Entering the 96 Street station, I take the Lexington Avenue local downtown. The number 6 subway accelerates and rattles, leaving behind the glowing, cluttered platform upon which I had just stood along with 54 others. The chestnut, ochre and sienna-coloured plastic seats all around me are scratched; some burned around the edges by pocket lighters. The Plexiglas windows are tagged with marker graffiti. The train enters the 86 Street station. An electronic C# and C sound before the silver doors hiss open with automatic jolts. I know that the Metropolitan Museum looms above ground to my west, somewhere in the sky above the grimy tiles, cables and earth. But I cannot see the steps to the museum or the visitors scattered about their Neo-Classical magnificence, eating sandwiches and sipping from aluminium cans, while the over-sized draperies announcing the current exhibition flutter in the wind behind them. I have never been inside the museum in the middle of the night, to examine the unfinished portrait of George Washington by the light of the security system. I have never ran a curious finger freely across the canvas of Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher or watched Perseus sling the severed head of Medusa out through the entrance hall, under the wheels of the 5th Avenue traffic. I have never been there when the giant copper crabs positioned about the base of Cleopatra’s Needle crawl up the obelisk’s shaft and wave their enormous pinchers at the stars above Central Park’s Great Lawn.
The subway train’s conductor speaks garbled words into the intercom. No one on the train understands what he says. As I pass underneath Lennox Hill Hospital, I could not understand the doctors, speaking in quiet voices, dozens of metres above my scratched plastic seat. From the shaking metal vacuum of the number 6 local, I could not feel the patients in the emergency room, nor could I smell the ethylene and anxiety gliding across the shiny, buffed and scuffed floors.
The train enters 68th Street station. Hunter College students press into the cramped interior of the car. There are no longer any seats available. Anonymous persons stand centimetres away from me, their arms dangling from the swinging overhead grips. They do not look me in the eye. I do not look them in the eye. They cannot hear the doctors.
Lips move, the florescent lights attached to the top of the cabin illuminate a swarm of teeth. Fragments of conversations in Spanish, English, Filipino and Hebrew merge like a circulated fog of syllables that we all breath in and out again. At the 51st Street station, I have no way of seeing The Citicorp Plaza, and its slanting, triangular apex. I have never once stood atop that building like a skydiver, watching a rose-coloured steam leak away into the autumn atmosphere of the Upper East Side. I have never had the opportunity of actually hearing this building whisper to the Art Deco gargoyles of the Chrysler Building, speaking of the winds and the storms and looking below, comparing the steady stream of 3rd Avenue to a vast, chromium Nile.
In Mid-Town, the bodies packed into the subway car are humid. There is a claustrophobic closeness between the jackets, briefcases and fingernails. A shopping sack presses against my knee. A cardboard tube, with the word MOMA printed in red letters, sticks upward from the sack, nearly grazing my cheek as the train lurches forward into Grand Central Station. People with names, social security numbers and addresses wearing suit jackets, baseball caps and high-heeled shoes, race towards the Times Square shuttle. In all their haste and commotion, the lock of Walt Whitman’s hair encased in the Public Library remains still. The concrete lions on the other side of 42nd Street do not move. Even if I were to turn my head around and peer through the iron beams lining this mechanised cave, I would not be able to see the United Nations Building standing against the East River like a massive, white monolith. Through all the kilograms of soil and asphalt I could not smell the air-conditioned corridors, nor could I touch the cold, Post-Modern sculptures decorating the various lobbies.
I am swishing through the underground, riding a humming current of light and speed, with no way of being able to answer the telephone ringing at that very moment on the 84th floor of the tall, black glass tower looming unseen like an eagle’s scream tearing across the troposphere.
At 33rd Street there is more room in the subway car. Axel grease and urine permeate the air. A homeless man shuffles into the car and asks for everyone’s attention. He holds a $ 1.00 newspaper up into the air and claims that if he could only sell one million copies of Street News, he could retire in happiness. As he comes around with his stack of newspapers and a worn-out coffee cup jingling with coins, I examine his bedraggled attire. His shoes are half Air Jordans, half plastic bags. There are bits of crud in his beard and one of his incisors is broken off, exposing a discoloured portion of the dentine. Quietly, I wonder if he is aware of the mini-palaces of Park Avenue South whizzing by above us? What does he, a man who sleeps each night in a different shelter, surviving on cheeseburgers and cups of coffee, think of the frosted glass and polished brass Valhalla’s racing by, hundreds of yards in the sky? I consider what distance separates this ragged man from the corporate lawyer sitting down to his gourmet take-out, tucked snugly away amid the co-op canyons above? What lies between the persons I see, pipes, girders, wires, digits and codes?
Union Square station is busier than 23rd Street. Being so close to downtown, I can imagine the bookshops and the deli’s rolling along like subterranean clouds in my mind. The pedestrians come and go, ascend and descend. Everything pushes and pulls as an enormous machine with ten million stories floating, sitting, walking, talking and eating.
Passing Astor Place, Bleecker and Spring Streets…silent Chinese come and go between Canal Street and City Hall. The subway rolls on, hissing, becoming less populated, chiming and jerking along its vascular way towards the Brooklyn Bridge.
I was not there when the Dutch traded with the Indians. I did not arrive on Ellis Island in 1901. I did not shoot John Lennon. I did not jump from the burning windows of the World Trade Centre…
“This is the Lexington Avenue local, transfer for the four and five, last stops in Manhattan, Wall Street and Bowling Green.”