New York City streets are a constant interplay between the high life and the grime: even the supposedly glamorous Fifth Avenue is home to rats and roaches. And you can see the same interplay at work in the underground universe that is NYC's subway system. "You take a few subway rides and you realise that cities are no place for man," someone pointed out in class the other day.
Beyond the air of "I'm in college and I make intellectual and philosophical claims" he was striving for, he had a point. Big cities, which are meant to epitomise human progress and activity, can be very brutal places, where "humanity" and "human interactions" are the least valued things. And you really get a sense of that by taking a ride on the subway. New York is very different from the dangerous drug- and gun-infested place it was a mere 20 or 30 years ago, but there is still a roughness to it, which is where New Yorkers get their famed "attitude" from. Although I've inherited the walk-fast-and-talk-to-no-one outlook when I'm out on the streets, the underground realm still fascinates me. Riding the subway is a humbling experience. There's no other place where you will find such a diverse range of people all squashed together like sardines.
People who otherwise would never need or want to be in the same space are forced to share a loud, dirty, rattling train. A man in a business suit standing next to a burlesque dancer applying ridiculous amounts of make-up on the way uptown was one of the more bizarre juxtapositions I witnessed recently. The best part, of course, is that the only people who ever react to anything a bit "off" are tourists. When the occasional "performer" feels it is his or her duty to come on the train and sing an old song wonderfully out of tune and expect some money for it, they look nonplussed. Native New Yorkers either look the other way or carry on their conversation over the noise.
It's also interesting to note the different lines and their different demographics - the hipsters heading out to Bedford on the L train, the onslaught of businessmen on the 6 train at 8am and 5pm, and the people constantly trying to figure out where the NQRW lines actually go. Once, when I was heading back up to Columbia, a crazy old man (as there usually tends to be) yelled out to no one in particular (as they usually do), "I can show you guys a magic trick. I can make all the white people disappear/" And then, sure enough, as we arrived at the 116th Street Columbia University stop, he proved his point, when the train emptied of virtually all the white people before carrying on up to Harlem. It was a small commentary on the socio-economic divide that still exists, although as with most generalisations, it isn't totally accurate. These days Harlem is not the dangerous, exclusively black neighbourhood of legend: it's pretty pricey, and people of every nationality - whites, blacks, Arab, Filipinos - call it home.
I don't get frightened or worried on the subway but I do stay very alert. Hands on my bag, I make sure that during rush hour I know exactly where my phone and wallet are, because when you are surrounded by a large number of people, you never know. I plug my music in and watch everyone else who's doing the same and together we all pretend that no one else crammed in with us exists.