I walk toward the subway exit, a gaping mouth on the pallid brick sidewalk. Spring has realized with the kick of April that oh, spring does include sunshine. It’s only a few minutes until the human traffic starts to fill up the cavities of the underground and the automobiles flood the asphalt. Men and women make their ways back home; to dinner with friends, colleagues, family; or to destinations that escape the normalcy of daily life. The light is a wan yellow as I descend the steps. The shadow of the walls engulfs my face, and I am swallowed whole by the entryway. The distinct pungency of the subway station drifts over my nose, and I smell urine, dirty hair, waffles, sweat, and putrid water. Neither unpleasant nor potent, it is a familiar odor and one I’ve come to expect.
I walk down another flight of stairs to reach the entrance gates. The transportation card does its job with its confirming beep, and I push through with my hip. I avoid the string of people veering to the right and step in the opposite direction. I hope for fewer people in my car so I can read, but to little avail. It is nearing five o’ clock. Playing on my mp3 player is quiet, acoustic fingerpicking with a soft, corresponding voice. With the music deadening the external cacophony, what I see resembles a scene from a film: coats, sweaters and windbreakers of all colors and textures; eyes, noses, and mouths on faces – no two the same; loafers, sneakers, and stilettos cover fidgeting feet; and these all belong to restive bodies that stand in countless lines and clumps – all amalgamated in the trying act of waiting.
The bell rings once, twice, three times. We are told of the train approaching in four different languages. I understand two of them, and as I wish for polyglot capabilities, the glass safety doors slide open. A beat passes as the doors to the subway train open, and a fresh flow of bustling individuals bursts forth. The patient wait for the disembarking passengers, but a substantial assemblage lacking a mustard seed of tolerance elbows past. I pause my music. I hear grumbles, a few profanities, but mostly, my ears are filled with the din of shambling feet. I stand at the midpoint of my queue with perhaps six people behind me. As the multitudes begin to enter the train, filling the spaces soon becomes cramming, and my body is carried forward. Before ten seconds pass, I am in the nucleus of the teeming compartment. Backs against chests. Chins against shoulders. Toes against ankles. I am closer to these unknowns than I am to friends, coworkers, and family. I let slip a small, furtive grin as I relish the nearly spiritual proximity of utter strangers. The man whose left shoulder is against my arm catches my smile and turns away uncomfortably. He knows nothing about me. I know nothing of him barring his hair part and his cologne. It smells like a fusty log cabin.
The subway stops twice before I detrain. There is an equilibrium maintained in the number of people: I don’t feel any less or any more crowded than I was when I got on. There is a reverberation of voices, of laughter, of the moving train, of coughing, of sniffling noses, of moving limbs. We lurch forward and backward as we travel the digestive tracts of the Underground. The fluorescent lights cast an anemic layer of unfamiliarity on the visages, and the sheen pulses with the jolts of the car. The sudden silence is ineffable, a foreign interlude in the symphony of clamor. We brace ourselves as we feel the brakes fulfilling their vocation beneath our feet.
The awkward shuffle toward the doors begins. As the abrasive commuters nudge their way in, those alighting skirt around them, eager to be free, eager to go. As we exit, those who were separate turn into one, breathing in unison, sashaying in rhythm, making toward the noiseless escalators. It’s a river of people – babbling, rolling and flowing. The movement never stops. I take cognizance of this and conform my pace to the rest of the wayfarers. Bypassing the congested escalators, I ascend the stairs, a faint trace of agoraphobia in the air.