Scene :: 5 Train, Early Evening
Waiting for the 5 train out of Union Square today near 5 p.m., I'm thrilled to find a car with an open bank of seats. I put my head down and dive in when the doors open, then stop a moment when I see why the train was empty: There's an older man there, wearing a faded down jacket, one sleeve partially ripped. His hand is reaching inside his jacket, scratching at something, before moving back to his head, a sort of shuffling rubbing of his matted hair. He'd taken his boots off at some point, and I can see their well-worn cuffs. He's not wearing any socks, and I can see cracks in the calluses on his heels. But aside from the discomfort of feeling so unexpectedly close to this man -- with no escape in the subway, no way to pretend we don't share the same space -- I'm able to put my head down and pretend to not see him.
He stands up suddenly and reaches one hand into his pants, then shuffles back and forth through the subway car. A few people at one end scatter, slipping through the doors only to be used in case of emergency to pass into the next car. The man beside me leans in, observes, "He's gotta pee." And the man does eventually start to pee, his back to the rest of the car, relieving himself against one of the doors. A small pool grows at his feet.
Another man, sitting to my other side, suddenly raises his voice a little, "C'mon man, can't you wait? We're almost to the next stop, you can just get out and go then. You don't need to be doing that sort of thing on the train." The pitch of the man's voice changes a little, becomes a shade more patronizing, "You better watch out, you're gonna get in trouble if you don't watch out. You can't be doing things like that here." We pull into the next station -- Fulton, I think -- and I duck out of the car. The transient man might or might not have stepped out behind me, and he may or may not have forgotten his shoes. I don't know what happens at the end of this story, because I tried to teach myself not to see.In a way, this is a scene like other ones that I've written (here and here and here) -- and all of those have been attempts to describe (or thickly describe, as Geertz would say) scenes of my experience in New York City. I've been spending some time these past few months returning to debates in Geography and Urban Studies about ways of theorizing the city, and one of the frequent criticisms of new theoretical innovations (of which I suppose this issue was one) is spending too much time engaging in 'thick description' at the expense of critical analytical work. There's a grain of truth to that critique, but I worry that it closes down the possibility of this kind of writing -- writing the city this way isn't the only way to write New York, but it is one way to emphasize a kind of shared vulnerability. We're all bodies together, hurtling through the tunnels under the city on our way to and from dreams and daily life.