So I'm riding the train to work this morning, and I have to say: the subway can be a wonderful place sometimes. I’m surrounded by people, but I don’t need to make conversation (in fact conversation is tacitly discouraged). People jostle each other, make room for each other, secretly check each other out, ignore each other, read, coast, float. It’s a weird instance of privacy in public. For a few minutes out of their day, people aren’t multi-tasking, taking the bull by the horns, kickin’ ass and taking names; they are swaying with the movement of the tracks, thinking, staring blankly, listening to music, people-watching, taking it all in, working out the meaning of life, or not. Here’s a painting by my friend John Dubrow, whose new show opens today at Lori Bookstein Fine Art on 57th Street in Manhattan:
The painting grew out of a thirty-second sketch that John made while riding the train. Unlike most of his paintings, which get reworked for years, this one came together quickly, with few alterations to the basic composition. It captures the public-private thing I’m talking about.
Of course, the subway can also be a tense place. The downside of people being in their own worlds is that they can be completely inconsiderate to others. I’m afraid I can gat a bit obsessive on this subject. If only that guy would move his bag so that somebody could sit down. (Did his bag pay $2 for a seat on the subway.) And how come, when the electronic announcement encourages people to step all the way into the train, do people stand crowding the doorway. If only they would have a little consideration, that poor slob on the platform could actually get on the train instead of having to wait for the next one. Let people on! Let people off! OK, I need to take a breath. It’s impossible to get through one’s commute without having to make a number of telling ethical and even moral decisions involving the way in which we behave toward others.
The inevitable frustrations of the subway, though, are surprisingly mild, given how many people ride it every day. It rarely gets as bad as this:
What could have been the big to-do
that caused him to push me aside
on that platform? Was a woman who knew
there must be some good even inside
an ass like him on board that train?
Charity? Frances? His last chance
in a ratty srtring of last chances? Jane?
Surely in all of us is some good.
Love thy bloody neighbor, buddy,
lest she shove back. Maybe I should.
It’s probably just some cruddy
downtown interview leading to
a cheap-tie, careerist, dull
cul-de-sac he’s speeding to.
Can he catch up with his soul?
Really, what was the big crisis?
Did he need to know before me
whether the lights searching the crowd’s eyes
were those of our train, or maybe
the train of who he might have been,
the person his own-heart-numbing,
me-shoving anxiety about being
prevents him from ever becoming?
And how has his thoughtlessness defiled
who I was before he shoved me?
How might I be smiling now if he’d smiled,
hanging back, as though he might have loved me?
This poem, by J. Allyn Rosser, is from her latest book, Foiled Again, which won this year's New Criterion Prize. Full disclosure: I was on the panel of five judges that chose it. It’s loaded with excellent stuff. Straphangers and other poetry lovers should check it out.
-- D. Y.