I dread taking the subway during the rush hour. It is one of the major indignities of New York City life.
Going down the steps signals a descent into some sort of dismal netherworld. It is dark, dirty, and depressing. I find myself on a waiting platform encrusted with blackened gum wads, and when I look downwards, over the precarious edge, I can see an occasional rat meandering amid the trash strewn on the rails. And then suddenly, in the dark distance, a light appears and quickly begins to loom and brighten up the dark tunnel, and an increasingly deafening din signals the approach of an oncoming train.
The train roars onto the platform, the doors open, and the passengers, already pressed against each other, crowd together even more tightly to make room for those entering. All are silent as the train rumbles on. They stare fixedly at the overhead ads, bury themselves in a book, or simply tune out with headphones or an iphone. The silence is often broken by an interjection of rage, indignity or even worse as bodies are crushed and feet are trampled on. As the train winds its way, riders hang on for sheer balance, standing or swinging over the more fortunate seated ones, and even toppling over them when the train lurches. As my stop nears, it’s time to begin to force my way through the crowd before the doors slam shut.
When I walk back up the steps into the daylight, I breathe a sigh of relief. In the summertime, particularly, when the concrete heats up, that ride becomes all that more unbearable.
New York is, in essence, the quintessential city of alienation, a city of strangers, always en route bypassing each other, in the process, never chancing to meet, and not to even mention, exchange such pleasantries that are a part of the routines of most other people’s lives. Subway riders are goal oriented; they just endure; they only want to get to where they're going, whether it be work, school, home, or whatever. In this bold and brash and indifferent city, where the pace is relentless, the rules of civility do not apply.
And yet, occasionally, a chance encounter will occur, and temporarily pierce through the city’s veil of anonymity.
As I got on the No. 6 train yesterday, I saw a relaxed elderly man with wispy, white hair and a kind face, who was studying his surroundings with curiosity. Obviously, he was not from here, lacking that jaded look New Yorkers all too often acquire after being subjected to the constant zip and zoom of the city. He observed me as I entered, nodded in greeting, and even proffered me his seat. I have long become unaccustomed to such a random gracious gesture, as I have all too often observed some loutish teen-ager not even offer a seat to a disabled elderly woman.
I smiled back. The man’s wrinkled face was animated as he engaged in spirited conversation with a slender blonde woman, who, judging simply from the look of joy and pride on his face, could only be his daughter. She was laughing, indulgent of her father’s whims. They looked at me with curiosity. Our eyes met. They included me in their conversation.
“My father is visiting from Russia,” the young woman volunteered.
“I have not seen her for seven years,” he exclaimed in his broken accent, his face beaming with pleasure.
They stood out from the impassive crowd.
“You daughter is lovely,” I said, acknowledging his fatherly pride. “The trains are not so clean here,” I offered by way of apology.
“Yes, the trains are cleaner in Moscow,” he commented matter of factly, but he did not seem to mind or even notice the indignities of the city subway system. He was simply content to be with his daughter.
“Where are you from?” he addressed me in polite conversation.
Oh, from here, I was going to casually comment. And yet, I felt a connection, a nostalgia from my childhood, or a yearning for a different way of life that I had long ago become accustomed to. A life more gracious, and more civil, a life that I realized with regret, I have been all too long been away from. Their manner, their warmth, their direct gaze, their free-flowing emotion began to resonate with me.
So I did not simply tell them I was born in Manhattan. “My parents were Ukrainian,” I volunteered. “My name is Olya,” I said, a name I knew they would recognize.
“Oh, yes, Olya,” said the man, exclaiming with familiarity over my very typical Russian name.
His daughter then told me her name, Svetlana, and we nodded in recognition. Another name that is also typically Slavic. Somehow we began to form a bond.
“My father’s name was Bohdan,” I said. “My mother’s name, Irina,” I added.
“Oh yes, then you must be Olya Bohdanivna,” the man said, referring to the Russian use of the patronymic, that is, the use of one’s father’s name as a surname, in the way that East Europeans often do when they address one another.
“Yes, I said, Olya Bohdanivna,” repeating after him a name that no one has called me in decades.
Suddenly these strangers whom I simply met on the subway became kindred spirits who knew my origins, addressing me in the familiar way of the language I had long ago grown up with and for a long time have not had the occasion to use.
“You must be my daughter’s age,” I said to Svetlana. It turns out she is two or three years older.
“What is your daughter’s name?” she asked.
“Natalia,” I said.
“Oh, of course, Natalia!” the father exclaimed.
“What does Natalia do?” His daughter asked.
“A ballet dancer, since she was seven,” I said.
“Yes, a ballet dancer,” she said, referring to that familiar tradition that hails from Eastern Europe.
“She is now married and has two children,” I volunteered.
“To an American?” they asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“So am I,” said Svetlana. She too is assimilated. Her children’s names are Jennifer and Ryan.
“My daughter’s children are Andryj and Alexei,” I said, that is, in translation, Andrew and Alexander.
“Yes, she kept those Slavic names,” She said. “How old are they?” she asked.
“One and four,” I told her.
“And yours,” I asked.
“Two and six.”
During the brief interlude between 86th Street and 59th, it seemed almost as if we were pursuing a leisurely conversation, as though we had met at an informal gathering, perhaps even a dinner party.
But suddenly I realized my stop was up and the subway doors were about to close.
“I have to go,” I exclaimed, making a mad dash for the door.
Svetlana made a quick last minute search for her business card, but to no avail. As I walked away, I hurriedly dug for mine that must have migrated somewhere to the bottom of my huge handbag-- the practical type that New York City women use to lug all their “stuff” for the day-- also to no avail. Her father looked on with worry and alarm realizing we will not exchange our contact numbers in time.
We couldn't. The subway is not exactly a place where one can linger. I just made it before the doors shut.
As I walked up the steps, into the real world of daylight, I was still amazed by my unexpected meeting, and by my so easily falling into step with a culture that I did not realize was so much a part of me.
Nonetheless, as a typical New Yorker, I rushed out and met my obligations. But, afterwards, at the end of the day's routine, I was not left with a feeling of accomplishment, but rather with a feeling of loss and yearning that I could not even begin to describe.
In this city of chance encounters, the rootedness that I briefly felt, as quickly as it began, was as quickly severed. Our subway meeting was fleeting, a lost opportunity that is perhaps too typical of a city where one may never come across the same people again. In a few moments, in just over the time span of a few subway stops, a connection had been made, only to be lost again. Perhaps that is the inevitable fate of living in a city where one’s next door neighbors move in and out so often that one can never keep up with them.
I am left thinking about my long-lost culture in this varied city of people of very different backgrounds, and again I feel alienated, a stranger. And I also think about my daughter in a city too far away, about Alexei and Andryj, and wonder what they are up to.