It was another Thursday, and I was running just that hair late whereby your fate, meaning the time you arrive at the office, is completely depended upon the trains. If you’re just a moment on the right side of the equation, meaning you walked fast enough down the street or swiped your Metrocard smoothly enough on the first swipe, or if the trains are running behind by just enough time to make up for your delay, a train will be pulling up just as you’re getting to the track. City-dwellers, you’ve been there, right? It feels like a fantastic victory when you arrive just as the train does, and it speeds you along to your destination, or to the connecting station where you will board the other train which will take you to where you want to go. And depending on if you can catch a train right as you’re walking up to that platform, you could be walking through the revolving doors of your own glass-skyscraper right on time.
Ahh, the little victories.
Other times, it doesn’t work out quite like you would hope. On this particular Thursday, I made my first train in the nick of time. Congratulating myself, I hoped off at the next stop, speedily weaving my way through other commuters and dashing down the stairs in perfect time for my next train to arrive. Perfect! I remember thinking the trains are on my side today. We crossed the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, where I could see the sun glimmering off the skyscrapers in the financial district, and we sped past the next stop. And then we stopped. But not at the next stop—between two stops. Ladies and Gentleman, we are being held momentarily, said the announcer. We all waited, patiently at first, as the minutes passed. And passed. And passed. Through the windows we could see other trains passing. Other trains that should be running on the same tracks as we are. Trains start and stop routinely in the morning, sometimes smoothly and briefly, but other times the halt is jarring and more immediate, knocking even the kind of veteran subway rider who doesn’t hold on off their balance. This was a particularly jarring stop today, and we were waiting for longer than I’ve ever had to wait before. We sat for a whole twenty minutes, looking at our watches, rolling our eyes, and exchanging commiserating glances, knowing that all of us on this train have somewhere to be and that we’re all in this together. That’s where I feel community in this city most—on the trains.
Finally we were moving again, as inexplicably as when we stopped. When we hit the next station, there was a train across the platform that those of us who do this often knew we should board. When a Q train and an N or R train pull into 34th Street, the N or R will almost always leave first. Come this way everyday like I, and my fellow commuters, do, and you learn tricks like this. We crossed the platform, boarded the other train, and the doors closed. At 57th Street where I got off, I spotted the guy who sits in the cube next to mine. He edits e-books, wears flannel, and puts as much thought into his shoes as I do. We talk about his shoes sometimes on the cube street, when we’re not talking about dating in the city or what it’s like to be twenty-something here. (All eight of us are.) Coincidentally, he is also from Michigan. His exasperated expression matched mine exactly, though it was hidden a little better behind a beard and a pair of Ray Bans. We both rolled our eyes, feeling that kind of comradery that comes with being trapped together on a train that’s moving forward, or not moving forward, at a pace and frequency that you can’t control.
He and I swiped our cards, gates being lowered to allow us the privileged of pressing the button to call an elevator to take us to our cubicles. He remarked on the irony of leaving early for work, only to arrive late. I agreed, noting that I was happy I’d taken the extra minute to make a pot of coffee before I left.
That evening I was afforded a rare privilege. I jumped in the first car of the D train just as the doors were closing, congratulating myself on a victory, that I would make it down to my boyfriend in the Village 5-6 minutes faster than I would have if I had been 30 seconds later.
I looked forward, as I always do, but this time I could actually see something. I could see the tracks in front of us. They were blurred by the dirty glass, but I could see the green lights on the walls of the tunnels, beckoning us forward, and I could see the red lights in the distance cautioning us to slow down, changing to green as they allowed us to pass. Twists and turns. Station platforms, people tapping their feet, people dashing down the stairs like I had to catch this train. Then it was green. Green. Green. And we were speeding on an express line past the local stations, faster and faster as the sea of green seemed endless, ending only as we’d reached out next stop. My stop. I got off and scurried up the stairs.
I got to thinking that maybe this—yesterday, and the subway—is what being in your twenties is like. You can choose which trains to get on—most places have more than one way you can take to get there. The 4 to the Q. Or the 3 to the D. Get off at 47th or 59th Street. And the longer you’re there, the better you get at picking which trains to take. You choose the express trains, knowing they’ll get you where you want to be twice as fast. You start to count the stops and choose one express train over another, weighing simultaneously the difference in walking time you’ll have once you get off the train. You learn which trains come when and exactly what time you need to leave your apartment to get to the station when your train is supposed to arrive. When you get really good, you learn the patterns, and you get off the Q train at 34th Street when an R pulls up—even though you’re leaving an express train to get on a local one—because you can be almost certain that it will actually get you to your stop faster. Almost
But you can’t be sure. You can’t know when the train will actually be there or leave. And even when you do get on, you can’t know when your train is going to stop, gently or abruptly, and keep you immobile for 20 minutes as you watch other trains and people pass you by. Or even if it’s just for five minutes, in that fifth minute, the fear of twenty is excruciating.
You also can’t usually see where you’re going. It’s an act of faith, really. You just have to assume that if you get on the train you think is right, it will take you where you want to go. (With the MTA, you know that’s only an assumption.) And if it doesn’t take you there—if the local is running express or if there’s construction or if you just plain got on the wrong train—then you get off, and figure out another train that you think will get you there. You have to have faith that it’s going to work out how it’s supposed to, or that if it doesn’t you’ll have the presence of mind to be able to adjust your course. And after you choose your course, you just have to wait. Wait for the train to arrive, wait for your stop to come, wait out the delays, long or short, and sip your coffee, taking comfort in the glances and eye-rolls from others, knowing that we are all in this train together, and knowing that we’ll all get wherever it is that we are going eventually.