Listening to music on the subway is one of the most certain ways to feel you belong somewhere. Visitors don't listen to music (we'd like to think) - they're too worried they'll miss their stop, or some crucial announcement ("Courtesy is contagious. And it starts with you!").
I don't know why I feel this way, exactly. I know the first time I felt it. During my second year of university, I volunteered (briefly) for the campaign of a Lt. Governor candidate in Boston. I had to volunteer for one of my classes, so I deliberately picked one of the least-known candidates in the hopes that I would have something more interesting to do than stuff envelopes, but what I didn't know is that everyone stuffs envelopes on a campaign. And the office was in Quincy, so I would take the Red Line for an hour to get there and stuff envelopes. (My first day I got a paper cut and bled all over a whole stack of envelopes before I noticed; I hope this is not why my candidate lost the election.) And one day, on the way home, one of those icy late-winter evenings, a rush of cold just before things would start to get warm again, I fell asleep listening to my music, head against the window of the train. And when I woke up - just in time, at Park Street, seconds before the doors were about to shut - I thought, I've made it. I belong.
Up until then I had thought - irrationally, unfairly, I hadn't even been there two years - that I belonged, that I had some ownership over this place (or it over me). But now I knew it to be true, because I had been lulled to sleep on a train with my headphones in.
And I don't belong in New York, particularly. But here I am with my music on anyway.
Step off the train at Coney Island and you feel immediately dislocated in time and space. A place that once was, I always think; all that imagined laughter and cotton candy, but no sign of it now on the empty avenues and windy winter beachfront.
I first had this feeling when I was 12. After a red eye flight from California, followed by a long day traipsing around Manhattan (or was it Brooklyn?), we took the F train to Coney Island. I only knew Coney Island as part of the geography of my mother's childhood, so it's possible I had absorbed some of her nostalgia (or not-nostalgia) without realizing, without knowing the place at all. On the subway, tired of being made to do things by adults who, I reasoned, should be even tireder than me, I fell fast asleep. When I awoke we were at Coney Island. It was April and freezing and totally desolate. We had hot dogs at Nathan's and then walked to the boardwalk and looked out at the sea.
Now it is December. A pair of newlyweds are posing for photos outside of Nathan's. She is wearing a long white dress, her arms bare. A sleek black car from the 1950s waits for them (maybe they are all from the 1950s, maybe they will disappear to a happier, warmer time for Coney Island when they get in that car). The photographers' hands are white with cold.
Later, eating our hot dogs, we see the bride and groom casually cross Stillwell Avenue, holding hands.