On Taking the NYC Subway
by Ray Huang
1. Listen up everyone! I'm gonna give you the best magic you've ever seen!” Pause. Silence.
Listen up everyone! I"m gonna give you the best magic you've ever seen!” The screeching of
brakes as the train pulls in!The show is canceled! Bye now.”
We were on the C-line. He was black and wore black. His hoodie was not a dark, formidable
shade; rather, it was a blend of white and navy, faded and dusted. After walking up and down
the car, he stands erect beside me, our sleeves brushing to the beat of the subway. His voice
reverberates throughout the car. He must have been a theatre kid, and this is his big break.
Even when no one responds, his voice does not falter. When we arrive at the next stop, he
seems genuinely surprised and disappointed by the abrupt ending, as if he wanted nothing
more than to perform. He meanders out into the Canal St. station with a new bounce in his
step, having asked for nothing in return for his generosity. As the train doors slide shut, I
watch him spin twice, and after what appears to be some serious contemplation, he heads
towards the Southside exit.
Why do I remember the magician so vividly? At the time, I was probably on my way to or
from my summer internship -- a small-fish job -- that was supposed to set me up for a role at
a corporation that paid well and bestowed social status. But despite being an excellent
conformist, I knew that I wanted what he had. I wanted to step into a subway car and feel my
voice reverberate through the car, trampling over the screeches of the subway tracks. To
have all the faces turned away from me and go on preaching my sermon nonetheless. For
once, just once, I wanted to do something of my own volition. That"s why I remember it all.
This memory is really about courage.
i envy those
who live in two places:
new york, say, and london;
wales and spain;
l.a. and paris;
hawaii and switzerland.t
here is always the anticipation
of the change, the chance that what is wrong
is the result of where you are.
i have always loved both the freshness of
arriving and the relief of leaving. with
two homes every move would be a homecoming.
i am not even considering the weather, hot
or cold, dry or wet: i am talking about hope.
— Gerald Locklin
This artwork is displayed on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art. Accompanying the piece is a recorded commentary from Tunji Adeniji, the Chief Facilities and SafetyOfficer at the museum: “You see a person sitting down alone and just gazing, and the mood can be interpreted in so many ways—what is the state of my health? How am I going to pay my rent? How am I going to support my family?”
2. Once you cook curry one too many times, that is, if you use the right spices, the smell is
irremovable. It's not in the air; it's in the walls. The subway is no different. Everywhere you
turn is a slice of history. When I descend in New York's underground tunnels, I remember the
magician, the musicians, the heated squabbles. I would pass a piece of subway art or poetry,
and I would remember who I was.
My first in-person interaction with exploitation happened on the subway when I was a child.
Mumbling, I fought, and holding his cap in front of him, for you for you, a hunched man with
a tattered rucksack meandered through the car, you you, I fought, you. He surrendered after a
lap, stuffing his empty cap back on his head. Originally a dark black, his cap had faded just as
the magician"s hoodie had. Yet the red and gold lettering still shone: Purple Heart / Vietnam
Some histories are less evident. Once an engineering marvel and a driver of prosperity, the
current state of the subway is the result of decades of identity politics, lackluster investment,
and bad decisions. The budget for maintenance has not changed in nearly three decades while
daily ridership has doubled. It has the worst on-time performance of any major rapid transit
system in the world. Billions have been spent on aesthetic station makeovers which have no
impact on service or reliability. Politicians have squeezed funds from the MTA to fund their
own interests, forcing the MTA to borrow. Nearly seventeen percent of the budget goes
towards paying debt. The subway is the bloodline of the city, and the plaque won't stop
There's a reason why politicians and careerists like Andrew Cuomo stay out of the subway. It's
not out of inconvenience or even disgust; it's out of shame. Imagine sharing a pole with the
welfare recipients that your employees just shamed on television while your company just
received a multi-billion dollar bailout. Imagine being a banker and sitting next to the very
people you sold those shitty securities to in #08. Imagine seeing a woman old enough to be your
mother jump the turnstile because you raised the fare to divert MTA funds to your corporate
3. You see, you can't lie to yourself about the state of the world: that is getting closer to the magic
of the subway. You can ignore it, you can rationalize it, but when you board the subway,
everything is splayed out in front of you: adorable teenagers who look a little too young to
date, ads pointing you to a psychic who will save your life, mothers waving at exiting
commuters to open the handicap accessibility door, Wall St. employees fresh out of undergrad
with massive eyebags, a woman reading Ayn Rand, the subway singer with an overwhelming
smile and a massive voice who claims her mission is to spread love. You'll see disabled
panhandlers and wonder how long they've been fighting, and you'll see someone that vaguely
resembles someone you know but is only a celebrity. You will see it all because the subway is
literature in motion: some read the Dostoevsky to learn about inequality and suffering, and
others read Morrison and are delighted with the complexities of being human. Or you could
take the subway and find out for yourself.
We enter the subway with wide eyes, the pen inside us racing to make sense of every crumb
of injustice and absurdity. And yet so many of us exit three decades later with empty hands;
imagine taking the subway on a Thursday evening and you've just worked a ten-hour shift but
at least you've got a gallon of milk in your bag (thanks to your plasma donation last week) and
you're worried that your kids are growing up without you and you think of how you need to
go see your mother who lives much too far away and is getting far too old. Repeat that a couple
thousand times and tell me what's left.
It is a difficult point to admit. I will wake up one day and touch the grays in my head, and upon
boarding the Q-line I will notice for the first time that all the strangers I've seen for years—the
security guard who always seemed to be reading a new book, the schoolteacher who frequently
carried a basketball in his lap, the stuffy lawyer who started as a shiny-eyed twenty-something
and recently stopped taking their kid to Bring Your Child to Work Day— look older than they
once had. But I can hope that on that day, on the way home, I will pass by a performance of a
song that my father loved or a teenager scribbling furiously in her notebook, and they will
remind me of what it was like when there were more possibilities than I could count.
I first read the Locklin poem when I was fourteen, and I still believed that I could be more than
I was. Four years later, I scribbled down the poem after rediscovering it on the subway. I
initially assumed it was a whimsical act, the byproduct of an interest in literature, but the
increasingly crumpled page says otherwise. I would unfold the poem after a phone call from
an old friend, after saying goodbye, after a beloved song; I even copied the poem into a new
notebook when I first left home. So I must have been trying to keep in touch with myself.