5:00, 49th Street: A group of four girls in Fendi sunglasses and mini dresses who had just boarded at Times Square exit here. It occurs to me that the distance they had to walk – down the stairs at 42nd Street, through the cavernous, labyrinthine Times Square station, across the platform to wait for the train, then repeating the process in reverse when they got to 49th – far exceeded the seven short blocks they would have walked if they had stayed above ground. But I’ve known people like this, people so averse to walking anywhere they will, ironically, walk twice as far just to have something carry them to their destination. New Yorkers are supposed to be among the most slender Americans, and I can’t help but think that if we could somehow export this unique form of illogic to the rest of the country – using people’s laziness to trick them into exercising more – we could go a long way toward solving the obesity epidemic.
I have always been fond of the tiling on the walls here, a red glazed brick that sets it apart from every other station I pass on my way home and lets me know I am past the halfway point of my commute. From the back of the car erupts the sound of accordion and dual, strumming guitars. It’s a norteño band, the same one that has played the R train at least once a week since I’ve been riding it. A woman standing near me leans over to her friend and says, “Mariachis!” That’s what I used to think they were too, until someone explained the difference. Few things make me grit my teeth like a subway musician – I’m a reader, after all, and like all readers on the subway, anything that draws us out of our daydream and back into the stuffy, smelly present is to be resented – but I have to admit a soft spot for this particular band, and I’ve come to appreciate the peculiarities of norteño music. There’s a propulsive beat behind it all that reminds me of the old Polish songs I used to hear at the social clubs in Pittsburgh. The band wends its way through the crowd, one of the men removing his cowboy hat midway to solicit donations. As he passes me I smile and politely refuse. Fond or not, I will never give a cent to a subway performer. It is one of the few ironclad rules I live by.
5:02, 57th Street – Seventh Avenue: An almost-always deserted stop, the metro equivalent of an Old West ghost town. Perhaps there are other times of day when this platform is more bustling, or perhaps it is another train besides the R that gets most of the traffic, but to me it has always felt like an afterthought, a station hastily thrown together to offer one last chance to any west-siders to exit before the train veers east and heads for Queens.
A heavy smell begins to pervade the car, an oily, greasy smell you can feel coating your nostrils and oozing down the back of your throat. Then comes the rustle of paper and plastic, followed by the creak of bending Styrofoam. I crane my neck and see a young woman positioning a food container on her lap. She opens the lid; a mound of buffalo wings glisten golden-red. She takes one daintily between thumb and forefinger, the grease oozing down over her long, acrylic nails until it pools at the ends, dripping down into the container in great, viscous globs. She snatches at the meat with her front teeth, tearing it from the bone like some scavenging animal picking at a carcass. With every bite her lips stain a deeper shade of orange. After devouring three wings she suddenly pauses, blinks and looks down at her hands, studying the grease coating her fingers like someone emerging from a murderous rage wondering how she ended up covered in blood. She looks around the car with the plaintive expression of one who does not have any napkins. Her silent pleas for help go unanswered. Everywhere she looks, the people avert their eyes. She sits frozen like a figure from a medieval fresco – hands aloft, palms upturned, imploring God to deliver her from her sins.
Photo Source: Yummly