Subways are the arteries of the city: they move its life-blood from place to place and maintain (near) perpetual motion. With a rumble and a groan and the clatter of metal break-pad clicks these mobile leviathans roam the underground, carrying people to place like elephant-sized blood cells. Sometimes they stop, and a small portion of the city stops with them. But mostly they go, some fast, some slow; they circulate far underground and crisscross each other in a subterranean game of double-dutch. Look at the floor beneath you and the tiled-wall behind you and know that for over one hundred years people have been standing and leaning upon these same little squares. Think about how, in almost the exact spot you’re standing, someone once stood wearing clothes entirely different than yours, waiting for the subway to go to work, to go shopping, to go see family. Consider that, depending on where upon the platform you now stand, an entire skin color was exiled from standing the spot you now occupy.
Step up to the dotted-yellow strip spanning the length of the platform, urging you to stand back and watch the gap, and lean your head over the side. What seems like far in the distance two beams of light approach. You begin to hear the screeching rumble of steel on steel, of wheel on rail. A horn sounds, always too loudly, and reverberates in the underground, cavernous, grimy artery. You can begin to make out the lit sign at the top of the first car: “Local-Fern Rock.” The giant metal worm comes to a stop and its windowed-flaps open. You step in. “Stand clear of the closing doors please,” the recorded voice in the ceiling politely commands.
Look around and take note of what you see. The inside of the giant metal worm is tattooed with advertisements spanning the length of each car from front to back. More than a few offer defense against unfair workplace practices and vow to get you the money you deserve. Others encourage you to keep your block, your neighborhood, your city clean. Some have smiling faces covered with moustaches, uni-brows, and devil horns, while others proclaim, “Dude, it’s rude! Stop blocking the center aisle.”
Take a seat in between an old woman dressed in her Sunday best, a bright blue dress with an ornate hat to match, and a young boy on his way to play basketball. You are all blood cells now. Two rows in front of you two middle-aged men recount their glory days at XY High, and three rows in front of them a scraggly old man with tattered clothes and patchy hair lifts a brown bag to his lips and nearly falls over in the process of leaning back to imbibe. Across from him a young mom watches him with disdain as her boy plays a bright, high-pitched game on her (or his) new iPhone. Dotting the subway car are young ladies, and a couple young men, dressed in all-black, hung over from their late night with coworkers at the bar down the street and ready to do it all again, just like Sisyphus, at their various places of food-oriented employment. No one is looking directly at anyone else, but everyone is aware of what’s going on around them; not quite on high alert but not zoned-out either. Every once in a while you notice a fellow people-watcher as he or she watches you watching other people. Sometimes you stare back, other times you smile and avert your gaze.