It is still dark when I leave my house, surrounded by a frozen, slumbering world. It’s February. I’ve been commuting only since August. I’m not yet anesthetized to this journey, not completely.
For nearly two hours I ride in a silent, somnolent car, watching the world wake up around me. I’m not a morning person, so I usually sit in the Quiet Car beside blurry-eyed commuters napping or staring out the windows. The lunar landscape of the frozen Hudson is mesmerizing, irregular and beautiful.
When we arrive at Grand Central Station, I join the flood of people streaming out of the train, onto the platform, and up the station ramp. There is an unspoken order to the chaos. The train empties row by row as if someone’s stern grandmother is directing traffic.
Approximately 456,000 people commute into New York City daily via three of the busiest commuter rail lines in the country. Metro North transports an estimated 131,000 people from upstate New York and Connecticut, approximately 150,000 travel in on Long Island Rail Road, while another 175,000 commute via New Jersey Transit each day (American Public Transportation Association).
I am one of countless many.
This becomes even more apparent as I join the organized chaos in the main concourse and in the subway passages. An estimated 3.7 million people ride the New York City subway system every day. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to be one of them, to be lost in a crowd that size. The closest I’ve come to describing the experience to my suburban friends and family is to compare it to the malls at Christmastime, only sped up, like one of those nature documentaries with the time-elapsed camera.
I grew up 60 miles from Manhattan and have taken the train countless times. I’ve ridden the subway before, but it’s a very different experience during rush hour.
My senses are overloaded, bombarded by overwhelming stimuli as I rush through the station to “Get your Metro.” Jehovah Witness poster boards read “What does the Bible really teach?” The AM New Yorker is shoved into my hands. Glass-blowers and musicians set up for the day. I hurry past, slowed only by turnstiles as I swipe my Metro card to the sound of endless beeps. “Reveille,” “Amazing Grace,” and “I Dreamed a Dream” are serenaded in stereo to the backdrop of countless footsteps. A melodic tone, “Be safe. Never go onto the tracks for any reason. If you drop something, please notify the police, an MTA employee, or use the customer assistance line found….” “¡Buenos días! доброе утро. Excusez-moi. 對不起.” The cool, damp air hits my face as I rush across the platform, past the iconic tile walls. “Stand clear of the closing doors on track 1. The next train will arrive on track 3.” The crowd presses into me, forcing me further into the subway car where I smell the sultry, arid scent of humanity—slightly salty and putrid.
At Times Square I pour into the station, one of many moving against the current of commuters. Crowds intersect in the underground passages like schools of fish converging into one another. I push past the surging crowd, like a salmon swimming upstream, and slip into the packed 1 train, standing clear of the closing doors behind me.
I arrive at my stop and walk out into the sunlight and the bitter cold at Columbus Circle. The metal globe reminds me of the Daily Planet and I have to smile. This is the real Metropolis.
In the afternoon I repeat the process, in reverse. It is the same, but different. The atmosphere is different. In the morning, everything is somewhat subdued. Now, high school kids shout and push each other, lovers meet at the end of a long day with a quick kiss, a hand on the small of a back, hands clasped as they hurry home. Musicians and dancers perform to blurry-eyed commuters. Everyone moves a little faster, talks a little louder. Everything is more animated, more alive. We are all going home.
We hurry past the unfortunate few, the panhandlers and beggars, with their sad stories and melancholy songs. We try to look away and ignore what we see. We pop our ear buds in and turn up the volume. “I am homeless and out of work right now. I humbly ask for your help.” Someone chants in an almost melodic voice. We hear the same story over and over again. Same story, different face.
We avert our eyes away from the homeless sleeping on the station floor. It’s too hard to look at, so we convince ourselves that we can’t help them all, or that they don’t really need our help, and may really be better off than us. We convince ourselves of anything to make it easier not to see.
Eventually, we become anesthetized to it all. The sameness, the monotony, the repetition.
As I stand here, taking the pictures for this essay, I feel the looks. Part curiosity, mostly exasperation. I can almost hear their thoughts:
“Look at her, taking pictures of the ceiling.”
“Get out of my way!”
“Why is she taking a picture of that?”
I’ve had the same unkind thoughts myself and I realize, suddenly, that I’m becoming one of them. I’ve grown accustomed to hurrying past the beauty, the mundane, and the ugliness. I have stopped seeing.
Is that why we despise the initiated so? Because they still see what we can no longer?
I’ve heard it said many times that we should try to view the world through the eyes of a child, because they see the most purely—that we should slow down and enjoy the beauty around us. Life is too fleeting otherwise.
I contemplate this as I travel home and see the beauty all around me.
American Public Transportation Association. “Transit Ridership Report–Third Quarter 2013.” 19 November 2013. American Public Transportation Association. pdf. 8 Fevruary 2014. <http://www.apta.com/resources/statistics/Documents/Ridership/2013-q3-ridership-APTA.pdf>.
About the Author,
Aimee Estrada is an observer, wanderer, and writer who believes the journey is more important than the destination. She tried almost every major before finally finding forensic financial analysis and writing, where her curiosity and obsession with details is put to good use. She grew up in Beacon, New York before it was trendy, knowing Pete Seeger as “that old guy who played the banjo at my elementary school.” She lives with her husband and car-obsessed son in a work-in-progress farmhouse with a backyard full of deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and the occasional bear.