On the N train into the city, past rush hour with its body-to-body congestion, but not quite to the emptiness at the end of the night, when it’s only those who work too late or those who don’t have to work much at all, riding the train in that collective silence that only happens when everyone is too tired, from the day and of the many forced interactions of life in the city.
An elderly woman, wrapped in a faded fur coat, spoke softly, but not that softly, “The city really has changed. There used to be…standards.”
She spoke with a young woman, or rather she spoke at the young woman, who did not respond nor look up from her cell phone as she utilized the brief moments when the train emerges from the cell phone reception zapping underground and she could check her Twitter/Snapchat/Tinder as it passed over the stilled East River and into the city that sparkled like light-filled mirrors.
Across from the elderly woman sat two twenty-something pseudo-intellectual hippies, who smelled of last night’s bar scene–cheap cigarettes and even cheaper beer. They were presumably the target of the old woman’s statement. The one who looked like he should have been carrying a guitar case said, “It’s cliche to say this city is haunted. We can’t talk about ghosts. But there has to be a way to talk about how the memories of what the city used to be linger here.”
The other, with a mouth open wide like a fish (perhaps he was going for 1960s greaser cool look but had forgotten the dangling cigarette), said, “It’s sort of like that religion Scientology. You know how they believe there used to be aliens and now they’re like imprinted on our souls? That’s why they have to pay money and get cleansed and all that shit. Anyway, just think of that analogy. How the city used to be, that’s imprinted on us, man. We can’t escape how it used to be. We’ll always know it was better than it is now.”
As if picking up their conversation, the old woman spoke to her granddaughter (and if the young woman wasn’t her granddaughter, she carried the bored expression of one), by adding, “The Village used to have bookstores. Everywhere. There was a whole street lined with them when I was a girl. Now the streets are lined with Duane Reades. And gyms,” she said the last word with the kind of snobbish distaste someone normally reserved for Walmart, cheap hotels, or coffee chains.
The young woman, disconnected from her cell phone now that they were back underground but still with a glazed, disengaged look, lifted her limp hand and barely covered a yawn.
A young woman, a college freshman at NYU, Midwest blonde and aching with newness, sat quietly watching the people around her, darting her eyes fervently between each group. Her newness was so profoundly strong the others could practically smell it on her: the way her eyes widened as they crossed the river and she absorbed the jagged razor of skyscrapers jutting into the sky, the way her knuckles were white from gripping the handle of her rolling suitcase. Her newness was virginal–so untainted, so full of desire–that it made her desirous to the huddled masses around her.
A middle-aged man took it upon himself to sit beside her and act as tour guide. “I’m from Long Island. Been there since ’76. I’ve been all around–Vegas even–and there is nothing like this city.”
“I’m sure he hasn’t been everywhere,” the elderly women “whispered” to her indifferent granddaughter.
A single rider, a man no older than his twenties, neatly folded his newspaper, stood up, and shouted: “It makes people incredibly uncomfortable when I yell on a crowded subway!” He sat back down and reopened his paper.
The riders collectively shuddered at the interruption, the break in their monotonous complaining over. They pretended they had not heard his outburst, as probably he expected them too.
The doors opened at Canal Street and the two guys rose to leave. “See man, it’s crazy shit like that that gives me hope. It’s like that time we saw that one-legged homeless guy masturbating near Astor Place,” the one absent of a guitar case said.
“Yeah man, that’s the kind of stuff, that’s like rock and roll. Like punk,” fish mouth added as they disappeared into the station.
The elderly woman scoffed and pulled her collar closer around her neck, as though shielding herself from something. She, the tour guide, and the man with the newspaper were lulled into silence as the train continued its journey. The college freshman sat quietly too, waiting for something.