Subway Lessons: The Melting Pot on the NYC Subway

Guest Writer: Jeanne Wilkinson; New York, United States


I am not special:

We’re all of us looking for a seat, but none of us look like we’re looking for a seat. It’s a sleight of eye kind of thing, a slight twitch in the angle of the head right and left especially when the doors open and people pour out and pour on and slide like slippery eels into recently vacated spaces claiming them for the duration, closing their eyes like everyone else with a seat, sleeping or not, smug yet also guilty that they are seated and the only-slightly-elderly woman hanging and swaying and stumbling as the train lurches is not, but they are dog-tired after a long day and desperately in need of a snooze so have a right to be seated. Right?

 I am special:

Someone offers me a seat. Someone impossibly young and beautiful who can stay up all night and drink and dance and discuss the meaning of life (which becomes more fraught as each day goes by) and often does, and I want to not take that proffered seat because I, too, am strong and stay up all night dancing and discussing things of import over a bottle of wine but that’s not quite true anymore, at least the dancing and all night parts, unless it’s because I wake up at two and binge-watch for an hour or three, so I do take the seat because I am hanging and swaying and stumbling as the train lurches and don’t I deserve a snooze as much as anyone? Well, don’t I?

 I am alone:

The people across the aisle are speaking in a language clipped and choppy; the people next to them are speaking in a language chirpy and birdlike; the people with the stroller are speaking to their bundled child in syllables like water flowing over ancient stones collecting in pools of rippling silence. I do not speak this way. I in fact almost never speak on the subway because I rarely have a companion which is fine by the way because my subway routine is to use eyes rather than language, the latter being (to me) less like a surgeon’s tool than a blunt instrument that flails and misses, never quite fitting the bit to the screw.

I am not alone:

I am pressed up against smooth tattooed shoulders and rock-like thighs; I am pressed up against soft but firm hips; I am pressed up against a furry hood tickling my right cheek that I don’t believe is real fur so I don’t have to think about the poor animal. My feet are tangled in tandem with myriad bulky footwear rising like a mountain range on the floor, but sometimes I don’t need to reach across noses to desperately clutch the spare two inches of vertical bar because limbs and hips and backs and fronts are my support as we sway together in a slow dance like in middle school where people were just too close for words.

 I am not hopeful:

There is an empty space in the otherwise crowded subway car, an area of delicious empty seats. Yet I avoid it like the plague because of the smell barrier put up by a person sadly without access to basic human services whose shopping cart full of bulging black plastic bags blocks our view to her prone figure lying under a dark cloth while she takes forty winks in a relatively safe way where hopefully no one will rob or harass her poor person.

 I am hopeful:

Guitars, organs, violins, saxophones, drums of skins and metal and plastic: all of these reverberate through stone and tile caverns transporting us back into ancient caves where drums and flutes beat to our blood pulse and sent us flying through heat and cold into realms where we were dreamers dreaming ways of hearing, seeing, doing more, and more and more, and while our mores have become maybe too much of a good thing, here we are streaming in and out of subway cars, jostling, touching, giving way, working out the small things that make it possible to live in a world of all stripes and colors and persuasions, all of this accompanied by the soulful jazz guitarist at Bleeker Street or the ethereal string quartet at 42nd  & Times Square or the line-dancing retro be-boppers at Delancey-Essex. Yeah.

About Jeanne Wilkinson:

Jeanne Wilkinson is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn, NY. Her essays have been featured on WNYC’s 'Leonard Lopate Show' and NPR's 'Living on Earth.' A short fictional piece appeared in 'Columbia Journal' and 'Digging Through the Fat' online, and 'Cooking with Peyote,' an adapted chapter from her memoir, was published by 'Raven's Perch.' Another chapter, 'A Tale of Two Concerts' won a top award recently in 'New Millennium Writings' and will be published in their anthology. Another short memoir was published in Metafore Magazine's 2019 Winter Edition. Her short experimental films have been screened at BAM and at the Greenpoint and NYC Indie Film Festivals, and a video installation was shown at the 13th St. Repertory Theater.