tells me.

“Oh cool,” I reply. “I didn’t know it was a movie. The book is great.”

“So is the movie. Really good.” He grins, nods, steps away. I go back to reading. Then-

“If you’re into that, you know what you should check out?”

“Hmm?”

“Atonement. That’s a really good movie.”

“Oh yeah, I read that book too. It’s a really good book.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

I smile. He’s kind of cute, not altogether creepy. He’s not wearing a suit, but ya can’t have everything.

Still, I let him get off at the next stop. I probably shouldn’t be picking up guys on the subway. How would I ever explain that to my extended family at the wedding?

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Super Sad True Blog Post

My current book-in-progress is Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” a cautionary tale about the paranoid, technologically advanced/obsessed dystopian New York we might inherit in ten or twenty years if things keep up the way they’re going. Our hero, Lenny, with a “slightly dangerous body mass index of 23.9” and a propensity to read books (the kind you hold in your hand and manually turn pages), falls in love with the daughter of Korean immigrants, the smart, troubled, 80-pound Eunice Park.

Right now the unlikely couple is headed out to bar called Cervix in Staten Island (no one hangs out in Manhattan anymore) to meet Lenny’s friends. The multiple check points they pass through, the interrogations and the searches they must undergo simply to travel from one borough to another, made me wonder how anyone in the future could get anywhere in a timely fashion.

Future? What am I talking about? I was running late for an audition YESTERDAY when I raced down the steps into the subway. A small crowd had formed at each of the two turnstiles. People were swiping their cards, only to be denied entrance. Please swipe again, the meter read.Please swipe again. I rolled my eyes. Did no one know how to swipe their darn card? After the two ladies in front of me abandoned their efforts, I stepped up and swiped my card.Please swipe again. I did. Please swipe again. Okay, I thought, maybe there really is something wrong here. I went to the other turnstile, waited my turn, and swiped.Just used, the meter informed me. I nearly screamed.

I peered through the bars blocking me from the mostly-empty subway platform. Wasn’t there some sympathetic soul with a working subway card to open the damn gate? Uh, no. Just a tall, thin, hunched man in a grey hoodie. I considered my other options.

I rushed to buy a one-ride card for $2.25. Unfortunately, the machine was not accepting cash, credit/debit/EBT, or coins. I wanted to scream: What ARE you accepting?? Cartoon steam was pouring out of my ears when I heard a voice.

“You just need a $2 swipe?”

I turned to see- the tall grey sweatshirt guy! He had come to my rescue after all! I nodded gratefully and passed him $2 as he took a ticket from a stack of Metrocards, swiped me through to the platform, and proceeded to offer his “help” to the next frustrated commuter.

Geez, I thought. That’s some scam that guy’s running. He must steal people’s Metrocards, manipulate the machines, and then illegally sell rides to desperate travlers. I shook my head at the fraudulent world we live in, at the helpless victims of Metrocard theft, at my own guilt for haven benefitted from this mess. Then I jumped on the train, pulled out “Super Sad True Love Story” and promptly forgot about it.

In Lenny’s New York, the MTA has been privatized. Wanting to impress Eunice on their first date, he pays an extra $10 per ticket for the privilege of riding on the comfy couches in the quiet Business Class car. No panhandlers, musicians or break dancers here! Just luxurious transportation, clean and simple.

As lovely as this sounds, I couldn’t help but agree with Shteyngart’s implicit belief that Business Class is to be RESISTED! The world of the book is clearly dystopian, not utopian, and an L ride without the chaos (and 200 loud, smelly strangers), would hardly feel authentically New York. The madness, the clashing, the unpleasant surprises, this is the New York underground that I love.

Two hours and a dozen errands later, I ran down a different set of subway steps at Union Square. I opened up my wallet to grab for my Metrocard, only to feel the bottom drop out of my stomach: my $104 Metrocard was gone.

It couldn’t be. I searched my pockets, my wallet, my bag, my coat. I checked my book, my wallet again, my shopping bag. Nothing. I knewthat guy was running a scam. I just never imagined that it could happen to me, swindled out of $104.

The train arrived. I got on. Someone offered me a seat. I accepted. A little girl in a tiara screamed until her mother passed her a cell phone to play with. I took a few deep breaths and began to feel strangely proud.

I had been robbed. One step closer to being a real New Yorker!

New York City, sometimes I worry that I love you against my better judgment, but I simply can’t help myself. I guess it’s my own super sad true love story.

 

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On the Other Side of the Crazy Fence

Here’s a bit of subway truth for you:

“Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.”

These lines are spoken by Cash Bundren, a character in the 1930 novel, “As I Lay Dying,” by William Faulkner. Cash probably would have given anything for the ease and comfort of a subway ride. Instead, he’s lying on his mother’s casket (8 days after she died) in the back of a wagon, his recently broken leg patched up with cement (CEMENT!) as he and his family brave hell and high water (literally) to see that their mother is buried in the next town over.

The Bundren’s have their share of conflict: Cash’s brother Darl sets fire to a neighbor’s barn, perhaps hoping to burn his mother’s rotting corpse but instead burning the skin off his half-brother’s back; his only sister is secretly trying to get an abortion; his father has a hunchback, no teeth, and no work ethic; and his baby brother is convinced their mother turned into a fish.

And still, Cash would not have the reader think his family is crazy.

So let us apply the same scrutiny to our fellow subway inhabitants:

This isn't my girl, but it should help spark your imagination.

On the L platform in Williamsburg, a woman sings her own songs, accompanying herself on the harmonica and accordion. In her heeled boots she stands barely 5 feet tall, but to you, her wary and captive audience, she seems huge- it’s probably the layers of brightly colored, purposefully mismatched skirts, or perhaps it’s the green top hat with the enormous purple feather. Her harmonica moans a waltz in a minor key and she stops for no one, not even the train as it roars into the station and drowns out her song. On balance? Crazy.

Also not my guy but... Whoa.

Between Bedford and Lorimer, the tallest man in Brooklyn steps into your car. He’s thin as a bean pole with stooped shoulders and a pointy beard. He’s got a cigarette dangling from his lips, bulky headphones blasting something twangy, and a beat up copy of Cat’s Cradle in his back pocket. He settles himself against the doors and closes his eyes as the subway rolls along. On balance? Not too crazy.

But who is that girl? She must have missed the memo on the weather- even though it’s 15 degrees outside, her (coughhairycough) legs are bare. She’s wearing a gigantic men’s corduroy jacket over a brown wool dress, white socks, and green slip-on sneakers at least 3 sizes too large for her feet. Her hair is dirty and disheveled and when she stands next to you in the crowded car, her BO confirms your suspicion that she needs a shower. She doesn’t seem to be drunk or high, but she’s gritting her teeth and she seems on the verge of either laughing or crying hysterically. On balance, you’d say she’s crazy.

But let me tell you something:

That girl is me.

Apparently I'm so ashamed I can't even open my eyes for ths picture...

It’s possible that this news will come as no surprise to you. Those of you who know me well (hi, Mom!!) know I can be a bit casual about my appearance at times. But NEVER did I think I’d be the object of such blatant finger-pointing amusement for children. At first I thought the parents were coming to my rescue, scolding their youngsters for ridiculing me, (how nice!), until I realized they were, in fact, just teaching their children the ways of scornful indifference. And there I stood for 6 stops, knowing full well I’d won the title of “Craziest/Smelliest Person On The Subway At This Time.”

I wanted to throw my hands up and say, “I GOT LOCKED OUT OF MY APARTMENT, OKAY?? I had just gotten home from the GYM when I went downstairs to put my laundry in, but I locked myself out, so I had to borrow a (cute male) neighbor’s shoes and socks and coat and Metrocard so I could meet my roommate and get her keys! Okay?? So just leave me ALONE!!”

But what good could that possibly do? Cash says, “It aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.” Even my roommate, when I finally found her, looked at me like I was crazy, having me pose for a sad picture on the G platform at Lorimer. I got her keys and got back on the L, thinking I should probably learn some lesson about not judging others or treating people the way you want to be treated.

A minute later, the train passed the heavily skirted, cowboy boot-wearing, harmonica blowing woman in the Beford station, and before I had time to stop myself, I thought: Crazy.

-Sydda

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Judy and Liberty

Twice a week, more or less, I take the L to the Q to Ditmas Park where I babysit a fabulous 18-month old boy. The commute takes between and hour and 90 minutes, so I can get a lot of reading done when I’m in the mood.

I got on the train with only 30 pages left in the Judy Garland biography, “Get Happy,” by Gerald Clarke (see previous post). This book did not make me happy. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Everyone who knows anything knew that Judy Garland was not a happy lady; I guess I just missed the memo. While the first half of the book can be upsetting- the glamour and success of her early years are less fun to read about when juxtaposed with her cruel surroundings and early signs of drug addiction- the second half is downright depressing. Yes, she had a couple major successes in the 50s and 60s, but it was hard to get excited for her when I knew she was spiraling out of control and coming ever closer to her death by accidental overdose on June 22nd, 1969.

As I neared the final page of Judy’s story, the Q train did what it always did: it burst out from underground and chugged along the Manhattan bridge, high over the East River. Today was bright and clear (and deceptively cold) and I could see far past the Brooklyn Bridge out to Liberty Island. There, standing tall, was Lady Liberty herself.

Seeing the Statue of Liberty is one of the only New York City thrills that still gets me every time. I never lose that mixed up feeling of excitement and novelty and pride and hope. She’s a rarity- larger than life and far more beautiful than any photo- and I can’t see her without the fleeting certainty that America really is a great country, that the world really is a beautiful place.

I breathed in Lady Liberty for a moment, and then returned to Judy. Without really realizing it, I’d come to the end of the story. As the Q roared along the tracks, Clarke describes Judy’s final overdose and the 22,000 fans who filed past to see her open casket. As I shut the book, the train slid back underground once more.

Judy and Liberty- they’re not such different ladies, really. Sure, the Statue is a symbol of stability- she’s always there when you need to see her- while Judy’s unreliability ruined television and movie contracts, prevented her from performing on Broadway, and caused chaos and alienated her die-hard fans at several concerts. And the two ladies certainly faired differently. Judy’s life lasted only 47 years, while the Statue of Liberty is coming up on her 125th birthday this October.

But their similarities are of greater lasting consequence than their differences. Both are iconic American females, larger than life figures looked up to by millions across the country and the world. Both are symbols of hope, conjuring images of troubles melting like lemon drops for the huddled masses yearning to be free. And though you could argue that there’s to be no such thing as streets paved with gold or a land over the rainbow, Liberty and Judy are reminders to dream anyway, and to dream hard, because dreams are beautiful and they’re all we’ve really got at the end of the day.

-Sydda

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