Do We Really Notice The People We See On The Subway?

David Goehring
David Goehring

The subway is a collision of worlds. There are snippets of meaning, little shards of magic from the aftermath of millions of lives moving constantly, crisscrossing in and out of each other’s existence. If you soak up the power in a shared but disconnected humanity, all the possibility for truth and inspiration come avalanching down in a heap of untold stories, throbbing with potential, pulsing with the possibility that somehow they will unfold into something worth listening to.

A man steps on to the train. He’s old but not that old. Mostly tired, maybe not defeated but on the verge of it — who knows, that might be worse. He walks with an adamant limp. He explains: he’s a wounded veteran. He was injured in an accident involving explosives, and has a titanium rod in his thigh now. He suffers from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. He holds a wad of $20s in his hand. He says he’s $17 dollars short for his electricity bill. The automated voice fills the train – “This is, Houston Street”. The man is mid-sentence when the doors open, and we all leave. For somewhere between guilt, compassion, and disdain, all sentiments are left behind. The current of momentum sweeps us away; relieved to stop looking life in the eye.

A mother, with her son and daughter, sit across from me on the train. The girl is young and she chatters on animatedly about evolution. The boy — a few years older but still only a child — seems stressed, distracted. I disengage. I reengage. The boy has his head down, hand covering his face which is screwed into the contortion of sadness; the convulsion we can’t resist when emotion bubbles up through the edges of a taut layer of composure. The girl remains unscathed by sadness; she is ensconced in a bubble of innocence, protected from understanding by her youth. Before I can wonder their story, a tear slips down the mother’s cheek, sneaking past the security of her fortitude, her determined calm. She wipes it away before dabbing tissues at her son’s eyes; I hear something like the word “loss” float through the air. 

A woman and her daughter nestle into spare spaces. She speaks in Hebrew and I feel the urge to smile at her, like we share something. I catch bits and pieces of their exchange and lament the loss of my fluency. I tune into a conversation on the other side of me — a language I don’t recognize. So many different sounds, unfolding into codes, holding meaning, making connections, sharing secrets. I let the power of language settle over me like sunlight engulfing shadows.

Shuttle from Grand Central to Times Square. A young man serenades the train; he sings Frank Sinatra’s “Love” and he’s not very good. But he has a positive energy. It makes me wonder if I pause enough to appreciate all the bravery in the world.

As the man sings, I share a glance with a stranger on a train and exchange a brief smile. It’s like some crystallization of humanity. It’s a fleeting familiarity, a momentary confidant – with someone you know nothing of and mean nothing to. It sheds light on the gentle power of circumstance to nudge people together and elicit acknowledgement, even if only for a moment. Sometimes we can’t resist our proximity to another human.

The train — buzzing, crowded, electric with freshness and impatience and anticipation in the morning — descends into an eerie and stale state at night. Just scattered souls strewn about, some eyes etched with fatigue, others resigned to long journeys home, statuesque, molding into the seat of the train. It’s like tired stories in need of rest; pages plagued with writer’s block that can’t shake the sleepy fog that clouds their head.

Eye contact isn’t eye contact anymore; it’s just beams of sight sweeping past each other; uninspired by the occasional eclipse. We gather together in the grimy belly of the city’s steel snake, slithering us away from long days, home to short nights, together but not unified, close but so distant. Doors open, souls escape, paths disentangle themselves, and the vines of each person’s story unravel in whatever direction their roots persuade. All ultimately succumbing to the comfort of seclusion until we may meet again. TC mark

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