Subway Stories

On the T, late at night in a crowded car, I used to like to stand at the front, practically brushing up against the driver. It was the only way to lose my sense of claustrophobia, to quiet my distress as the crush of bodies closed around me and the smell of sweat (even in coldest winter), the stifled coughs, crept closer. It only worked on the green line, two linked trolleycars ambling through America's oldest subway system, but from the front car you could see the tracks and feel your own speed, and that was something special.

When I first moved to Boston I rode the subway often, and for no reason at all. I liked how novel it was, how the shape of the city changed beneath ground. I liked being moved by something huger, faster, older than myself; I liked being moved with other people. My knowledge of the city was twinned with my knowledge of its transport. Falling asleep I would name the stops the way they appeared on the map, emanating outward from Park Street--Boylston Arlington Copley Hynes Convention Center, Kenmore.

Once a boy and I took the blue line all the way to the end, to Wonderland. It was Halloween night and I had a paper to write but we walked through the October fringes of the city ignoring the time, ignoring the darkness. I put my feet in the Atlantic ocean, but even so it was an ugly part of the city. The houses looked like they might crumble and fall under a harsh gaze and you could see the pristine skyline faraway, and it looked impossibly distant. There's no way there's a relationship between here and there, I thought, but of course there was, the painted blue trains, they were the relationship.

Another time the same boy and I were on the red line. We'd taken it very far and very late at night and suddenly our car was empty. Have you ever been on a completely empty subway car? It's like the city dissolved. There was only trash on the floor and our jouvenile nervousness. I thought this was romantic, but now it leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Already I was isolating us, cutting us off (cutting me off) from everything--the city, the people, and hopes and dreams and happiness.

I used to take the train to Harvard Square for the bookshops. My favourite was a ten minute walk from the station and it was such a cold and empty walk through Cambridge. Sometimes on the way back, if it was late and dark enough, I would steal through the Harvard campus. It seemed a dead campus. You got one or two people cutting through quads and a few lights glowing in stony buildings but compared to the bustle of the city or the intimacy of the train it was nothing, nothing.

When the Red Sox won the world series for the first time in 80 years we took the green line to Kenmore, to Fenway Park. There were people shouting on the train and our entire car broke out into a chorus of, "Yankees suck! Yankees suck!" even though it wasn't the Yankees we'd beat that night.

Once, in my second-t0-last semester, I was on the train going to class when I saw a boy I fancied. I'd never seen him before and I would never see him after but I thought he was good looking and I must have stared all the way from Kenmore to Copley because at Arlington he looked me square in the eye and said his name. We reached across the aisle and shook hands. He told me he was a musician, a guitarist. He was playing a gig that night. I could come if I wanted. I smiled and said maybe I would and got off the train, but of course I didn't, and I was horrified at myself for being so transparent.

It was always too hot in winter and too cold in summer, and in between, you could feel the relief.

That claustrophobia. Once a pair of men fighting jostled their way into my train at Government Center. They were yelling and shouting and the crowd inside tried to make room, and then one of them said, "I'll fucking stab you you asshole" and pulled out a knife and no one screamed but you could hear the breath suddenly hang in everyone's throats, and then someone took charge and dragged them both back onto the platform and the doors shut and people went back to reading the Metro.

The long waits. The later at night the longer, and then, like a beacon of hope, the squeal of rails, the headlights, the rush of wind. The rush of hot wind--I always liked that. It smelled of city. If you were in a great hurry to get somewhere of course you would have to wait. Maybe the T had a sense of humour, I don't know; maybe it was just trying to say look at you, taking yourself so seriously, but does it really matter, is it really going to make you happier, getting to your job or the gym or the bar on time? And the funny thing is, it never really was.