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All the subtle things about the NYC subway…

Please note: this text was written before the pandemic. 

If you look at any New York City travel guide, you’ll find tips on what to do in the city and probably a list of places you can’t miss. Gazing at the lights of Times Square can be magical, as walking in Central Park can also be. Seeing the Statue of Liberty is a dream come true for many people, and viewing the city from above at the Top of the Rock is merely unforgettable. But these lists about this city — that lives in the imagination of so many people and that was featured in memorable stories told by Hollywood — leave out something essential of the New York experience: the subway system.

Yes, the subway is dirty, it isn’t pleasant, and it may not provide the most Instagrammable photos. But if you miss this “institution” in the city, you are also losing a chance to connect with New York real life, full of contrasts, truths, joys, laughter, and even sadness. I am grateful for this system that gives me the freedom to not need a car and to quickly reach my destination. Okay, there are controversies, but that’s a topic for another day. However, the subway experience goes beyond simply being a means of transportation.

It is interesting to see how the atmosphere inside the subway cars reflects people’s moods. You won’t hear a whisper when taking a subway on a Monday morning. Everyone will be looking at their smartphones or books, tired of the weekend, and maybe even sick of being back to routine. It seems almost like an insult trying to break that silence. On a Friday night, the scene changes. The silence gives way to loud conversations, laughter, and excitement.

Obviously, this scenario would not be so attractive without some peculiar characters. In particular, I enjoy when the operator is on his best day and announces the stops in a good mood. Deep down, he knows that everyone is frowning in the cars, immersed in their smartphones. So it doesn’t cost him anything to try getting a smile from people, even if modest. Of course, the subway also features the saddest characters: veterans begging for money, moms acting desperately, or even children selling candies. I confess that it always touches my heart and reminds me of how privileged I am. Yes, New York is fantastic – but I know how cruel it can be to other people.

Still talking about these subway figures, we can’t forget the acrobats. We all know that the poles should not be used for dancing, but these guys don’t even care. I confess, some days  I think it’s great to see the jumps they do. There are other days when I want them to finish because I’m afraid of being hit with a foot in the middle of my face. And, from all these characters, there is no way to forget the musicians. Guitar, accordion, drums: in cars and stations, music always has a space. There are performances; there is dancing, there is singing. I do not deny that I really love when I have the chance to see those four old guys that sing a capella. Their voices are strong and beautiful. I always feel like it is my lucky day when that happens. It doesn’t matter my state of mind: their music still brings warmth to my heart, brings a smile to my face, and makes me feel grateful to be there in that moment. Whether that’s lucky or not, I’ve been gifted with this dozens of times.

Of course, the New York subway routine doesn’t just have fun and relaxed moments. Let us not forget that we are talking about a city where nobody has time for anything; everyone is always running and often in a bad mood. The impatient looks down the tunnel – as if that would make the subway come faster – the frustrated faces of those who missed the subway for 5 seconds and the disappointment in seeing that their train is full and they will have to wait some long 5 minutes for the next one. But it all becomes silly when public transport becomes a place for crying. They say this is even a rite of passage: you only become a real New Yorker by crying on public transportation. Is it a little bit of pain and delight to be whoever you want, and no one cares about you – or is it you who doesn’t care what other people think of you and freely let the tears flow?

In the end, what I find most impressive on the New York subway are the subtleties and small details: the coincidence of bumping into someone you know, the joy of recognizing a famous face from TV, and, of course, the contrast. Tall and thin, rich and poor, white and black, highstreet and hipsters, Americans and foreigners – everyone’s the same, even though only for a while, inside the subway.

But do you want to know the best moment of all? It is when the train takes that path leaving the underground and crossing the Manhattan Bridge, revealing the skyline, the river, and the Brooklyn Bridge. It is as if your eyes are drawn from the phone screen to the car window. It’s like New York is waving and reminding you, once again, how incredibly beautiful and crazy this city is.

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