It was fucking hot. Like Zima commercial hot. Asphalt and heavy breathing and food carts pushing dubiously-halal meats all contributed to the isolated greenhouse effect.
Having successfully jammed myself through a turnstile, I galloped down the stairs and lunged into a subway car dinging to signify its momentary departure. I was a pack mule in knock-off sandals.
“Still got it,” I thought, as the car greeted me with an icy, air-conditioned hug. Two years in cushy Washington D.C. hadn’t dulled the urban resilience and dexterous MetroCard swiping I once perfected as a resident of Queens.
The New York Subway is a living, breathing deity that controls the fate of the 5.7 million human beings who enter it its lair every day. A romanticized hotbed of everything from illegal urination to rat intercourse to musical upstarts. The walls reverberate with stories of decades prior—questionable romantic decisions by the young and drunk and desperate acts by petty criminals.
A grin stretched across my sweaty face as I heard a familiar voice I had not heard for two years.
The air conditioning sputtered on and off—some twisted taunt from a subway minion hidden in the train. My noise canceling headphones deafened me with Aretha’s version of “Today I Sing the Blues.” The tremolo organ, twangy guitar, and oozing brass all meshed together to match the sluggish pace of life on a scorching New York summer day.
But even the Queen of Soul couldn’t cancel out the scratchy voice breaking through intercom. The announcement sounded liked it had been made thirty years ago and only now reached the wrong audience.
Staticky intercom announcements are ominous signs in the subway, and my rusty New York instincts proved me right as the doors promptly opened back up. I had beamed with pride at my athletic accomplishment, catching this once departing train, but now my dramatic last-ditch effort seemed less impressive. I watched naive passengers buck down the stairs, much like I did, thinking they’d made it, too.
“Chumps,” I thought to myself, ignoring my self-praise just seconds earlier.
Some passengers didn’t have what it takes. They quit early and stomped up and out of the subway in frustration. I considered their mundane decisions and felt like Jesus in the desert, when Satan appeared to him with an app called Uber.
“They’re moving forward—closer to their destination! They’re doing something,” I thought to myself, thinking like an American.
I shook temptation like sweat off my brow.
Quitting is always the act of a weaker being, I reminded myself, still thinking like an American. Or Jesus.
The AC sputtered back on—a not-so-subtle reward for my commitment. More pronouncements from subway minions ripped through the intercom speakers.
Long ago, I spoke Subwayish, the antiquated intercom language here in the subway, but the verb tenses and accents now sounded so foreign. I focused harder to catch a few familiar words.
The subway in New York City is designed to force interaction between people from walks of life that seem to be linked by nothing but proximity. You do not sit one row behind another and stare at the back of heads. You sit across from each other, observing every flaw and emotion etched on each other’s face. Every fashion decision analyzed, every facial reaction considered, every backstory conjured up.
Science tells me if you see other people get anxious and frustrated, your brain will subconsciously reciprocate. I saw scowls of frustration and donned one of my own. Felt the percussion of toes tapping and joined in the beat. Heard heavy sighs and harmonized in the chorus of exhales.
“He’s been saying momentarily for 30 minutes!” I heard from miles down the other end of the car.
Damn…I had places to be, overpriced coffee to guzzle, and work messaging services to be available on. This subterranean purgatory was looking more and more like hell.
A subway minion appeared in our subway car and rambled off status updates in Subwayish, speaking about 2s and 3s and Qs and Fs. There was no use trying to comprehend such slangy language.
It was time to quit.
I dragged my mule hooves up the steps, and my flip flops slapped against the station floor in disappointment. I wondered if this was a test of my grit, if I had failed, and if the subway would start moving the second I exited the station as a reward for those believers who remained.