New York, I love you.
It's really true. New York, I do love you. You how sometimes, in literature, the setting is treated as a character because it just has so much bearing on the way the actual human characters live their lives? Because it has so much personality? That's how I feel about New York.
We get along very well, New York and I. What I love the most is just how alive the city feels, how very alive I am here. How very busy and overwhelming it seemed at first, like a wacky stranger whose behavior I could never anticipate, who surprised me with every word that came out of his (or is it her?) mouth, who left me feeling exhausting and craving the comfort of predictability and normalcy. You know, like the suburbs. But now? Now, New York is starting to feel like an old friend.
Every day, so many passing details around me arrest me and leave my mind delighted, my imagination astir, or my heart newly warmed. Last week, it was the kindly newspaperman I’d never seen at the 125th St station, singing a (clearly improvised) “Happy Tuesday” song. When his eyes caught mine, I gave him a big smile, to which he responded, “Knock it out, young lady!” One particularly draining day it was seeing the word “PRAY” etched on the subway car I was riding. (Twice! Not just on my way in in the morning, but in the evening, too! In a completely different place on a different car!) And then there’s the opera singer with the angel wings who stands on the 59th St platform, continuing to sing as the 2 train roars by, her microphoned voice no match for the shuddering rails. She doesn’t seem to mind.
Come to think of it, I happen upon free, spontaneous concerts daily. At West 4th it’s the man who plays the Chinese fiddle for hours at a time. 59th St has the best variety. There’s the beautiful young couple who plays the drums (i.e. buckets) and, occasionally, the nearby trash can. Once it was what looked like father and son playing the violins so passionately I was sure their strings would give out. There was a trumpet-player who got me thinking about Christmas a tad early with “Joy to the World.”
There’s nothing like happening upon a dingy subway platform that is brought to life by music, music that ricochets off the tiled walls and bounces straight into my tired ears, ears that are accustomed to tuning out the excess noise all around. Natives and tourists alike flock. Toes tap. Smiles abound. I love having a soundtrack to my life, however changeable.
Yes, there’s the issue of the “Avoid eye contact at all costs especially when riding the subway even if you’re smashed up against your neighbor and can smell what kind of shampoo she uses” rule. That’s a tough one. I break it at every chance I get. One day, I was heading to campus and was ahead of schedule, as is often the case. The train had stopped and I was about to get off at my stop as I waited for the man in front of me to get off, then the doors closed. He immediately turned around, looked at me through the subway doors, and gave me a bemused, sympathetic look. I shrugged my shoulders with a smile. Then, the man who had just gotten on and was beside me said, “Hey, at least it’s not midterm season!” (It was. Also, I’m not a student, but never mind.) “That’s true!” I responded, happy for a chance to break the eye contact rule and the even graver “Don’t have friendly conversations with strangers” rule. “You know, it’s a beautiful day for a walk,” I continued. “That’s a great attitude,” he replied, somewhat taken aback. Then, “Have a great day,” he said, in that refreshingly genuine, unrehearsed way. I smiled all the way to campus. Let me tell you, I would miss my stop any day if it meant making these lovely connections with my fellow city dwellers.
I fear this is turning into a love letter to the subway. Whoops. Just one more instance, I promise.
Then there’s suffering. In New York, just as they do anywhere, people suffer. But here, it’s different. The pain is plain to see. One day, I was walking down Bowery past an outdoor café. I saw a young woman sobbing in the arms of her mother, who had a soft smile on her face as she enveloped her daughter in a hug. In that moment, mid-step, I felt a share in the scene. While I just caught them with a passing glance, the image lasted in my mind. I saw the sorrow of a young woman, just like me, and the quiet, confident nurturing of a mother just like my own. What an intimate moment it was, yet somehow it seemed so appropriate that I, a perfect stranger to them, should partake in it, even if silently, from a distance.
And it’s not always perfect strangers whom I observe. I was once riding home on the subway after a morning run in Central Park when I heard a voice I immediately recognized. I had heard it before. “Hello, my name is Maurie,” she began. “A year ago, I lost my home and everything I owned in a fire. Now I’m homeless and living on the streets.” Maurie continued to explain her plight to the passengers who steadfastly avoided her gaze and her open hand as she made her way down the car, asking for money. Carrying only a water bottle, I had nothing to give her. She came closer to me. But before she reached my end of the car, she found an empty seat and slumped into it. Immediately, her eyes filled with helpless, tired tears and she began to cry softly.
What a gift that moment was. No, I had no change to give her, no food to offer. But as I watched her, I felt my heart soften as it never had before when I saw a homeless person in the city. I beheld her unreserved sorrow, and I cared so deeply that she was suffering. I was moved to great compassion for Maurie, literally, moved to suffer with her. And I did so with a distinct sadness that I felt there was nothing to do for her in that moment, but what I could do was simply recognize our shared humanity. To see her and think, You are a child of God just as I am, and I care that you are in pain. In matters to me that you exist. I am glad that you are alive. It’s not much, I know. But I thank God that He moved me to see her beauty, to hold her in my heart even for a brief time. And I trust that He is the one who ultimately saves, not I.
I do feel so very alive here. This place is one that I have come to love. One where I feel deeply loved, most of all by God. So, God, let me treat the subway as an adventure, a mystery. The parks as Your gift of fresh air to me. The people I pass as my brothers and sisters. The streets I explore as my own. Let me never lose sight of Your glory and beauty in the midst of it all. May I always see the city as Your great gift to me, yet my temporary home. Point me always to heaven, always to You.
For that is where I truly belong.