It's late afternoon in New York City. I've just swiped my MetroCard at 145th Street in Harlem and am heading downtown. I'm not holding a bouquet or joined by friends. I'm not heading home from work. I'm not, for that matter, even riding to any particular destination. I'm wearing a pair of jeans, a few sweaters and a jacket containing my iPhone, a Kindle and a toothbrush. I'm alone.
Where I'm heading is everywhere and, well, nowhere. I'm started what on Twitter I'll call #24onMTA, and in real life describe as an experience in endurance, in building what Ben Casnocha calls a person's "resilience quotient". I'm riding the New York City subway for 24 hours straight, with no plan other than to just go.
This bears a bit of explaining: The stamina-testing idea of experiencing the New York City subway came on some level from my reading of Alain de Botton's A Week in the Airport. In this short book de Botton writes as a "writer-in-residence" at Heathrow Airport, conveying the paradox of airports as "non-places" of turbulence, soullessness and beauty. This was the kindling for the idea, but the spark came when I realized that the New York subway experience would be distinctly personal and rare -- an unfamiliar experience of a familiar city.
As fate or simple chance conspired, I'm beginning this solitary adventure at 5:23pm on Valentine's Day. I hesitate on the platform for a moment, choosing between two arriving cars. I hop on, and a journey through the city's arteries begins.
The first few hours pass quickly as evening turns to night. Shakespeare's sonnets somehow get me through some initial loneliness: "Die single and thine image dies with thee." I finish to find it's already far into the night. A man's enjoying a cigarette in my car despite the screeching whines of a woman.
Nearing midnight I jump off at W4th to stretch my legs on the platform, and here in the West Village things are just heating up for the night. Boys and girls -- and girls and girls -- are everywhere rushing with roses in hand to make the most of their night. As I'm hopping onto another car with a vague plan to head to Coney Island, I notice one couple whose night's climax will be right on the platform.
I realize quickly the futility of mentally recording the story of the people I see. A frowning Latino bringing takeout back home. A child lost in an iPod next to his diffident (or maybe merely exhausted?) mother. The limp-suited Financial District trader just hopping on. Every face is a story, and so you quickly forget. A practiced disinterest predominates -- there's no time for anything else here.
I'm at Coney Island. It's somewhere past 3am, and the train idles here longer than expected. The city might not be sleeping, but I'm alone. The car doors hang open as we linger, cold February air pouring in. I'm freezing, wishing for extra socks and thanking God for my high-necked sweater.
It's creeping toward 7am and I'm in Grand Central. As I'm brushing my teeth I'm rattled, realizing how freshly homeless I must seem. No time for introspection: a quick coffee, bagel and a Twitter-enabled meetup with a local friend. We ride the train a bit together before he has to get to work.
I'm more than halfway in at this point, and fall soundly asleep for the first time, waking up hours later to sunshine and warmth somewhere in the Bronx.
I had put my cash and cards in my shoe from the start as a precaution and am realizing now with just a few hours to go how safe I've felt throughout. The Book by Alan Watts carries me through the final hours, across Midtown, into Queens, in loops, everywhere.
I've managed to be an outsider on the New York subway -- one at leisure, wandering into whatever train comes next on whatever platform, heading wherever. A blitzed guy interrupts my wondering as he staggers back and forth, screaming his dubious poll: "Are the ladies happy? Hey! Are the ladies happy?" But he's not violent, just drunk--and so the ladies are happy.
The MTA is a paradox -- this muscular, resilient product of man that simple flooding rainwaters remind us is, actually, rather fragile.
It seems the system is really aging, but herein lies its beauties -- still no real internet presence in the underground areas; few bright, modern, wide spaces to dwarf us in scale; lovely tile artwork and few flat, stained, concrete walls; Atlas-like I-beams creating spaces in New York for whispers of the old days, for the pre-plastic city to survive if only a little longer. Joseph Mitchell might still be wandering down here someplace, but certainly not in Battery Park City.
But I'm far from there now. Valentine's Day is over, and the weekend is underway. It's 5:24pm, and I'm walking out of the subway. I've spent 24 hours in its thrall -- more than most, but little more than a laugh compared to those who know it as a home.
The true adventure has been an adventure of my varying states of feeling. To be constantly near a chilly humanity is a difficult thing -- to smile and receive a frown or to look and be ignored. To fall asleep and not even be robbed. In its best, paradoxical sense you begin to learn a monastic reserve in the midst of America's greatest city. And in the worst way you begin to wonder whether you're really there, and so you forget to smile. There's more than merely age and rust underground that corrodes New York's foundations. And yet:
Age and rust. We're all somewhere along the forward rails that lead us back to our beginning. We're each hoping to share a bit of those genuine and yet invisible virtues of ours to make them visible, beautiful gifts for others. And we tend to do this for others, even when we're not trying. New York City -- probably without even trying -- has given me a beautiful, visible gift over the course of this strange, sprawling adventure.
I'm back in Harlem now, and it's time to go.