The New York City subway evokes the only sense of belonging I know. My passport, accent, and appearance tend to clash with my places of residence. But when I’m burrowed in the crevices of this capital, rumbling through its arteries, I have, at last, some impression of fellowship and expertise. It feels neither patriotic nor maudlin — just earned. After a decade’s practice, I travel through the city with Olympian efficiency — or with as much efficiency as our decrepit, faltering system permits. I know all the connectional permutations. I know which car will have the most available seats, which door will open directly before the turnstile, and which exit to take if I want either the most expedient or the most serene route.
Today, however, the world’s largest rapid transit system bestows upon its dowdy loyalists no more badges of honor or comradeship. Nearly a year after the governor ordered its late-night shutdown, my underground world is a sort of hell.
Young men — men younger than me — are slashed across the face. They’re slashed across the hands. They’re told they’re “going to die today”. Others are stabbed repeatedly in the neck. They’re pushed off subway platforms. Their faces are fractured for refusing panhandlers. They’re found dead, hunched over in pools of blood. A two year old is pummeled repeatedly on the nose. A dozen women, as they exit the subway, are punched and kicked by the same stalker. A naked man, after shoving riders onto the tracks, falls atop the third rail and is electrocuted, smoking and sizzling and emitting a stench. A witness says: “I’ve never smelled anything like it before. It was a putrid smell, the skin and, my goodness.”
Since the lockdown, there’ve been as many murders in the subway as the preceding five years combined. Assaults are up. Robberies and rapes, too. And all this with a ridership that has shrunk by 70 percent and a nightly closure that ended 24-hour service for the first time in a century.
My older friends used to tell me stories about the eighties. About the gritty, bloody, vial-strewn city whose dangers one endured because rent was low, artists thrived, and improvisation hadn’t been suffocated by villainous developers and their faithful lawmakers. Now, they tell me it’s like the eighties again, but without the bounty.
I never knew the New York City in which every sixth store was a bookstore and dance parties sprung to life in abandoned shops. But I did know one where underground trains would bring me anywhere I wanted, at any hour. Where I could walk for hours and ride home with my golden ticket. Where subway cars and stations felt like an arena in which I shared some authority — where I could negotiate for peace with the man blaring music from his phone or watching cartoons without headphones, as one stakeholder with another.
These nights, egalitarianism has disappeared. I am at the mercy of a new, spasmodic cosmos. I keep my head down. I also walk with a swagger whose affected machismo is belied by the Mary McCarthy novel (about a socialite’s extramarital affair) that I hide in my jacket pocket. I wonder if I will make it home alive, and this feels not filmic but glum. I ponder calling my mother more. Every train is late, but I eschew efficiency anyway. I travel on the F or R trains, transferring at the last possible moment to the A and C lines off of which I live, because they are notorious for stabbings and other anarchic frenzies.
In every car and on every platform, someone smokes a cigarette. When I arrive at my office, I can smell it in my hair and on my jacket. I smell like the nineties. Like pubs in Germany and cafes in Egypt.
There are no more normal, uneventful rides.
A green plastic bottle rolls across the car and dribbles urine onto my boots.
A maskless, middle-aged man holding a Batman doll eats a McDonalds burger and drinks a Pepsi. He screams profanities after every few bites, spraying spit and bits of ground beef into the air.
In the midst of rush hour, I find a car entirely empty, save for a woman huddled in one corner, and I make myself comfortable in the other. When the doors close, she straggles my way, screeching to be released from her pain, to be saved from Satan.
Even among passengers who aren’t suffering mental illness, tempers are short and bacterial vigilance is high. When someone coughs, heads turn. When someone walks in without a mask, well, we mask our own glares because one wrong look can bring about fists and blades.
A beggar asks for money. He lingers, and a woman erupts. She tells him to get a job. That he deserves no special treatment. Her shouts turn to screams, and a passenger across the car tells her to quiet down. Her screams grow louder. After a few minutes, she falls silent. No one looks up. It’s nighttime, and riders are hunched over, dazed, waiting for their journeys to end, for these doldrums to end. The screaming woman apologizes to the passenger. She’s been laid off from her waitressing job. They sent her packing with a few bottles of wine. She pulls one from her bag and hands it to the lady across the car. Sorry, she says. Keep it.
The words I’m reading blur. A single tear falls onto the page. In the novel, it is 1936, and the adulteress has just confessed her affair to her husband as they walk through a crowded Central Park. How lucky they are, I think. What has become of this poor city?
We’re told all the murder victims are minority men. But white people have disappeared from the subterrane. The victims are minorities. The cigarette smokers are minorities. The killers, slashers, and shovers are minorities. Even the police officers are minorities. Aren’t we majorities now?
Men in suits have disappeared too. And women in heels. And musicians. Am I the only one down here with a degree in something as impractical as cultural writing? The only nocturnal rider not bound to the cruel machinery of labor at the lowest pay and highest risk?
I spent the early months of lockdown on a faraway farm. From my pastoral sofas, I applauded nationwide bids to divert portions of the funds that militarize our police toward more effective and humane methods of rehabilitation.
These days, away from the snugness of abstraction, I sigh with relief when I see officers patrolling the stations. I, bearded, Arab-looking, detestor of chauvinism, even find myself wanting to thank them.
Wretched souls crushed by mental illness and homelessness commit the majority of the crimes below ground. Any other wealthy country would by now have mobilized an army of social workers. It would have safeguarded the perilous shelters from which our dispossessed flee. Instead, we “disinfect” the subways for a few hours late at night, kicking riders without destinations out into the cold. (The cars appear no cleaner in the mornings.) Our police scale back their arrests and investigations, wary of scandal, or they momentarily detain aggressors before returning them to their destitution. Prisoners are released en masse. And all the while, psychiatric care beyond brusque, cursory evaluations is piddling. Few outreach programs fill the void.
The law enforcement reforms last summer were crucial and cathartic. But did we stymie policing (if only by way of retaliatory disengagement) and disencumber our prisons before we forged alternative modes — adequate modes — of care, containment, prevention, and triage?
The city is enfeebled by the virus. It is also torn between redeemers and martinets. The blight seeps underground, where we, hapless pawns, ride through maelstroms of gore and vagary.