OK, friends. Here we go. You know what I am totally freaking loving this Fall? Taking my three kids to school on the subway.
I wasn’t loving it at first, mind you. I was feeling sorry for myself. And I was envying all those moms whose kids ride the yellow school bus, or who walk to school, or who take a bus or taxi—anything but the dreaded, daily, underground commute.
Then something happened. When I was an undergrad in college, my roommate Jenny and I had a phrase to describe our beauty. We had, as we put it, “deepening beauty.”
Deepening beauty was the kind of beauty that did not, let’s say, hit you over the head. We were not knockouts. But we were, we felt, young women who, if given time and attention, would become beautiful to whomever was giving us that attention and time. Our beauty was something that took a minute, maybe, to understand; to fully appreciate, let’s say; but for the person who would take that minute: we would bloom. Our beauty was there. Of this, we were certain.
What we had, I see now, that was so precious, was not necessarily beauty. It was this certainty. I don’t know where we got it, frankly, and it is possible that we had it only because each of us had the other to mirror: to say, yes, you are beautiful. Yes, it is there.
I bring this up because this is exactly what the subway presented me with: this bedrock of conviction. The New York City subway is… well, it sure as hell is something, isn’t it?
I spent most of September resisting looking too deeply at what this “something” could possibly be. I hauled my kids, the youngest of whom is just three, and thus still prone to the worst kind of subway behavior, onto the train, to sit under the rainbow of a Dr. Zizmor ad and return the glares of angry, childless commuters who joined us at our midtown stop. I sat and glumly imagined other New Yorkers—Beyonce and Blue Ivy, say—floating overhead in the sanctuary of their private, beige-curtained Maybachs.
As September rolled on, I surrendered, and settled into what I began to refer to, in my head, as “the morning shift.” I resigned myself to the fact that I was the assigned worker in this fixed period of time, in this particular place, every weekday morning, and my goal was simply to get myself, and my children, through it intact.
My resignation wasn’t completely hardened, though. Under my gradually accumulating layers, and my puffy vest with its pockets crammed full of balled-up tissues, there was still a cough-drop sized space in my heart that was open to the possibility of something more from this experience.
As October began, and I knew my job better, I started to relax. Sure, I had read the headlines this past spring about the guy arrested on the 42nd platform with a loaded gun; I have seen my share of cat-sized rats on the subway tracks; I know our subway can be, um, not so nice. But, still. I had two things: time and attention.
I covered a lot of ground in September: I couldn’t resist a sideways grin at the man, lounging on the platform floor, who sported a turban of Duane Reade bags and addressed me with a wry, “Hey, Toots.” I told my kids that we could make a purchase from the 42nd street candy ziggurat but it had to be strictly medicinal. I stood on the platform with my three offspring, all of us enjoying some Hall’s vapor action—(did you know that Hall’s come in six flavors now, including a black one, which tastes like gasoline?)—and saw how the metal and plexiglass vitrine displaying age-inappropriate magazine covers is only a half-step from a Damien Hirst masterpiece.
And then the day came where we got on the train and walked, as one sometimes does, into a crowd of people who had already been on the train together for a while. These people were not cordoned off in their individual sound/space pods, but were chatting across the aisle as if the train could be a single, unified place, and not many individual compartments, as if their corner of the train were a living room, and not a death-defying capsule one enters when the city becomes a place to be endured.
The group consisted of two men sitting on one side of the aisle, and two women sitting on the other, all in their late 20s. They were young, relaxed, boisterous, and speaking loudly in a foreign language that I could not peg. I paid attention to them just enough to tell that they were possibly riding home from a late night out, and that they had a happy weariness about them, which was benevolent and soft, rather than reckless or drunk. In short, they were OK.
My two sons and I sat in the empty seats around them and my daughter stood and held the pole in the middle of them. She focused her stare—”I see dead people,” I have been saying about her fixed gaze, since she was a baby—on the two men, and it was then that I realized that one of the men was a little person. His feet dangled in the air as he sat, and his arms were very short.
My daughter stood there holding the pole, giving him her wizard-y stare, as my younger son demanded my attention to play a game. I stopped looking at my daughter in order to chat with my son, but turned back when I suddenly heard her laugh. She was cracking up at the little man, who was sticking out his tongue and rolling his eyes, as his friend repeatedly punched him in the stomach and rubbed his balding head with a wicked grin.
I turned away from my giggling daughter and returned to my son and his game, which is called “A Million Questions,” because twenty is not enough, and because the point of the game is for him to enjoy, as long as possible, the feeling of knowing the secret I don’t know, and this is why he generally picks something abstract and hard to pin down —in this case it was Santa Claus—which he can rightly say, in response to my very first question, that what he is thinking of is both a person and a thing.
My older was absorbed in a book about magical, forest-dwelling cats and their problems.
We were engaged in this manner for four subway stops, and as my kids and I stood up to get off the train, the woman I had sat next to turned to me and said with a nod at her male friends, “Sorry—they are crazy,” and we both smiled, because clearly, they were not. I thanked the two men, and my daughter smiled and said goodbye to them, as we stepped off the train.
It was only later, after I dropped the kids off at school, and I got on the subway again to go home, and I was no longer expanding my field of awareness to include three or more people, and I was transformed into a single person traveling alone, a person not responsible for anyone’s safety but her own, and I was making my way down the subway stairs in small, careful steps, among other adults who were also moving in this manner, and also operating more or less by this same code of individual responsibility, that I saw what an extraordinary ride we had just had.
I could not have orchestrated an experience like that if I had tried. It just happened. The miracle, I saw then, was that I saw it.
Last week, I was walking along West 58th Street and spied nine pieces of xeroxed paper adhered neatly, in three rows of three, to a temporary scaffolding wall. Three of the pieces had a quote by Emily Dickinson printed on them: “Beauty is not caused: it is.”
The xerox graffiti artist had misspelled Emily’s name, so I stopped and corrected the error on each sheet, with my ballpoint pen, as tourists from down the street walked by, maps open, finding their way.
Until next time, my friends. Much love,