I always know where I’m going. Except when I don’t. When I’m in New York City I’m neither a local nor a tourist. I’m not the sidewalk nor the person walking on it—I am the seam connecting the two tiles together, unnoticed but essential to stability. I’ve been here enough times to have exhausted all the usual tourist spots: to my dismay Madame Tussauds wax figures haven’t aged at all since I visited them as a kid, the same ferries that take people out to the oxidized Statue of Liberty are still running, and I’ve watched as Ground Zero has been turned into a tourist destination. Despite all of that, I still end up on the uptown train when I should be going downtown more times than I’d like to admit.
I usually realize I’ve gotten onto the wrong train just as I hurry into the station, but I roll with it. I get on the train, let the rumble from the floor snake from the soles of my feet into the core of my chest, sway into every turn and jerk, and squeeze into an open seat—usually next to an old Chinese woman who is falling asleep to the sporadic rhythm of the car, grocery bags resting aginst the sides of her legs. I watch people pour in endlessly: the actress clenching her trench coat, averting her eyes from male gazes; the mother bringing the kids home from school, their legs dangling from the mustard yellow seats; the business man, shoes freshly shined and ready to blind any onlooker. I envy the people who ride without the help of the handrails, and I hope one day to stand with arms unsupported. Many riders clutch books; it always seems to be a beat-up copy of On the Road, and I’m convinced it’s a communal copy passed from one hip twenty-something New Yorker to the next. These moments make me feel alive.
The New York subway system has 468 stations, 34 railroad lines, some under construction, and 24 train services that change throughout the day. On an average day, around five million people ride the subway—and sometimes I’m one of them, unnoticed but essential. There’s 842 miles of railroad track and tunnel, most of which I will never see; of the small part I do see, it’s usually only for a dark, fleeting instant when I shift my gaze from my iPhone and catch the blur as the dark slab wall changes to the bright blue and yellow “Canal St” marker, as the station comes into view.
Recently my father took me with him from Albany down to SoHo for a couple days while he sat in as a judge for a hearing. On our first night in the city my aunt tells my father about a little Jamaican place on Houston Street we should stop in before seeing the Christmas lights. “The kids love going there when they go out. It’s called Ms. Lily’s. The waitresses are supposed to be beautiful,” I hear my aunt say through the phone—my father always has his volume turned up too loud.
Ms. Lily’s is a small place with neon lights and reggae music that envelops you the moment you walk in. Bar stools and small tables are crammed together and old Jamaican memorabilia plasters the walls. The menu is simple so the waitresses can spend most of their time talking with their coworkers and the regulars sitting in the back. The real Jamaicans, I imagine. They serve jerk seasoned meats and seafood, ox-tail stew, spicy pickled fruits and vegetables and Red Stripe beer. Young professionals adorn the small bar and go in and out like schools of fish greeting each other, only to bid farewell moments later. The waitresses are beautiful, some with shaved heads, others with dreads, all with tattoos—but the room is too dark to make them out clearly. We order our food and for a few moments let the sounds of the restaurant overtake us.
When our food arrives, my father tells me about a childhood friend he’s been thinking of reconnecting with. “It’d be nice to see him again before we’re both dead,” my father says in between bites of jerk pork that seems too spicy for him. He’s been saying things like “before I die” a lot lately and I wonder how old 64 feels. He tells me about the psychotic break his friend had when they were in their twenties, how no one should have to go through something like that, and of his worry about not liking what his friend had become. I wonder what psychosis looks like, how it feels. I think about friends I’ve left behind, where they are now, where I am—and I’m not sure I’m happy with either. Their voices—friends and family, present and forgotten lovers—are fading away, like phone calls slowly succumbing to static. And I’m afraid I’ll never be able to close the distance again. I feel as if I’m constantly fumbling into new stations, boarding random trains and sitting next to people I’d like to know, wading through opportunities all in hopes of finding something permanent. To my surprise, these fellow passengers acknowledge me, engage in my life, value my opinion, and we talk for hours, days, years, on a train we don’t notice is stopping and starting in an endless loop. But there’s always a point where I decide to get off and watch the people I’ve been talking to for so long blur into the screeching metal before I walk away, toward another destination. I am waiting for the day when I try to enter a new station and I’m told I have insufficient funds.
My father’s high school senior picture sits on the bookshelf in his study. It’s a greenish-grey color—a product of the time—and he is wearing a suit with a striped tie. He has short hair, thick glasses that remind me of Malcom X resting on his nose and he has a jawline I wish I had. He looks like he knows exactly where he is going, looking off to the future that lies in wait for him—Oberlin College and Harvard Law school, multimillion dollar corporations that fly him around the world, a family and a dream house. I envy the determination in his eyes.
As I sit in this little Jamaican restaurant watching him gulp down water, trying to quell the burning sensation on his tongue, I wonder if I am seeing my life 42 years from now. Once we’re finished, we pay for our food and walk out. I follow my father because I still am not sure of where to go. He’s not as agile as he used to be, arthritis slowing his legs, and the ornate canes he once used as decoration seem to be more of a necessity for him now. We walk from one block to the next, and my father rattles off stories from his youth whenever we pass a landmark—and I must slow down for him to keep up.
We take the subway to Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas lights. The tree is big, with multi-colored bulbs sprinkled throughout the branches. It towers over everyone, but the buildings behind make it look small, and I wish I was a bit younger. Smaller. Kids run round and round as their parents try to keep up with them, and I think about how I slow down for my father now. After a few minutes I want nothing more than to go back to our hotel room, away from cold wind and people walking aimlessly around the streets. I start moving through the crowd, but he stops me, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to take a picture for someone,” and I wonder if it’s for his friend. I watch as he focuses his phone’s camera on the Christmas tree before taking the shot, the small screen making the tree look even smaller.
“Do you know which line to take back?” I ask him as we walk away from the growing crowd. I know he knows, but a little reassurance goes a long way for me. He says, “We’ll take the subway back up to Canal Street and walk from there.” I like to pretend to know where I’m going, even when I don’t. I’ve never been bothered being someone who blends in, like a brush stroke in an impressionist painting. Unnoticed, but essential.
When we reach the subway I let my father go first, watch him grasp the handrail that I have a growing aversion to, as he descends the steps slowly. The subway air has a stale quality to it, like you’re breathing in leftover life. It’s sustaining, but not satisfying. My father and I stand far from the yellow line, “You never know if some crazy person is going to push you off the terminal,” he always says. I notice a homeless man pacing up and down the terminal muttering to himself. His white hair stretches out in every direction, and a rip in his pants is covered up with a disintegrating plastic bag—and at that moment I think I know what psychosis looks like.
When the train arrives the homeless man boards with us, and I wonder if he knows where he’s going—or where he’s been. He rocks against the rhythm of the car once we start moving. At each stop people come and go. The train is crowded, but no one dares to sit next to him. My father leans in to me and whispers, “You know, I’ve been listening to what he’s been saying the whole time and I’d bet he used to be a smart guy—maybe a professor even—but some things just aren’t meant to be.”
“Canal Street” erupts from the loud speaker and we get off the train. For a moment, I watch the homeless man sitting by himself, rocking back and forth, muttering words into the subway ether. A young business man—most likely a Wall Street broker—is recording him from an adjacent seat, immortalizing this moment forever. The train lets out an airy sigh and quickly starts moving again, and I watch the homeless man—an actor in a video he knows nothing about—disappear from view. I wonder where he’ll get off, where he’ll end up. As I walk next to my father, watching his limp, he says, “Life is hard.”
He grabs the handrail leading up to the streets I pretend to know, and I watch as he methodically ascends the stairs that will take us back to our hotel.