Lately, despite all the heavy-duty stimulation of Manhattan, I’ve been stuck in a quiet corner and not inclined to write. Yesterday I began to have some mildly interesting thoughts. I felt a story coming on. If you’re patient and forgiving, you might want to read on to discover what I’ve been thinking. Have I cajoled you into acting from your higher self? Good. Read on. I humbly submit that, once you’ve reached an age from which you can look back at a substantial number of years, your thoughts might be a bit like mine.
When at age 16 I got my driver’s license, I’d dream up all kinds of reasons, usually very lame, to get in the car and drive somewhere, anywhere. “Mom, can I borrow the car? I’ve got to run out to get some___________.” Her answer was always yes. She was usually too tired to object. So I’d make a trip for this and a trip for that, and “Oh, I forgot to get those,” and so on and on. An idle car in the driveway called to me in one stark, simple word: FREEDOM, loud and clear. And yes, in all caps. The boy’s gotta get outta the house. The house is teenage penitentiary. At 16, I was in no frame of mind to be penitent. Penitence would have to wait.
Mine was the luxury of driving myself around town, the sole occupant of a vast Cadillac
or an Oldsmobile station wagon. My father bought American. He didn’t know this, but he subsidized my freedom with his cars. Surely he wanted me to feel like a normal, privileged Caucasian American boy? He paid for the cars and the gas and the oil and the tires and the insurance. He paid for the bodywork after I bent something. And he knew a country lawyer who knew all the judges who gave me prayer-for-judgement after I’d blown it. I can’t dwell on fender-benders now. That would take far too many words and evoke too much stale anguish, which makes me squirm and look the other way. I’ve written another story on that subject, which you may read at your leisure.
I lived under the spell of automotively-derived freedom well beyond my teens. I have been responsible for many cars since then. I was good to all of them, and they were all good to me. They always got me there and back home again. Truth be told—and anyone who knows anything about me knows this: I lavished tons of time and attention on my cars.
“He was a beautiful sailor. He deftly negotiated the winds and the currents on his ocean of love.
Volkswagen, true to their word this time, has just purchased from me the two VW diesels I bought from them. “What’s that?” you say. You don’t know about the Volkswagen diesel fiasco, about how VW claimed the cars were saving the Earth while you were having a blast behind the wheel with all that turbocharged horsepower and torque?
Well, those clever German engineers were having a helluva time making the cars burn diesel oil cleanly while still delivering all that driving fun. So they cheated: they rigged the cars’ computers to activate the emission control system only when the cars were actually being tested for exhaust emissions. It was a global scandal, the largest, most costly recall of automobiles to date. It has drained VW of billions. It screwed up their public image. But it paid off for me. I drove the cars almost four years and VW gave me what I paid for them. Like most mortals, I usually lose money selling or trading cars. This time, dear old Dad, dear old VW is financing my freedom year in the city of Miss Liberty. I won’t bang up any fenders or cook any brakes because I ride the subway—and I wish I could tell my Mom and Dad and Sister that their boy finally got outta the house.
I’m gonna miss those VWs. They were great tools, so satisfying to use, as good German tools tend to be. Their doors closed with a nice tight solid German thunk. Their seats held me, intimately. The cars rolled down the road like champs at ridiculous speeds in any weather. They had a clean and simple Bauhaus style, which meant they were easy to look at. Unpretentious. That’s what they were. They were my good friends. And my good friends in Iowa drove them to their curtain call in Iowa City, since I’m in New York. What VW will do with them, I do not know. I’ve heard they might be crushed, which is sad, because they hadn’t rolled very far. Every time I drove that beautiful silver Golf TDi, I felt myself to be a fit and trim younger man donning an expensive, custom-tailored suit. It was that sort of car, crafty, stylish and clever far beyond its price, the wheeled equivalent of the hipster.
Now I live in one of the most densely populated places in Earth. I have no car here. My lonely, aging Saab convertible silently waits for marching orders in a garage in Iowa. The Swedish carmaker Saab, you might know, is no more, the victim of both financial strangulation by General Motors and obsessive Swedish engineers whose main goal was to make a car so safe that no one ever got hurt in one.
“He never knew the turbulence in the waters of my ancient longing. I hid it beneath a dissatisfaction which was itself disguised.
Here on the great grand isle of Manhattan I take the subway, like millions of other real New Yorkers. I’ve yet to use a cab.
Public transport confers a freedom quite different from the freedom I felt as teenaged driver. You don’t have to deal with traffic jams, parking, oil changes, maintenance or crashes. You’re not a bit concerned about resale value. Car salesmen will neither taunt nor haunt you. You do have to play by the rules of the system, just as you drive by the rules of the road. You go when and where the subway goes, and you go with all the other souls on their journeys. Mass transit has a significant social component that isn’t there when you’re locked up in your own car. You’re with people you may see only during this ride. You will almost certainly never know them. But you’ll tend to be civil and polite because you recognize their humanity. You may get into an interesting discussion with someone. You may be face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder in the mysterious silence of strangers.
Since I’m not driving, I don’t do driver’s yoga. I don’t twist my neck around to check oncoming traffic. I don’t worry about being wiped out by someone TWD: texting while driving. Instead, I do a ton of walking. I could collide with someone deeply involved with a cellphone. That could lead to romance; how ’bout it, ye gods? And believe me, if you use the subway, you will learn about the steps and stairways. You’ll get more than your share of exercise. Some of the subway stations are buried ‘way down deep into the earth, well below the sidewalks. Some of those stations have escalators. And some of those escalators appear to go almost straight up. Those are a real lifesaver. The Chinatown YMCA is at the bottom of a long, steep stairway. The F subway train runs below the Y. Manhattan runs deep.
The subway system itself is almost pure genius. And it has art throughout. (Really, it does.)Here’s how I imagine the subway system began. At least one soul must have thought, “We’re gonna have a ton of people here. Millions will want to visit. Let’s make it easy for them to get around. But how? Aha! We’ll go underground.” Its origins and development are complex, and it very nearly did not come to be. Without it—I have said this before and will doubtless say it again—Central Park would be Central Parking, and the city would be another sprawling suburban nightmare. The life that is New York life would not exist.
Move in a little closer. Listen carefully. See what you extract from what’s ahead.
Saturday night I rode toward my place after watching a lineup of standup comics at the Broadway Comedy Club. The night was young; the car, uncrowded. Everyone was quiet. Then the young blonde woman on my left began to motion quietly toward a large black man standing in front of us. She wasn’t doing enough to get this attention. She caught mine instead. I asked her what was going on, and the man looked her way. She pointed to a US dollar bill on the floor, folded into a tiny triangle. She asked him, “Is that yours?” Immediately another black man seated next to me said, “It’s mine!” I laughed, and then, sensing his spirit, I said, “I have one just like it!” Faces all around us lit up with laughter. Riding in a subway car can be a very social thing. I think it makes New York a much safer, more civilized town.
“From time to time, he’d find his harbor, and, feeling safe there, he’d say something magic.
Recently, I saw a young woman struggle to haul her stroller-cum-baby down a long flight of stairs. Before I could turn around to assist her, another man had run down the stairs and doubled back to help her.
A few days later, I watched a couple on the train enjoy a tender moment. He: bearded with a rugged face, strong and masculine, his head covered in a dark winter cap. She: his feminine opposite, very blonde, straight hair, probably cute though I didn’t see her face; cream-colored winter cap on her head. His back is to the car door as she kisses him tenderly. His eyes are closed. Their love is obvious, playful. I can feel it on the opposite side of the car where I sit. Their faces part company, just a bit. He look at her as he pulls her cap down over her eyes. He smiles. They leave the car at the next stop. New Yorkers can create privacy at will. They are quick to seize and capitalize on the crucial moments in life no matter the circumstances.
Of course the subway is for getting to places, but you still have to walk a ton, because, unlike a motorcar, the subway doesn’t stop at every door in Manhattan. Take the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example—a huge example. You see it long before you reach it.
From my place on Elizabeth Street, home to the embattled Elizabeth Street Garden, you enter the Bleecker Street station to catch the 6 train to 77th Street, where you surface again and walk west to 5th Avenue. The enormous building stays with your eyes as you walk an uncountable number of steps to the entrance. It feels as if you’ll never get there. That building has a footprint of two million square feet. I was at a concert there recently, and afterwards I got to roam the floor a bit. Hardly anyone was there, so it was just me and the statues and sculptures and the echoes of my footsteps. For a little while that evening, the Met was mine, all mine.
“Somehow I knew better, because the longing remained. But I kept the magic. He’ll always have that magic.”
May you combine with 2017 to create more life for you and yours.
All good wishes to you!