A portrait of travel in New York City

I’m standing in the subway. East, West, South and North, I never get the street exit right. An old man, white mop of hair who smiles with lower teeth that thrust out at all angles grins at me and says that New Yorkers just know where they are

‘We know,’ he says. ‘It’s in our blood. I grew up in the Bronx. We can be anywhere and we just know where we are.’

I’m standing in a quiet subway station and there is a black woman singing opera. Her voice fills the station like a leak spreading through the air. She is too small to carry the note but she is trying. She is really trying.
‘Nearly half of New York City is living near poverty, and in the last two decades the income disparity in the city has returned to what it was just before the Great Depression.’
I am standing in a subway station and there is a rock group playing. They have white masks on and guitars and a crowd has gathered because they are that good. The crowd blocks my way to the N train downtown and I am hurrying because I am late because I got lost again and so I can’t stop to listen or to watch and I push past toward the N train and now I know how it feels to be everyone else.
‘An eleven-worded message arrived at East 60th Street: “Dear Augusta: Money lost. Wedding off. Very sorry. Good bye. William.”‘
There’s a man in a wheelchair. He is lip-synching an old sixties song in the huge Times Square Station that people rush through in all directions. The sense of urgency is contagious and I too, rush along, a part of the current pulsing under the city. There is a whole city under this city, they say. The subways, the sewers and, Abeer tells me, the entire archives for the library under Bryant Park three floors under. I imagine all that knowledge packed deep under the concrete.

It is the coldest night in the world. Thank God for the hiking boots. Thank God for the jacket.

Thank God.

I am on a train to Brooklyn. We pass over the bridge and I can see the river and Manhattan and the statue of liberty on my right. I’m on the wrong train. Or I pass the right stop. I’m too far in. I’m heading toward Coney Island and I get off in a place I don’t recognise on my map. A Spanish couple talk but their accents make it sound like they are arguing to me. The buildings are too low here. It’s cold and I zip up my jacket. Thank God for the jacket. I search my map for Court road.
I am waiting for the ferry to take us back. There is a Bangladeshi family opposite me talking about money. The women wear nose rings. I want them to talk to me and tell me their problems. I want to hear how much they pay for vegetables and where their kids go to school. Next to me, there is a young white man with beautiful hands, sketching a face. I wonder if he knows how beautiful his drawing is and that is why he is doing it so openly or because this is what normal people do here when they wait. There is a lot of waiting in this city. There is a young girl, beautiful, straight-hipped with blue eyes, leaning against a pole watching him as he draws. In the corner away from the crowd a young woman is practising gymnastic moves with a hoop, leaping in the air with the circle raised in her hands. An old woman on the right wrapped in jerseys is sleeping on the chairs. Her face is covered. She is scratching her head constantly and muttering to herself. She is cold. When we leave she sits up with her face still covered and shouts, ‘Thank you’ to everyone.

Everyone here is a beautiful in some way.

‘The capitalist control – this vulnerability, instability and depression – hit some kind of crescendo around 2007, when built houses didn’t sell and planned houses stopped getting built; when 158-year-old financial institutions imploded, and money started disappearing in $18 billion clumps.’

It is rush hour. There is a big black man on the crowded L train who stands up with his young daughter and announces that he is unemployed and needs money for a shelter for his family that night. He walks through the crowd with a cap in his hand. People shuffle, look away but it’s so crowded there’s no where else to look except in the eyes of another. He announces it again and pushes through the crowd. Some people hand over a few notes and coins. Even with the young girl tagging along he is not as lucky as the woman on the quiet subway I take later; where an old white woman stands up and announces that she too has lost her job and was hospitalised and needs money for a hot meal. On this subway more hands reach inside purses and bags. I am trying to think if it’s because she’s white or because she’s older, or because it’s quieter or because of the timing or because she’s a woman. I don’t know. This is a hard place to read.
‘Swimming in the East River, Whitestone found a message in a bottle from the State Hospital on Ward’s Island. It read: “Some of us are sane.”‘
I am tired. I am so exhausted I cannot move another step. I have my hat and my boots and my down jacket but suddenly the cold had become too much, and my legs are weak and the backpack is too heavy and the camera is hitting my legs and my handbag is in the way and I cannot find the station to get to and my body is saying, this is too much, this too much, we must rest, but my mind is saying, we can do this. We can do this.

I’m at the wrong stop. I come out in the middle of China Town and I don’t know how I’ve got here. Later, someone tells me I should have gotten off at the next stop in Soho. I buy a snow globe.

On the bus from New Jersey back to the city I overhear a boy and a Muslim girl talk. They are still in school. He is asking her what her parents would do if she had to bring up a child on her own. She says her mother would keep her, that her child was like her mother’s own child. Her mother wouldn’t like it but she would stand by her, she says. He likes her. He thinks she is cool. His laugh is so American, so something out of a film that I shudder for a moment. I am sitting with American kids. I am sitting on a bus with American kids.
‘To walk the streets from one to the other, as I often do, is to bear witness to a landscape of asymmetry. The city that comes into view is one of uneven terrain, vistas of opportunity alongside pockets of deep poverty too often lost in the periphery.’
I’m at a train station. I’m waiting for the Empire Service to Albany to arrive. I am so nervous about catching this train alone that I am squashing my ticket in my hand. Outside it is snowing. An old man comes to rest his packet on the balustrade next to me. He starts talking and I can understand little of what he’s saying except that I love that he is talking to me, I love that he thinks he just has the right to tell me about his family, and the fact that he hates cellphones and that his name is Frank but his best friend, James calls him Frankie since he was a kid and that’s what everyone calls him now. He’s 89 he says, but you have to keep moving, you have to keep going, you can’t stop, and the people here at the station, they understand that he’s here often so they help him with his bags, they wrap it up real small for him and make it into a parcel so it’s easier on the train, but you know the damn shop sells chips for 3 dollars, it’s too expensive, everything is so expensive in that store, I mean, what are you’re supposed to eat? It wasn’t always that way, it was different before, even the damn cellphones are so expensive but who needs one? My gate opens, 6E and I have to go. He’s getting to the punchline of his joke but I have to go and I place a hand on his shoulder and tell him, ‘Thank you, thank you so much, but I have to go, ‘ and he talks faster to get to the punchline and I laugh but I don’t understand what he’s saying because I have a train and I’m too nervous to hear and he smiles as I go away and shouts through the crowd that I have a beautiful smile, that I have such a beautiful smile and that he hopes I keep smiling.
And I am smiling as I make my way through the crowd to find 6E, my heart beating in my chest like a drum.

(Quotes taken from Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York, Teju Cole’s Small Fates series and DW Gibson’s Not Working)
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