Criers, Lovers and Ballet Dancers: What the Subway Taught Me About Human Connection
The 5 train leaving from Grand Central Station was particularly crowded on Saturday night. I was returning from Manhattan to Brooklyn with a broken suitcase and a broken toe. I entered the train. There was not an open seat in site. So, I did the New Yorker thing that I’ve learned to imitate in the past five years, of spreading my legs and leaning on the closed door, curving my back to help hold my body in place. I put my headphones in, blasted Chopin, and began to people watch. I eyed the people on the trains, and imagined what their stories could be. There were young couples, obviously discovering a sense of love and belonging for the first time, linked arm in arm, giggling and flirting carelessly. The subway car was their hotel room. There were older couples, their bodies turned away from each other, though their hands were still linked to each others, as if their bodies were telling each other: “I’m still here. I still love you.” Some people were smiling, some were laughing.
One was crying.
I’ve seen subway criers many times during my four year commutes around the city. I’ve been a subway crier too. There is nothing as liberating or as humiliating as crying in a subway car, knowing that everyone is watching you, but not giving a care in the world. I gave him a look of understanding. I wanted to tell him that I’ve been there too, and that it’s okay to cry on the subway, but, honestly, if I was in his place, I’m not sure I would welcome the comfort of a stranger.
As the ride went on, the car emptied and filled repeatedly. Finally, a seat opened up. I made my way to the bench. From the other side of the train came a man with an ace bandage and ice pack on his arm, who was obviously in visible pain. I gave him my seat. He smiled. We made eye contact. We connected. I returned to my designated spot against the door, and scrunched my broken toe, trying to generate feeling towards the numb area. Later, when I sat down across from him, he motioned to me to take out my headphones. He had something to say.
“You have the perfect face of a ballet dancer,” he said.
I blushed and thanked him. I could tell that he wanted to strike up a conversation with my Russian ballet dancer face (he as he went on to elaborate when I thanked him), but I quickly put my headphone back in and went on listening to Chopin.
At the same time, the subway circus began to take its form. A homeless man walked through the car, scattering white pieces of string as he made his way from one end to the other, as if leaving a trail which he could follow back later, in case he got lost between cars. You can always come home to a subway car. People continued laughing, people continued talking. And yet, there was silence. The connections were lost among the headphone clad civilization. And then, the murder mystery dinner party people entered the car.
When they stepped in, it was as though they transported the entire car to the 1920’s. Suddenly everything seemed classier, clearer, brighter and more elegant. The man I had obviously ignored before struck up a conversation with them. We all got off and transferred at the same stop. By the time we arrived at our transfer destination, they had struck up a conversations The 20’s couple shared, rather exuberantly, about the murder mystery dinner party they were on their way to. She was a nanny, he was a writer. The man with the ace bandage around his hand shared that he was a retired ballet dancer (hence the comment!), who was working on opening his own dance company. In a few moments, they had managed to build a connection. I envied them, but couldn’t possibly jump in and add my two cents to the conversation, however interesting and exciting their exchange was.
That’s when I realized what was actually happening. This was so much more than a discussion about who they were and what they were on their way to do. This was a chance for these people to make a connection. In a world that severely lacks human connection, these people were looking for a way to build something real, regardless of how long it would last. The subway crier, the couples, lovers, homeless men and ballet dancers; the lost tourists, quirky individuals and people who wanted to disappear into the seats of the train. The string that tied these strangers together was a sense of belonging, the sense of connection. It is something we all look for, something we all crave, at times desperately. Nothing can be more satisfying, fulfilling or life changing as deep connection.
We’ve grown accustomed to refusing connection from anyone and everyone around us. How dare we open our hearts, minds and spirits to other humans around us? How dare we fight to become a humane world again?
It’s time we learn to reconnect with the people around us, whether with a smile, a kind gesture, a laugh, or even a genuine look. Show them that you see them, in the real, genuine way that people longed to be seen.
Learn to see and be seen. Make those connections. Bring human life back to humanity.