As we walked towards the Spring St. uptown 6, we passed by a tall young man leaning against the matte green subway entrance railings. He pressed a small antique film camera up to his eye, stoic in the face of teaming pedestrians interrupting his line of sight. It wasn’t until after we’d walked past and hooked around to descend the staircase that I noticed the girl seated on the sill of a street-level door opposite the photographer. Her back was slouched against one side of the door casing while her thin legs were bent so her feet could rest against the opposite moulding, bracketing her crumpled body between the recessed architrave that hid her from the busy foot traffic just inches away. She held her phone casually in front of her face, elbows resting on her inclined thighs that flowed into two peaks of bare kneecaps exposed through the fraying tears of her black skinny jeans. She split her gaze between the phone screen and the camera lens, her fashionably waifish body in the practiced and aloof poise of an aspiring social media influencer, as if curling up in the early afternoon beside a shut door facing the sidewalk were some mundane SoHo pastime. We could only guess that it was a consensual photoshoot, though the voyeuristic gaze of strangers would probably not be far from the actual inspiration for the setup.
Down in the station, we swiped past the turnstiles and waited briefly behind the studded, taxi-yellow platform ledge before boarding the next 6 train. Stepping into the interior, we rode along in an older model car that had developed enough rust and grime on its metal trim that it would surely make any passenger who still remembered the novelty of that particular model’s introduction some thirty years ago feel irreversibly old. The train filled with more passengers at each stop, claiming its typical indeterminate mix of European and domestic tourists, Chinese immigrants, and passengers of various other ethnicities who all shared the defining weary mien of local New Yorkers. As the car filled with people, the pattering of their chatter grew like a rainstorm rolling in, until shortly after pulling away from one stop, a young and wholly innocuous passenger with a blocky frame and wearing a tattered baseball cap suddenly raised his voice above all the rest and began reciting a tragic plea for charity which outlined his desperate circumstance—all of which was prefaced by the admission of shame that some panhandlers lead with in order to imply some lack of familiarity with begging that would be more effective if it weren’t used so prevalently by so many panhandlers. And as usual, the shock of his sudden monologue commanded the attention of every passenger as they all fell quiet with the awkward silent deference people momentarily give to panhandlers in lieu of any actual charity or attention. But once the man had weaved his way unsteadily up the car and out the doors at the next station, the passengers surely and slowly resumed their prior conversations, putting the recent encounter with an uninvited reality behind them and gifting even the lone passengers on board a swift return to the inconsequential banter that works like novocaine against the unnerving self awareness of being intimately packed together with so many strangers.
We clattered up Manhattan’s east side, tolerating the frequent stops along the local route for the comfort of catatonic inattention, all the way up to the 68th St. station, where we finally disembarked and surfaced with a small group of other riders. A pair of young women preceded us and walked ahead as we stood pivoting around in search of the Central Park treeline, which happened to be in their same direction. As we began walking behind them, they stopped and spun around—two plainly pretty girls in their early twenties, lacking the subtle apathetic self-possession of New York natives, and one of whom was wearing a gray sweatshirt with Nantucket written across the chest in a heavy collegiate all caps slab font. They reversed course, and as we crossed paths, I overheard the girl in the Nantucket sweatshirt relay to her friend in disoriented frustration, That’s why I hate the subway.