I take the L train from Williamsburg/Bushwick to Manhattan every day, and today the commute was a small hell. It started off Ok – I got my third favorite position, leaning against one of the two poles in the center-most vestibules of the car, the smooth, matte steel cold against the space between my shoulder blades. I adopted my heavy-lidded, unconcerned Subway Demeanor and listened to “Equus” by Blonde Redhead and “Recently” (live) by the Dave Matthews Band. “Recently” opens with Matthews singing, “Sunlight on my shoulders makes me happy/ Sunlight almost always makes me high.” I tried, as Mitch Hedberg says, “to force the trip” and transport myself to a bright, grassy place where the sun warms my shoulders. It did not work.
Three stops after mine, the train was filling up. Four stops, and riders were packed like sardines in a large and fast-moving aluminum can. Five stops, and the human crush reached critical mass and the entire state of New York was consumed by a vengeful black hole. Hipsters at the Bedford stop pushed, squeezed, pried, hammered, wriggled, and climbed in to spaces that didn’t exist. A small Latino gentleman was eaten to make more room. I found myself facing the smooth metal pole, nose nearly touching it, left hand grasping the pole at neck level, unable to move my right arm to change the song on my Ipod Shuffle. I had to endure “Human Touch” by Bruce Springsteen (Good song, I just wasn’t in the mood), and various plunkings by Townes Van Zandt. I was beginning to feel a little panicked.
On a packed subway car, bodies cease to be discrete and begin to move as one organism. When there is a jolt or sudden deceleration, everyone heaves like a rolling wave. If you cut out one side of the car, replaced it with a glass wall, and viewed it from the side, it would look like one of those desktop wave-making water tables that you can buy at a museum gift shop.
All manner of unintentional sensory exchange happens on a densely crowded train. Smelly people (and in the summer, pretty much everyone) coat you with stink. A teenager with cheap headphones shares a maddeningly repetitious Caribbean hip-hop beat with the whole car – dunk dada dunk dada dunk. The worst, however, is the touching. This morning, I was pressed up against four things, representing the four cardinal directions: to the north, a balding hipster reading something in French. To the south and east, girls with their backs to me, wearing backpacks and messenger bags. To the west was a sprite of a woman reading Johnathan Safran Foer. She was smallish – perhaps 5′ 5″ with brown hair the texture of half-wet pasta. I couldn’t see her face. She was pushed up against my side by the press of people near the door, the inner face of her left leg against my outer thigh.
The minutes passed. The train stalled. The automated voice warned us to “please alert the police or MTA official in the event of an emergency.” This is about to be a goddamn emergency, I thought. If someone sneezes, this car is gonna explode. I began to feel something warm against my leg. At first, I thought it was just cumulative human energy, but I could feel it – my left leg wasn’t just warm, it was hot. I looked down – pasta hair woman, bent over her book, was placing some of her weight on me. I was suddenly alert, my sleepy, cool attitude gone. What is this, I thought. Is this a Senator Larry Craig situation and I’m not aware of it? Admittedly, it’s sad that the first scenario that came to mind was, “Am I being solicited for sexual acts?” But I’m single. These things happen.
My next thought was, how can she not notice this? The heat our legs was generating could have melted cheese. She was, essentially, straddling my leg. Casually, of course, but the contact was tight, down to the level on which atoms are exchanged. The heat, the touching, the beautifulness of my leg: I’m pretty sure I was vaguely molested this morning.
At Union Square, the crowd disembarked. Pasta Hair went her way, and I mine. I had wanted to see her face, to try and gauge her potential as a molester, but I couldn’t. I was, as Anthony Lane put it in a recent review, “feeling spooked and sullied,” and still a little bewildered. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just missed some social subtlety.
Whatever the case, Attention perverts: if you’re not getting enough public feelies in your repressive Midwestern town, the L train at 9:15 is the place for you.
New York is a city of grand cultural institutions and unlimited human energy, but as mornings like this one remind me: it is a bitch of a place to live.