There is nothing that makes me quite so uncomfortable as rush hour on the subway.
It is not that I necessarily hate the crush of people. In fact, I generally view the convergence of commuters like myself heading downtown as rather comforting, wholesome in that my role as a participant in it connects me to hundreds of other people whose days have also just begun. We stand together, a community shell-shocked that we have made it this far into the work week, and hell is it only Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday)? Most of us are like myself, headphones firmly plugged into ears, tense fingers curled around travel thermoses of coffee we brewed at home to conserve that extra two dollars which we will most likely spend on a 3pm pick-me-up anyway. Like a collective lung we expand if space allows, spread our legs and shift our bags from one shoulder to another, stretch the muscles in our neck though we know that the relief is never lasting. As the train pulls into a particularly crowded platform, we exhale, flatten ourselves against backpacks and tote bags, fold into spaces we would avoid if the desire to fit into the body of the Commuting Being weren’t so great.
I am never so aware of myself as when I act as a part of this collective, commuting whole. Because, you see, we are all watching each other, all of us who share this identity in the mornings. And sometimes the watching feels exhilarating. I tilt my head to consider the title of the novel the woman next to me is reading and instantly I learn something new about her, as well as something about myself in relation to her, depending on whether or not I have read the book already. I shift my gaze to the man several steps away from me, whose rumpled hair and intermittent yawning suggests his having overslept this morning and yet heroically still making his train. Sometimes there are young children on the train with their parents, kids who stand in awe of the crush of humans in one small space, their curiosity and fear emanating from the gap of their silence. I look at them and I think, That was me too, kid, and let me tell you it isn’t any less awe-inspiring ten years later. The awe is just filtered through much less sleep.
There are mornings, of course, where this commuting whole doesn’t quite function as it should. It expands in places where the need to contract is so very great that one side of the car piles up with people while open space pools on the other. Mornings where suffocation seems imminent, where I just cannot fit the contours of my body into that space, nor should I, and yet. And yet I have to get to work so damn it all.
This morning was one of those mornings.
I boarded the train just as a nasty wave of humans that would-not-move reared up in front of me. I managed to nudge my way toward a pole and latched on just as two men who, for reasons similar to mine, found the same pole and reached for it as the train lurched forward. I realized, in that moment, that I was sandwiched between these two men, one whose stomach faced mine and the other whose stomach was nearly against my back.
And I thought, Oh no, and shut my eyes.
It was one of those situations where I could feel the incredible discomfort of each person in the sandwich so palpably. As the train swung on its belly through the corridors toward Penn Station, I could feel myself alternately pushed forward and backward toward the stomachs of the men who could not move even though I could feel them arching away from me. I could sense them straining to pretend away the utter inappropriateness of the situation. For my own part, with each bump and jostle, I could feel a beetroot flush ballooning across my face. It was the most uncomfortable I had ever felt on the train, the violation of my personal space as a woman so unintentional and yet so unavoidable.
All I kept repeating to myself, with my eyes squeezed shut and my chest struggling for air was that it was too-damn-early for this amount of control to be snatched from me.
In retrospect, this all felt much more palpable in the heat of the moment, in the twenty seconds it took for the train to pitch from the Port Authority to Penn Station that felt so very much like twenty minutes. And just as quickly as it came about it was over. The train belched an inordinate amount of people onto the platform and I weaved quickly out of the sandwich and into the middle of the car.
I wanted out. I wanted out of the belly of the commuter beast that had swallowed me. I wanted out of my workday. I wanted to jump right back into bed where I could spread my legs between my sheets and wade in the solidity and the space of myself.
But I didn’t. I stood, my body turned toward a string of women sitting with their backs to the train door, head down. We made it to 14th Street and a seat behind me opened up, though a space did not open up in front of it for me to claim it. But in that moment, just as I looked at the seemingly vast expanse between myself and the seat, one of the women in front of me turned her face upwards at me and tilted her head in the direction of another seat.
And she smiled.
Oh my, how grounding that smile was. How simultaneously playful and conspiratorial and knowing and warm. How much this woman knew about me and about my morning and about what I needed in that space of a breath where only minutes before I had nearly forgotten what it was to draw air.
Go, get it. Reclaim your space.
Of course, the real clincher to this story is that just as I shifted in the direction of the newly opened seat, some man swooped in to plant himself in it, one-two-three. Just the flick of a suit jacket and the plonk of a briefcase, and there he was.
I looked back at the woman and we giggled exasperatedly as a pair, warmly and like friends who regularly exchanged thoughts across crowded train cars. We were part of that commuting whole and yet deliciously separate.
And in this particular morning, it was the separateness that mattered more.