When one grows up in a big city, one develops a patina, an immunity to the constant assault on one’s senses of noise, bustle and too many people trying to occupy the same space at the same time. It takes a while, but when you move away, eventually, that protective layer wears off. Coming into the city from CT, I routinely take my car. Even in bumper to bumper traffic you are buffered from the up-against-you press of humanity by the comforting frame of your vehicle. But lately, with multiple days scheduled in a row, I have left the car in Brooklyn, slept in my brother’s apartment, and ventured forth on the Q train from Brighton Beach to Herald Square. It is not an undaunting experience.
First, there’s the noise. The rumble of the train on the el cuts through the neighborhood like a stampede throughout the day and night. Then there’s the climb. From street level to the tracks, it is about four stories; enough to leave my asthmatic chest writing with knife-like pain for several minutes. The ocean breeze, coming as it does from the beach a block away, cuts or soothes, depending on the temperature. Today is a cutter.
I got on fairly empty train this morning at about 9:30, tired, aching from this ongoing sinus thing, but having avoided rush hour. There was plenty of room. I sat, then moved to the next bench to avoid two women chattering loudly in some dialect of Chinese. Now I was opposite a guy speaking loudly into his cell phone in Arabic. I considered moving to the next car but he got off at the next stop and I was left with the blissful white noise of the rickety subway system and the two talking women. I disappear into my word game on the cellphone. People trickled on at the next few stops but it was still manageable.
The doors open at Sheepshead Bay or Kings Highway (I’m not paying attention) and 2 women get on. The first one motions to the second one to sit in the small seat next to me. They are not together. This is, I perceive, an act of kindness. I soon came to suspect it was self-preservation. Subway benches are designed so 3 people can fit between the poles. This woman needs 2 seats. She has a cane, a tote bag and a suitcase, which she parks between her legs making "man-spread" seem like a minor infringement. She is not dirty per se. The odor can best be described as stale. It is not pleasant. She starts to adjust herself, piling her bag atop her suitcase and what could not be called a lap. Am I unkind? Yes. But really! Next comes the disgorging of items from the bag: the phone, the earplugs; is that candy I see in her purse? With every adjustment she makes, she presses her body further into the bench, and I slide, am pushed, molded into an ever-shrinking space. I cannot resist. The bench is slippery and she is much bigger than I am. I am now being pressed into the metal bars that keep one from sliding off the bench altogether and blocking the door! I can feel my arm bruising with every jostle. I want to shift and put my arm through the bars to relieve the pressure but I know, if I remove my arm, my ribs will be crushed instead. I try to concentrate on the Wordbrain grid fucking with my brain on my cell phone. The work "stink" rises up from the grid of previously random letters. My right side is starting to sweat as we creep toward New York, going underground at Prospect Park, losing cell service and any chance of mentally escaping my situation. We stall on the Manhattan Bridge. I cannot breathe. Diving underground again at Canal Street, a few seats open up across the car. Do I get up? Do I risk letting this woman know she is an assault on my senses? Or do I stay put and allow this fetid feeling to become a part of my whole day? Sit… Sit…. Sit….. Can't do it! I don't need to gather my backpack for I have been clutching it for a while now. I bolt across the car and sit between two women of average size. I can breathe. I look across and she has expanded into my vacated space, spreading like Jello released from the mold, no hint that this vacancy was not an act of kindness on my part but one of self-preservation.
Finally, Herald Square. I climb to the street level and relish the cool air that dries my sweat. A man cuts in front of me and coughs violently in my face. The air is redolent with cigarettes. It is disgusting. I am reminded of a saying I heard back in college: “A frog can live in boiling water if the heat is applied slowly enough.” Well,… no. It's simply unaware it is dying.