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The Subway Beat

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The Subway Beat


Published: June 25, 2007


It’s nearly always a mistake to think of the subway as a public conveyance. This is a mistake that out-of-towners often make. They overlook the essential privacy of the subway, and by that I don’t mean the young woman at my end of the car who has made up her face in a compact mirror between 86th Street and Times Square. I mean the very fact that this is my end of the car at my end of the train. It’s 7:30 in the morning, and this isn’t just a subway ride. This is going to work. Nearly all the people on this train are in their usual spots, within a few minutes of their usual time, and the ride is not separable from the larger and more complicated rhythms of our private lives. It is possible to be on this train and not yet be in public.


“Please watch the closing doors,” comes the announcement. The doors close. Everyone here knows just how long the delay should last before the train begins to slide forward. We could count it off: the doors close, then comes a single beat, and then we feel that horizontal gravity as the train picks up speed. But on this one train the one beat passes, then another and another before we finally start to slide out of the station. It happens at every stop. Three beats, four beats too many. Perhaps the driver adds these extra beats to allow riders to find a seat. I like to think it’s a tiny, intentional perversity.


This has happened many times before. After the one beat, the whole train leans forward mentally. We are urging ourselves on our way. If the train ran by some kind of synchronous psychological impulsion, we would be moving by now.


We know how to be stoic when stuck between stations. But there is something heartbreaking in this added pause. It interrupts the privacy of our thoughts and shows us what the other passengers are thinking. It holds us back from flinging ourselves headlong into the morning. It shows us, if just for an instant, how deeply we have internalized the pulses of this city.

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