The soothing rhythm of a train gliding down the track at full speed. Sliding into a car just before the doors shut. That very particular smell.
I have been taking the New York City subway since I moved here from China at age 7 in 1994, when many stations accepted only tokens and trains tagged with graffiti still graced the tunnels. Every weekday morning, I followed my father through the turnstiles, face unwashed, eyes battling sleep, stomach empty.
The subway made it possible for me and my parents to live in the more affordable areas of Brooklyn while attending school and working among the Chinese communities of Lower Manhattan and Sunset Park. But this meant that we sometimes spent hours on the trains, even more time than we did at home with each other.
Before long, the demands of undocumented life gave my parents little choice but to let me take the subway alone to my Chinatown school and back home. I learned early to be cautious in public, on the lookout for anyone who might attack me or worse, question my immigration status.
But I always felt a little safer in a subway car. Whereas above ground I was isolated as weak and “illegal,” below ground I was ensconced in community — a passenger with a book in hand, who, like the others, rode in hopes of better opportunity and an empty seat.
Now, just months from my 35th birthday, I have clocked more time traveling by the subway than via any other mode of transportation. I have never gotten a driver’s license, even though I’ve spent years living in car-dependent cities.
I suppose I figured that no matter how far I roamed, if I never learned to drive, I would always find my way home. That hope prevailed: Years ago, I returned to a subway commute that mirrored the one from my childhood, traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan and back every weekday.
I feel more connected with myself and my community on the subway than I do anywhere else. But as the tunnels have endured several high-profile assaults recently, culminating in a shooting on the same line my mother used to take to work in Sunset Park, I feel that connection fading and a piece of me withering. The subway defines home for a city of people united — above distance, race, class and labels — in relentless pursuit of dreams. And I am more scared of losing that home now than ever before.
In hopeful reclamation, I turned to Twitter, calling for subway memories. As the many responses came in, I reeled from laughter to tears and back. In poured absurd stories of navigating the trains in impossibly elaborate costumes; of dodging urine streams, cockroaches and rats; of in-car concerts, break dancing, and a cappella. Of course there were accounts of violence, of children followed and women groped. But more than anything else, there were stories of community: good Samaritans assisting the lost, the sick, the drunk; passengers jumping to help others with luggage; readers bonding over books; dance parties sparking on platforms; and lifelong friendships forming from chance encounters. And time and again came a seemingly unanimous conclusion: The subway is the best, most cathartic public place to cry.
If New Yorkers are unflappable, impervious and stoic on the sidewalk, we are raging, delighted, terrified, dancing, sobbing messes in the subway tunnels. How unsurprising, then, that the subway should be a pool of our collective pain amid the pandemic. The platforms are often a display of the frustrations of the unhoused and unemployed. The anxieties of those living without economic, emotional or medical support. The fears of immigrants and Asian and other nonwhite populations who find themselves scapegoats yet again.
Though the subway has a unique power to bring New Yorkers together, in the pandemic it has also pushed us further apart. When the fear of Covid reached a zenith, and when I had been shouted at, spat on and shoved more than I could bear, I, like many other white-collar New Yorkers, worked at home and chose to travel by cab when needing to go any distance too long to walk. For many months, the pandemic kept me longing for the subway, but my privilege to avoid it also ensured my safety. In 2020, ridership dropped steeply in higher-income neighborhoods and in Midtown Manhattan, but the decline was less pronounced in neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which are home to more lower-wage earners, people of color and essential workers.
Now that I am back on the trains and in-person school is back in session, I often see children commuting by themselves. When I see a girl on the train with a book, I wonder if she had enough to eat during the citywide quarantine. I wonder if she had internet access to attend remote classes. And I wonder how much time she spends every day worrying about her parents and grandparents getting home safe.
Logically, I know that the subway, like the city, has a history of resilience and recovery. But underground, in the company of my softest self, I cannot help but think about how the events of our childhood can become so very permanent. Trauma can harden our psyche, push vulnerability and community out of reach. Above and below ground, the emotional ramifications of the pandemic promise to linger long after physical threats fade.
My most treasured New York memories are rooted in the underground, where vulnerability sits next to strength, solitude next to connection. In recent months, I’ve noticed that Asian Americans riding the subway alone have begun to spot each other, to gather closer together on platforms and trains. This often happens without a word, but it is almost always accompanied by a subtle loosening of our brows and shoulders, our hypervigilance relieved ever so slightly.
And just the other day, I witnessed a prepandemic rush-hour standby revive anew: A weary passenger nodded off, head drooping until it touched her neighbor’s shoulder. She awoke a little while later, apologetic and flushed with embarrassment under her mask. Her neighbor said not to worry, that it hadn’t been worth disrupting her rest. Kind chuckles scattered through the car, shared relief unspoken: after everything, there are still some moments, in some cars, where the subway is the safest public space in the city.
A few years ago, I struggled to work on a memoir about my childhood. I didn’t have much free time to write, but the bigger barrier was excavating the emotional truths that I had buried for most of my life. One morning, sitting in a stalled 4 train during rush hour somewhere between Brooklyn and Manhattan, inspiration propelled me to try writing on my phone. And it was there, in the seat where I had once taught myself English with books and traced my finger over graffiti, that the basement of my heart burst open. The joyous, tragic and triumphant events of my life flowed out from my fingertips. As I typed on that touch-screen commute after commute for months until the manuscript was complete, I kept company with my younger self.
Many times, I couldn’t help but fall into that cathartic subway cry. In those moments, I found the safety to finally feel all that, even in the sanctuary of the subway, I had not been safe to feel as a child. As this unearthing unfolded — all while I typed through my sloppy tears, healing some ancient wounds — I marveled at how in such a public space, it was so very easy to trust the community around me. Perhaps that, even beyond a prized seat and a well-paying job, is the underground dream most pursued of all.
Qian Julie Wang is the author of “Beautiful Country,” a memoir about her childhood living as an undocumented immigrant in New York City. She is also the managing partner of Gottlieb & Wang, a law firm dedicated to advancing the educational rights of marginalized populations.
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