On Commuting and The Space You Claim for Yourself

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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.

 

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The Brooklyn Bridge, and What Might Be

ImageToday, we walked the Brooklyn Bridge together.

Well, we bumped into one another in the middle, and decided to finish the journey as a pair.

(Isn’t that how the best stories begin?)

It’s funny how the universe sometimes throws silly coincidences at you and urges you to accept them as fate.

Funnier that the whippet-fast flash of scarlet that weaves past you, in between throngs of tourists, crystallizes into the person you were thinking about.

DUMBO is made for Saturday afternoon spontaneity, crafted entirely for those who Might-Just-Be-More-than-Friends.

Which we might be.

And we might not.

But what I know for sure is that sitting next to you at the sun-drenched counter space of a coffee shop nestled under the bridge, while couples meandered past us down the cobblestone streets to the park just beyond, we could have been.

At least to those who turned to look back.

(Saturday afternoon spontaneity made possible here and here).

Ocean Grove, or How I Spent Spring Break

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What I do know is that if the universe hands me a blank 16-hour slate upon which to write my day, and if that day happens to fall in the middle of my (nonexistent) spring break, then I will be heading to the Jersey shore.

Which is precisely the story of this day.

Not pictured here are the tightly-bundled figures of my mother and sister, faces steady upon the shoreline, taking in the waves before declaring it Entirely Too Cold to spend a moment longer on the boardwalk.  How ironic that several of my friends are in the middle of a luxuriously warm getaway somewhere along the coast.  Here we were unable to do much besides stand and salute the summer weather that you can see just beyond the horizon if you use your imagination.

(If you ever find yourself in Ocean Grove, New Jersey in the freezing wind, here is the spot to warm you up.  Trust me on this one.)

The Break, Explained

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I didn’t quite mean to take a break from blogging.

But priorities change.  And the moment you let something go for an instant, it is far too easy to let it go for over a month.  Which is precisely what happened.

I have latched onto a very particular type of loneliness lately.  Which is not to say that I am lonely. I think that there is a subtle difference between those two feelings, and most days it feels like I am doing my best to make sure I remain steadfastly in the first column.

Having loneliness, versus being lonely.

Things have been changing for me recently, in that way that feels expansive and terrifying, like walking through a thick fog toward a sunlit morning I haven’t quite been allowed to glimpse.  What I do know now is that I have an office that overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge at a job that I hope will point me toward a future beyond graduation.  I zip a pencil skirt over my waist in the morning as I sip my coffee and plot my day, some days reveling in the litheness of my body before the day’s stresses take their toll.

Some days pausing for an extra second in the mirror, running my fingers over a wrinkle, picking at a string, smoothing a bulge over which I will allow myself to agonize only through the space of a breath.

Most days I feel as if I am playing a part.

Professionally and academically, I have made leaps and bounds.  I will be presenting at an academic conference soon; I was just rehired for my third year as a resident advisor. I dart between three jobs and fifteen credits with all the grace of a comedic heroine lacking a lilting soundtrack to make me lovely.

Personally, the ground is slipping out from underneath me.  I often feel as if one of these days I would like to climb out of my own skin and start anew as the person beneath it all.  Rescue the friendships struggling for renewal, like patches of parched earth in the deep heat of August that are otherwise surrounded by lushness. Apply myself to this new online dating venture I tentatively embarked upon during a particularly low weekend in late February.   The words come so easy to me; the motivation to follow through with them does not.

Being very busy makes it easy to live in a blissful, if somewhat crushing, state of denial.  But afternoons with my camera bring me back to reality.  This city is just as good at sending you spiraling back to the pavement as it is at allowing you to climb dreams high as the skyscrapers that make up its profile.

That pavement is more important anyway.

I often write to come to some sort of closure.  Lately, I have been seeking closure more than anything, and in its absence have filled my waking hours with work.  It is too easy.  But damn if all I am searching for is an instruction manual to tell me how to compartmentalize the Things That Have Happened, toss them through the subway grate, and let them go forever.  But there is no such instruction manual, and I have largely forgotten how much words help me sort through this complex web of hurt that comes from understanding that things never remain the same.

It is not bad, knowing this. Perhaps it is better.

But the sting is still there.

I shared a bottle of wine with Ellie tonight, a bottle of Pinot Noir with an elegantly crafted label that inspired the kind of reminiscing which nearly brought on tears but not quite.  I don’t cry lately.  Tears seem too simple a response, seem to point toward sadness when what I am really feeling is so much more than sad.  I rarely have these moments with her anymore.  But they are so transcendent when they do occur, and that almost makes it worth it.

We are all moving on, and sometimes the puzzle pieces of certain relationships don’t quite fit anymore.  That’s the hardest part – trying on an identity you used to call your own and finding that you chafe at the seams of it, or that it suddenly bears a stain rendering it unwearable.

Priorities shift.  Identities change.

But it is almost spring.

And that feels good.

“Dear Leonard. To look life in the face. Always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard. Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.”

–The Hours

On the Corner of Mulberry and Prince

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Yesterday was a day for exploring.

For lattes, and for things dusted with layers of sugar as finely spun as the snow itself.

Do you remember what I said about certain slants of sunlight illuminating shafts of color in the city that you would otherwise pass by?

I think I may have to amend that statement.

I’m nearly convinced the snow does a better job.

(Should you be interested in said lattes and sugar-dusted treats in your own snowy travels today, this is a lovely place on Prince Street that admirably satisfies such a need).

Eggs + White Beans [Snowed-In Breakfast]

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This morning, there was snow in the city.

Enough, as it happens, for school to be cancelled. What a difference twenty-four hours can make; just yesterday I was traipsing through the West Village with coat buttons unfastened and hair free from the confines of my winter hat.  Today, I will have to don snow boots simply to step outside.

This has been a particularly brutal winter so far, but we have arrived at February, sanity intact (so far).  Last night, Kelsey came over to celebrate Super Bowl Sunday with me.  I care little for football but the evening allowed me the perfect excuse to eat countless dip-smothered tortilla chips in the comfort of my own pajamas. I barely paid attention to the game (though I am told it was lackluster, yes?), as I have been engrossed in a vintage copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets, which I picked up on an adventure in the West Village that I will detail soon.

This morning, inspired by the simple and comforting cooking which Fisher details in several of her essays, Kelsey and I made creamy eggs with white beans, served alongside fruit and several blueberry muffins which one of my residents surprised us with this morning.  It was one of those breakfasts that appeared particularly lovely against the thickly tumbling snow falling outside the kitchen window, and not having to step outdoors to enjoy it was thrilling.

If you’re interested in making something similar, we used about half a can of Northern White Beans (rinsed and drained) and four eggs.  The beans go into the pan with a pat of butter first so that any extra liquid can evaporate, followed by the eggs several minutes later. Scramble appropriately, and serve with salt and pepper. These are divine with the addition of cheese.

Stay warm, everyone.