Essay // A POEM ON THE UNDERGROUND

subway

I LOVE THE SUBWAY. Any city, any system, there is just something wonderful about those rattling old trains hurtling at break-neck speed through subterranean tunnels. The subway is hot, it is crowded, it is grimy and rat-infested, it has the power to ruin your day with its delays and abrupt route alterations, and yet I love it.

My love for the subway is whole-hearted, despite that those tunnels hold great potential for danger. There is the speed at which the trains streak into the stations, there is the crush of people, the precipitous drop, the third rail. Each time I enter a subway station, I think of the scene in Charade where Audrey Hepburn is pursued underground by Cary Grant, or of an Agatha Christie I once read in which the victim was pushed into the path of the oncoming Tube.

They’re spooky – the perfect spot for a decomposed body to turn up in a hard-boiled crime novel, for a spy ring to house their secret lair, or for Q to show off his latest gadgets to James Bond. Subways are ripe for pickpockets to prey on unsuspecting tourists, for drug drops, for terrorist attacks. Recently, a man who’d exposed himself aboard the T was caught by MBTA authorities after a passenger used twitter and his mobile phone to broadcast his photo. Despite this threatening side, subway systems are undeniably romantic in their grittiness, in the same way that dirty, heavy-with-graffiti laneways can be ineffably cool.

Subways are the ultimate expression of the urban. Stand on a crowded platform and briefly close your eyes – that is the sound of modernity. The rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, the roar of the tunnel winds. That is the art of noise, that is Baudelaire, and Simon and Garfunkel – that is a poem on the underground.

All the systems I’ve experienced have their individual character, which becomes so much a part of your experience and memory of the city (that is, if you’re a poor student traveler without the budget for taxis). Boston’s Green Line is clean and user-friendly, with the tappable Charlie Cards and the station entrance gates that open with a satisfyingly jazzy, spirit-fingers whoosh, as opposed to the irritating old-fashioned turnstiles in New York. Still, what the New York subway lacks in mechanized doors, it makes up for in gritty identity. Rattling into any of its stations – Bleecker Street, 14th Street-Union Square, Canal Street – can only give you a wonderful rush of familiarity and sense of place. I’m arriving. I’m here.

Washington DC’s Metro, only opened in 1976, is perhaps the most individual I’ve experienced but, like the city beneath which it runs, it lacks a certain warmth of character. The stations, designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, are modernist and brutalist; large, cavernous spaces replete with vast surfaces of exposed concrete and enormous vaults. In 2007, the Metro’s coffered ceilinged stations were voted 106th on the American Institute of Architects’ list of America’s Favourite Architecture, indicating their monumentalism. For me, the system’s only charm can be that it throws off a somehow distinctly Cold War feel, in no small part because of the countless advertising panels for the city’s Spy Museum.

It is only now that I discover that when I make my habitual trip to Park Street on Boston’s Green Line, I’m being taken through the US’s oldest subway tunnel, the 1897 Tremont Street Subway, originally built to take streetcars off the crowded streets. I don’t mind having to stand during this crowded downtown section of the T, because if I angle myself right at the front of the car, I can take the driver’s perspective and peer into darkness of the oncoming tunnels.

There are so many moments of experience like this to be had in allowing yourself to participate in the life of the subway. You can’t make it go any faster, no matter how many times you look at your watch, so you may as well give yourself over to those moments. As you stand on the platform, feel the rush of air as the train enters the station, absorb the heat. Notice the passing of an express train down the middle lane – you can see the expressions of the people as it clatters by. Involve yourself in that uncanny moment when you are caught next to another carriage travelling in the same direction at the same speed, when you look into the faces of the passengers of the car next door, tinged grey by the fluorescent lights, and they look back at you, eyes meeting in a shared moment that is at once inexpressibly intimate and coldly distancing. Where are they going? Where have they been?

Within subway cars, the potential for discreet people watching is thrilling. Here, people are succumbed by the anonymity of the city and yet intimately thrown together. There is the fascinating conversation about where the best New York shoe shopping may be found, there is the young father joyously jiggling his toddler son, there is the woman with the leopard-print tee-shirt and collagen-infused lips between which she sucks take-away spaghetti.

My most recent subway fascination was the homeward ride of two young business interns fresh from their first day of work. The frisson was evident, they quickly exchanged names when he reached his station, and she smiled to herself after the doors had closed behind him. Had I just witnessed a beginning? And how would the story end? I thought of Sloane Crosley’s story of meeting a man as they shared a hold on the same pole on a crowded Manhattan N train. “I know this sounds crazy but would you like to go to a very public place and have a drink with me?” he asked. “Yes. Yes, I would.”

Finally, there is the comforting feeling of having your local, your usual train. For me, it is the Boston College Green B Line, or the Manhattan 6 local train. The sites are familiar; the stations appear with a regularity that belies the inconstancy of urban life. No matter what changes above ground, whoever enters and exits upstage, you will always have that familiar, cheerful admonishment of someone who is looking out for your well-being each day: ‘Stand clear of the closing doors please!’

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