The Low Power Subway

A train to the future grounds me in the present.

It is a Monday morning in New York. The R train carrying Brooklynites under the East River to Manhattan is comfortably full. The inside of the 1970s railcar has a yellow glow that makes me wonder if lighting standards were different then or if the 70s were actually yellow.

As we approach Whitehall Street station, the train begins to slow. We never quite stop, but all of a sudden, time stops. The heat has gone off and only the emergency lights remain lit. Yet this is not an emergency. The car continues to roll slowly and not a single rider flinches. Have you ever been on a subway car when it goes into a low power mode of sorts? This is one of those times.

The silence is overwhelming. More than a hundred people creeping along underground without a sound. And the limited lighting throws an unusual contrast on the passengers. Imagine a Broadway scene where, right before a gang listens to their leader give an impassioned monologue, they place themselves at different depths in the scene: one leans on a light pole, another on a curb, one on the back of a bench. The stage lighting has created the urban transport equivalent. I stare contentedly at my fellow passengers, each stealing the show in their own silent way.

I cherish my presence in this moment. A reminder that the New York I desire is in front of me. I moved to New York to experience Jane Jacobs’ “ballet of the good city sidewalk” and concur with Lewis Mumford that New York “is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.” Yet I spend many hours with my head down and my mind focused on the process. I get absorbed by creating the New York experience I want for tomorrow, rather than experiencing today’s.

Not that New York does not reward focusing on the process. But each achievement carries less meaning without context. New York provides both, if you look for it: receiving an email ping about an accepted application while ambling down a leafy brownstone street, rejoicing a successful product launch with colleagues on a steamy subway platform. Those same accomplishments would not be the same in another setting.

The low power subway strikes the perfect balance of process and context. It is regular enough to avoid provoking alarm, yet rare enough to avoid dismissing. A chance to relate to your fellow passengers and urban dwellers. Yet we never stop moving forward. On the tracks. As individuals. As a society.

The low power subway is a reminder that we live in a community that invests in public infrastructure to move people, to connect them with opportunity. But it is also a reminder that there is room for me to contribute to the continued operation of moving people.

The low power subway gives me a moment to pause and reflect on how my work for the day would not exist without this subway train. I smile and feel a renewed sense of purpose. When the details seem pointless and unnecessary, I will remind myself that it all goes towards creating moments such as these.

When the lights and heat come back on, the vortex has returned. I ride on, planning for New York of tomorrow, content that I have experienced New York of today.

I wrote this essay for Gotham Writers Creative Nonfiction 101. Our assignment was to craft a rich setting and explore what it meant to you. Unsurprisingly, I picked a subway car. I would highly recommend the class!

Written on May 17, 2019