The Vertical

New York Journeys

Amelia Millar

The 1 train rumbles along. The car is outfitted with various shades of browns and muted neutral tones across the seats. The shiny aluminum walls unashamedly show their age, warped and scratched from years of teenage etchings. I notice a man a few seats down from me with a paper bag of groceries on the ground between his legs. We roll into the 181st Street Station and the train comes to a halt. Exiting the train is a race against the clock, as the doors’ routine seems to have no standard timing. The grocery-bearing man hoists up his bag and before he can get up from his seat, several cans and sundries spill onto the floor. The bottom of the bag has given out and the exasperated man’s eyes dart from the carnage to the imminently closing doors, wondering how he can make it off of this train with his family’s dinner. He frantically kneels down and begins gathering his scattered goods. A disinterested bystander, without looking up from the phone in her hands, moves towards the door and sticks her foot out. The bootie-clad foot now stands as a defiant barrier, practically daring the doors to close. The man, exhausted, has stuffed his chickpea and tomato soup cans in his knapsack, while the rest of his wares are scooped into a small plastic bag another traveler has offered. The foot continues to play chicken with the doors until the grateful man shuffles out. He whispers a sincere “gracias” to the good Samaritans. The unfazed woman removes her foot, and the train continues on as scheduled.

****

You’ve been singing, dancing, and acting professionally since you were nine; it’s something you never grew out of. You move to New York with the same dreams and Broadway aspirations that any young 20-something chorus girl has. You are captivated by the promise it beckons you with. You live month-to-month with friends in Woodside, then Sunnyside, Queens. But over five years and two apartments, you eventually consider Washington Heights “home”. You assure yourself that auditioning is a full-time job and quickly blow through the $3,000 savings you have. Auditions do not pay. They are simply broken records, the needles stuck on false hope. You hear lots of Wow, great voice and Can you come back to sing for the director tomorrow? and the roads tend to stop there. But things happen in New York. Nobodies become somebodies. Isn’t that how it goes?

****

New York is different things to different people. It is everything and nothing. Chances being taken, opportunities arising, cinematically magical “only in New York” moments. New York City: The Center of the Universe. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re sitting on the peeling floor of your pre-war apartment in a neighborhood so far north on the island that even though it is still in Manhattan friends refuse to visit, crying about the day job you picked up to cover your expenses while you audition but you can’t audition because the day job is too demanding of your time. And it really doesn’t feel that way when you’re on a crowded rush hour express train wearing too many winter layers and you get pushed towards the corner of the car that emits the unmistakable odor of feces.  New York: The City of Dreams. I wonder if the people whose dreams really do come true here ever take the subway.

****

Rush hour is nearing, but public transport is still bearable. The doors opening triggers the ebb and flow of travelers within the subway car. A few seconds of frenzied movement, people pushing past one another with the occasional mumbled “excuse me” and then the car reverts back to stillness. Or as still as a New York City subway car can be with all the humming, droning, buzzing, and murmuring going on. The egregiously bright lighting, except for the one corner that mysteriously flutters, hangs harsh overhead. There are a few empty seats but sitting in any of them would force me unnecessarily closer to a stranger than I’d wish to be. I resign myself to standing, headphones in ears, and try to avoid meeting anyone else’s glance. There is nothing quite as vulnerable as locking eyes with strangers. Among the crowd there is a middle-aged white man seated on the hard, plastic bench. He wears a button-down shirt, khaki slacks, and has a backpack tucked between his legs- a true New York commuter. He is not someone to remember, but then he fidgets. Something has dislodged the comfort from this man’s everyday routine. From his bespectacled eyes, I follow his gaze to the still-open subway door. A thirty-something man with brown skin and a black beard speedily enters the car. His backpack pulls at his button-down shirt as he enters. His turban is a muted violet hue. He is panting, but having successfully caught the train, begins to catch his breath and look for a seat. The middle-aged man watches the newcomer settle into the train car we all share. He shoots a look at the open door closest to him. He quickly gauges whether he has enough time to get off before the doors close. His nerves make his decision. He scoops his backpack into his arms, and clambers off the train. The doors close unceremoniously behind him. And my journey continues, uneventfully.

****

New York becomes a place that you live but never settle in. The city is lonelier than you anticipate, plan-making is as fast and loose as the city itself.  You pick up odd jobs that work with your early morning audition schedule: babysitting on the Upper East Side, installing Christmas decorations at restaurants and residences across the boroughs, personal assisting a personal assistant in Manhattan, holding the reflector and extra lenses for the photographer at a wedding in Queens, selling merchandise for the Broadway shows you wish you were onstage for. You rack up your ever-increasing credit card debt at brunches you are deserving of because you didn’t order any takeout this week.

****

A caramel-colored beard adorns a tall man with a military green coat. He is seated directly across from me, in front of one of the poems “for New York, by New York” framed on the gray-speckled wall. The hard lavender bench of the Q train reflects the fluorescent lights in the few nooks that are not taken up by coats and bodies.  A wavy-haired brunette with a burgundy beanie is cozied next to him.  Their bodies make contact along their profiles. Open books lay upon their laps. Based on the width and sturdiness of each, they are not reading the same book. Their focus is engrossed by words. Headphones dangle from their ears. Their body language gives no hint of what they are listening to, no foot tap, no head bopping to the rhythm. They could be listening to podcasts, but that seems tricky while reading. Separate music, separate readings, no conversation. This modern couple presents no indication of their relationship, besides the lack of physical barriers. Perhaps they are not a couple at all. How intimately we share our space with strangers in the confines of an underground metal tube.

****

New York is filled with extremes, highlighted by its inhabitants, its infrastructure, its aesthetics. One twenty-minute subway ride can effortlessly display each of these dichotomies.  Rich, poor. Success, failure. Generous, selfish. Happiness, misery. New, old. Luck, misfortune. Fast, slow. Informed, ignorant. Savvy, naïve. Pretty, ugly. Sober, intoxicated. Bright, dull. Welcoming, forbidding. New York is a big club people are desperate to join.  But the club has no rules. There is no goal, no mission statement.

****

New York blurs lines. Things become relative. People can mistake your acting profession for glamorous, when in reality, you had to frantically call your super at 8 AM to deal with the mouse in your shower drain the morning of your big national tour audition. You tell people you were invited to multimillion dollar apartments in the Financial District but forget to mention it was as the Coat Check Girl. You date the same person for six months only to learn that you are still not exclusive. You find a Honeydew melon at Key Food for the outrageous price of $9.99 but manage to justify the price and then purchase it. You order delivery from the McDonald’s three blocks away because it’s been a long day. You arrive safely home, comforted by the thought that you were only catcalled and not assaulted, like a woman you know. You walk past homeless persons unsympathetically. You crank up the volume of your NPR podcast and ignore the showtime acts trying to make a dollar on the 8-minute-long uninterrupted stretch of subway travel.

****

The doors sit open and the train is stalled in the station, unmoving. I sit near the doors, not next to. I see a scrap of paper stuffed into the seal of the window by Roxanne 36DD, who’s just looking for a good time at a slightly smudged phone number. A tall, sturdy but ruffled, man enters the car in a huff and sits down next to me, causing me to shrink a bit to accommodate his large stature. Minutes pass and the train remains mercilessly stagnant. He wears a worn suede coat. His too large knees jut out at obtuse angles. He seems restless, trying hard to keep his body quiet. We sit hushed in the car, everyone to themselves. The large man’s cell phone begins to ring. The train car is not crowded enough to absorb the sound, so instead the hollow digital tones ricochet off the hard seats. He rushes to answer it. “Sorry man, yeah. This train…”  Sigh. He clenches his phone-free fist. “I know, man. I’m comin’.” Grunt. “Man, I know!” Inhale. “COME ON, MAN. NO. No, no, no, no, no. Nah, man. Oh my god. No.” The last “no” is more of a loud whimper. The phone leaves his ear and hangs from his limp hand. For a moment he is as still as the train. Then there is a burst of emotion, stomping his feet and bellowing cries in spurts of despair. He heavily slumps back down in the seat next to me. Still. Stomping and angry. Still. He holds his burdened head in his hands. He moans.

Two older women I hadn’t noticed before turn around in their seats. They are quintessential church ladies. They wear elegant hats in pastel hues and matching floral print dresses. One even boasts white tea gloves. The glove’s white dainty starkness grabs hold of the battered seat.  The women begin to interject soothing words into the stilted silence.

“I know, I know, it’s hard.”

“It ain’t fair, I know.”

“It’s alright. You alright.”

“Mmmm, I know, I know.”

He merely grunts towards their general direction. They are undeterred. Their energies are with him. They remain facing his direction, uncomfortably perched,  turned nearly halfway around in their seats. Slowly, their peace begins to soften him. His anger deflates one pin prick at a time. His angry outbursts give way to devastation. His robust frame is diminished. The ladies continue to ­­­­­assuage him until he is subdued by his own emotions.

The train, unaware of the consequences it has wreaked, revs up at long last. As if mockingly, the train moves at a slower pace than usual. The motion has not eased the man’s desperation. Nor has the static-filled, uninterpretable conductor announcement. After a handful of stops I didn’t count, the man stands. Weary, he works his way toward the door. His shoulders bear his emotional weight as he trudges. Without meeting their eyes, he gives an almost imperceptible nod to the women, who are still watching him. Still exuding solace, they close their eyes and bow their heads. And, far more laden than at the beginning of his journey, he exits the train.

****

New York subways. The subway. The great equalizer. The subway treats everyone the same. It will stop, stall, and sit regardless of what waits for you on the other end- an audition, a business proposal, a death bed, a first date. The subway sees tears, joy, nerves, frustration- an array of the human experience every hour of the day. The subway doesn’t care if you come from money or live paycheck to paycheck, as long as you can swipe the ever-increasing fare. And even then, if you are artful enough to avoid that cost, the subway will still welcome you. The subway does not take personal preferences or concerns into question. The subway will drop everyone’s cell service at the same time, reminding them that cellular signal five stories underground is a privilege, not a right.  Everyone riding is at the mercy of the subway’s strict-until-it’s-not schedule, normalized breakdowns, unsolicited mariachi band performances, and questionably clean surfaces.

****

Some of your auditions pay off. You spend two summers at the Surflight Theatre on the Jersey Shore. You sing high Cs in Les Miserables in Illinois. You get an agent. You perform in eight musicals at The Wick Theatre over two years in Boca Raton, Florida. You moved to New York to get work, but your work always demands you leave. You live and sing abroad for two years at Tokyo Disneyland. Your Japanese coworkers’ eyes glint with jealousy when you bumble through New Yorku ni sunde imasu, that you live in New York. You live in a place millions of people all over the world have scrawled at the top of threadbare lists of places they want to visit before they die. You don’t get the appeal.

****

Somewhere, stories under 101st Street, the 1 train screeches to a halt. The sound deafening. The intense lurching unpleasant. The throng of riders leans forward with the sudden movement and rebounds back to their natural angles. The engine stops. The focus on phones, newspapers, and conversations remains unbroken. One sign of a New Yorker is the utter lack of concern regarding subway disturbances. There may be a heavy sigh or a slight eye roll, but no nervous look around with wide eyes that wonder what is going on. I pass the lost time by reading the dated overhead advertisements for the umpteenth time, trying to ignore how late I will be to my callback appointment. Dr. John’s Happy Mouth Dental Service hardly seems as legit as his quoted “success” stories might have you believe.

Several minutes go by and the train murmurs back to life, moving at a pace so slow that walking to my destination seems like a better option. We inch along, steadily but infuriatingly slow. The windows, dark and void-like, can’t give any hints of understanding in the underground darkness. This is a local 1 train- it stops at every station. We are approaching the 96th Street station, right on Broadway. It is a hub where Bronx commuters relocate from their downtown express train to the local and Upper West Side inhabitants hop off before they cross the threshold of Uptown Manhattan.

The first glimpse of 96th Street station indicates that we are not even on the correct track to stop at the normal platform. We’re too far away. Without any grumbled indication from the conductor, the train seems to be making no effort to stop at the station. Instead, we can see from two rails over, where we should be. And we creep towards the reason we are not. The stairs, always swarming with activity, are empty. The bottom of the stairs is haphazardly tied off with a makeshift cordon. The platform has a small buzz of movement- there are dark blue backs of uniforms- police uniforms. Some stand and converse, some mill about. On the ground at their shiny black feet is a white sheet. The white sheet is clean, unlike the grimy tiled floor it lays on. It covers something. There are only seconds to see the gentle slopes and peaks of the sheet before the windows are again enveloped  by the underground darkness. 

****

2020 happens and your entire industry is shuttered, the health risks too great. You were let go in August; your company no longer able to support the weight of non-working employees. You return to the same New York you’ve known, but it bristles. Masks are donned, tourists cease to exist, subways are empty. Your apartment costs $1000 a month that you see no way of scraping together for the length of another lease. By the end of September, you’ve packed your life up in a U-Haul your mom drove down from upstate. You finally exhale crossing the George-Washington Bridge, the city behind you.

****

New York makes you a harder person. Maybe tougher, perhaps stronger. But the hustle and loneliness galvanize your skin and your heart. You fight for work, and you fight to keep it. Comfort is a luxury not afforded to many. The grind doesn’t stop when you feel overwhelmed. You are forced to endure. There is no time for delicate and fragile. Is this hardness the proof we show to admit ourselves to the exclusive status of New Yorker? I’ve been x, I’ve seen x, I’ve experienced x, I’m a New Yorker. Is it worth it? This impervious skin we cultivate through the years? For better or for worse, you are harder.

****

A dirty-blonde, knock-kneed woman is sitting across from me on the fluorescently lit Q train. She is wrapped in a latte-colored fuzzy coat, her elbow resting on her thigh to prop up her phone-holding hand. I hear small, stifled whimpers that seem to be coming from her direction. No one wants to be characterized by someone as that crying girl on the subway, so I resist my impulses to look at her. I am putting forth a concerted effort to be discreet, but then it dawns on me that perhaps she needs someone to check on her. She emits another momentary squeal and immediately buries her face in her coat. I carefully allow my eyes to go where they’ve been evading, and I realize she is… snickering? Her eyes are closed as she inhales and exhales slowly, a subtle smile breaking through. She’s about to open her eyes when instead she closes them tightly and her body is wracked by giggles. She is suppressing laughter, not tears. Well, there could possibly be tears soon, at the rate she’s going. I’m so shocked by this emotional turn of events that I don’t think to avert my eyes before she catches me watching her. She crinkles her brow and looks at me helplessly, before bursting back into another fit of laughter. She is losing what little strength she has left to keep it together and I feel my hardened no-nonsense-single- female-in-NY exterior starting to crack, as the bubble of a chuckle grows from within me. Suddenly I am the embarrassed one, laughing alone on the subway, at a stranger who is laughing about… something I will never know. The laughing girl looks at me, as if for permission, for us to laugh together. 


    Amelia Millar is a traveling performer, with one home in New York City and another in Tokyo, Japan. Her recent years in Japan and Asia have inspired a newfound love of travel writing. Through her class with Professor Fenn, she has been able to begin to craft and share her experiences abroad and perspectives of home. You can find past work on her travel blog, BedeliaBounds.com. She looks forward to updating her site and producing more pieces like New York Journeys. Photo credit: Amelia Millar