January 6, 2015

Missed Connections on the New York City Subway.

Steve Hammond/flickr

So, here’s the thing about living in New York City:

Space is hard to come by, and New Yorkers make the most of it.

Take the subway, for example. On any given day you see editors marking up manuscripts, actors memorizing lines, artists taking pictures, young professionals checking their e-mail, young women putting on makeup, kids doing homework with their nannies, men clipping their nails, women praying and on and on…

Somehow, through an unspoken code of New Yorker’s ethics, we all do these things in relative anonymity.

Even though you might not be able to slide a piece of paper between yourself and the person next to you, it is accepted that a drawn a boundary allows us to behave privately, without interruption.

At any given moment, thousands of New Yorkers riding mass transit are all acting privately in a public space.

Why is this so?

Is it because we are so close to our dreams that we cannot stop pursuing our visions even for 20 minutes? Is it because we’re so driven that we must always be multi-taskingIs it because we’ve learned excellent time management skills? Is it because we all live so close together that we have to draw a line somewhere? Is it simply because there is a premium on real estate?

I don’t know.

Sometimes, though, the boundaries get blurred. I’m thinking most especially of when someone begins to cry on the subway.

I’ve lived in New York City for 15 years, and at least once a year I’ve seen someone cry on the train.

It’s almost always the same experience: while I’m immersed in my own private world, something inexplicably draws my focus up, almost always to a women sitting next to a window. She is looking out placidly, stoic-ly. And then something changes. The expression on her face moves. Something passes over her. Her brow creases. She composes herself, puts her hand to her face. Then she breaks. She cries. In public. Sitting next to strangers. In plain view where dozens of people can see her. Where I can see her.

What is she thinking of? What is she going through? Is she breaking up with a life-long lover? Is she sick? Is she losing someone or something she loves? Has she simply been struck with a feeling of unbearable loneliness in this city of 8.406 million people?

And what do I do? Do I break out of the unspoken agreement that we are in private space? Do I ask her if she’s okay? If she needs a tissue? Do I touch her arm and simply look at her with compassion? What do I do? And at what cost?

Here’s another thing about living in New York City.

The people who live here are tough. Famously tough. Infamously tough. “Hey!-I’m-walking-here” tough. “I’m-willing-to-live-in-a-city-with-an-outrageous-human-to-rodent-ratio” tough. “I’ve-crossed-continents-and-am-bringing-my-family-members-here-one-by-one” tough. “I’m-not-afraid-to-tell-you-to-back-off-and-mind-your-own-business” tough.

And I feel stuck. Stuck in the hard place between my private world and hers. Stuck in the broken border land of intimacy and ache that is visible from the island of self-sufficiency. Stuck between the pain that rises in my chest when I see her cry and the self-protecting impulse to defend my bleeding heart from a possible outlashing.

Up until now the risk of doing something and being told to shut up has outweighed the fact of living without doing anything. But I still have the same feelings. They don’t go away. The woman who is crying on the subway has become an archetype for me—a symbol of human distress and utter isolation. And compassion without action is no longer something I can live with. So the next time this happens I have to take a risk and reach out.

I feel resolved. But when I imagine this future encounter I also  feel very, very vulnerable. “She” might thank me. She might tell me to get lost. She might grab me and cry harder. She might even ignore me. But in this moment, she is, in fact, more vulnerable than I am. And I must find a way to be guided by my sense of compassion and not by whatever it is that I imagine she will do, however I imagine she will respond.

Because this much I know: I have seen women crying on the train. But I have also been that woman crying on the subway.

And in that moment, I do not want to feel alone.

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Author: Nina Capille Oppenheim

Apprentice Editor: Yaisa Nio / Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo:  Steve Hammond/Flickr

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