Last week I went to a book club where they had read my latest novel. I like going to book clubs. I like to talk about my novels. I like the way arguments break out over the characters as if they are real people because to me they are real people.
I also like that there is usually wine.
At this book club, towards the end, after we’d discussed Rhea – the main character – and her mother and her aunt and her lover, one of the women brings up something else, something I hadn’t heard a reader say before. “The subway,” she says, “you must love it. The novel is like a tribute to the New York City subway.”
She’s right: I do love the subway and Rhea does too. She loves to ride from one end of the line to the other and when she’s a little kid she even makes up her own game using an old subway map her mother left behind. Before I made up this game for Rhea, I’d never made up a game with a subway map but I’d thought about it. There’s something that’s always appealed to me about those maps – the colours, the order, the fact that you know where you are and where you’ve just come from and where you will be next.
This week has not been like that. Two days ago my wife had surgery – surgery that went successfully – and during these long days there’s been a lot of stress and a lot of waiting and a lot of not knowing where I will be next. This morning, I visited her in hospital and afterwards I found myself standing on the corner of 10th Avenue and 59th street, uncertain. She could be released later, but then again that might not happen until tomorrow or Sunday. The day may or may not be empty and even if she didn’t come home there were lots of important things to be done, things I’d been putting off all week. Just because I couldn’t remember what they were didn’t make them any less so.
Frozen, I couldn’t seem to decide where to start my day. So I decide to start where I often start when I feel like that – I decide to take the 2 train to Brooklyn.
When the train pulls into the station at 42nd street it is past rush hour and there is a choice of seats but I don’t sit down. I walk to the front of the carriage to the standing area by the door. No-one else is standing so I have the pole to myself. I interlace my hands loosely around it, plant my feet on either side. This is something I used to do when I wanted to get deeper into Rhea’s character. I haven’t done it in quite a while and as the train takes off and my hands pull back against the metal I think I might be doing it this morning to get deeper into my own.
To Rhea a subway journey is like a fairground ride – a cross between a roller coaster and a ghost train. To get that feeling she needs music – I need music – without it, it just doesn’t work. She plays songs on repeat and I do that this morning too, only it’s not one of her favourite songs I’m playing, it’s one of mine: “Hero” by Family of the Year.
Being at the front of the carriage is important because you get to see through the window into the carriage ahead of you and the reflection of what’s happening behind you at the very same time. And if you watch the swing of the metal chain that connects both carriages together, you can see the curve of the tunnel right before you feel it in the sway of your hips or the weight in your feet or the way the pole jerks and pulls against your hands.
My favourite part – the very best part – is when the train picks up speed and gets really fast through the stations where it won’t stop. That’s why it’s good to be on an express train. This morning that was the stretch between 14th Street and Chambers, when it feels like the music picks up speed as well and there’s darkness and metal and lights and a station and darkness again and curves of wall and another station and just when you think it can’t get any faster, any curvier, any jerkier, the train slows down and this time we’re stopping.
I didn’t used to like stopping in stations, but now I do. The trick to enjoying the stations is not to spend the time wishing the train would move again but to look outside when the doors open – properly look – at the people on the platform, the tiles on the walls, the old mosaic of the subway names. Because once I look at all that, really see it, it reminds me that I’m not just shuttling through tunnels on a train underground: I’m shuttling through tunnels on a train under New York City.
The last burst of journey for me this morning is between Wall Street and Clark, under the river. No stations to pass through here and it feels a bit slower, slow enough to see the graffiti on the walls lit up by blue lights and the yellow-white ones. The carriage is nearly empty, just me up this front end and I sneak a look at my reflection side on in the grubby window, arms outstretched, swinging back from the pole, the metal warm now, under my fingers.
At Clark Street I am jerked forward for the last time. The doors open. The ride is over. I jump off.
As the train pulls away I take a photo of it on my phone – maybe I already have this blog post in mind – but I don’t stand there to watch it leave the station. The rush of energy from the jostling and the swaying and the music is still in my head, still in my body as I bounce up the platform, take the steps two at a time.
And walking down towards the water, my song is still on repeat, until I get to the bench where I know I am going to turn it off and start to write this, while I still can. And even without the music, the energy is still there, in the tingling of my fingers from holding the pole, in the place the pen meets the page.
And it’s still here now – the energy – even though it is slowing down, even though I know that we are getting towards the last line, that we are nearly at the station. And even when I finish, I might still feel it, I think I will. Because I’ll remember that even when I don’t see it, the subway is still there, deep below the ground.
And that even though it runs late sometimes it can always take me home.