My impression of and experience on the subway can best be expressed in this excerpt of an essay I wrote for my college writing class. Enjoy.
There are probably a thousand places to experience the buzzing atmosphere of midnight in New York City. You can wander around the stores in Times Square, trek across the Brooklyn Bridge, or chug a few shots at some bar in the East Village.
Or, if you’re as weird as I am, you can sit alone on a deserted subway train heading toward Union Square. Like I am doing right now.
Leaning against the metal railing, I casually scan the train. A soda can rolling across the shaking floor is the only sign of recent human activity. The only sound is the low growl of the train grinding along the worn-out tracks. Far from being intimidated or agitated, I feel calm and safe. In a city rife with people and noise, the absence of human activity is a refreshing change of pace.
As I look at the empty bench across from me, I think back to a very different scenario I had witnessed six hours earlier. A leathery, sweaty scent engulfed me as I squeezed into a sea of bodies inside the 6-train headed to the Bronx. Pressed up against body parts from every angle, I realized that each train was like a melting pot containing an assortment of barely distinguishable individuals – some carried messenger bags while others carried babies, some looked pissed off while others looked exuberant. The presence of so many living, breathing human beings snuffed any sense of mystery; their status was sketched out by their attire, their daily agenda implied by their demeanor. The inundation of images before my eyes were like facts shoved down my throat, one after another: there’s much to observe, but nothing to imagine.
Six hours later, the sea of bodies vanished, taking with it the smoky scent of leather and sweat. Beyond the blurry blackness outside the train’s windows, children are probably dreaming about space aliens, and muggers are probably roaming Central Park in pursuit of unfortunate passersby. Are my friends still awake finishing up assignments? Are they curious or worried about my absence at this late an hour? A dozen scenarios flash across my mind, some hilarious and some highly improbable, all plastered together like the graffiti on the subway walls. The absence of human presence breaks down the walls that trap my imagination, allowing my mind to breath and paint a vivid picture of midnight in New York City.
Back on the subway, the door opens and a drunken teenager stumbles in, ending my five minutes of solitude and silence. As he collapses onto the bench across from me, my eyes linger on his torn hoodie and unkempt beard and dazed irises. My nose crinkles under the scent of vodka. My mind absorbs all these details and begins to sketch out the elements that formed his life – years of domestic abuse that resulted in his disillusionment, high school buddies who introduced him to the irresistible world of drugs. Perhaps my imaginings are completely off. Perhaps he has the most devoted and loving parents in the world, and perhaps he has never even approached any illegal substance until now. I may never know his actual backstory, but picturing it makes his physical appearance more engrossing and more poignant.