How Public Transportation Shows You the Real Heart of a City
For the most part, I grew up under the ground. I rode the subway for hours at a time, careening from South Brooklyn to the Upper West Side and back again each day — I knew New York best from underneath. On some days I read. On others, I watched the commuters closest to me while they read. On others still, I finished math assignments in an erratic scrawl that made no secret of the fact that I’d been balancing equations on moving ground.
I ascribed a certain romance to trains. They were only semi-reliable — hard to get until they weren’t. But most spectacular, most particular, was the strange democracy of it all. In the grand scheme of a city, a train car was an odd microcosm — this narrow subterranean space, where men with pristine sneakers and hedge funds would stand with their noses wedged into the armpits of their bodega cashiers, edged in by gaggles of small, grinning girls in ballet costumes. There was no hierarchy here. It was New York’s most humbling quarters — a portrait of its people in all their jumbled, frantic glory.
This, of course, does not belong to New York alone. It is merely a fact of mass transit.
On my seventh birthday, I rode the trains in Moscow. Afterwards, for years, I wrote stories about orphan boys on Moscow’s subways — spaces so regal they hardly felt like practical means of public transport. The ceilings were arched and high, almost cathedral-like, and the walls were plastered with tile murals so extravagant I could better imagine them adorning the chambers in some great Moroccan palace. The trains arrived every eight seconds. The subways looked to me like a metaphor.
Here, standing at just over three feet, I watched students murmuring lines from Russian plays to one another, flanked by hulking figures in rabbit fur hats, and dark-eyed construction men, painted in layers of soot. This was Moscow, laid out for me in a framework more genuine, and more intimate, than any version I had seen on display at the ballet, or in the glowing Winter Palace.
So at seven years old, I began to believe in the sanctity of mass transportation — I saw it as its own form of holy. And when I grew old enough to travel of my own accord, it became for me, the center point of a city. I treated metro stations like art museums. Unlike most markets and monuments, modes of transit were a way of matching a city at its own pace, in its own territory. They felt honest. And they allowed me, however briefly, to bear witness to life in a new place, exactly as it was.
In Paris, I marveled at the Metro, endlessly clean and quiet — chic much like the city it serviced. I often watched women’s feet as they trekked, with measured grace, in Versace heels and Comme Des Garçons sneakers. They had an unrivaled sense of balance — they moved fluidly. Everyone spoke softly. No one stood too close to close. As with France itself, its trains were marked by poise.
In India, the trains bore little resemblance to those in Paris. Here, I rode rail cars from Bangalore up to Jaipur, and from there to West Bengal, en route to a Himalayan village just shy of Nepal’s border. I slept in bunks that pulled down from the walls, using my backpack as a pillow. I sprinkled tomatoes with salt and ate them like apples. I only sat in corners — I had been told that as a woman, it was wise to sit up against a wall, so as to leave myself vulnerable from just one side. But for all the warnings I’d received, I had little to apprehend.
While I rode, a woman with light, ambling hands painted henna flowers along my right arm, spanning from my wrist all the way up to my elbow. Twice each day, I sat with two men who slept opposite me, sipping from paper cups of chai, speaking to one another in broken forms of our respective languages. On some afternoons, we played chess. Once, while en route to the bathroom, I stumbled into a compartment of 16 women — I counted — all in saris of different colors, bright and block printed like game board pieces. They sat me down and they taught me a song, which we sang in Hindi — I, mouthing along in nonsensical, syllabic bursts — clapping in synch to the rhythm. In New York, I had never been surrounded by so much color. Over so many months, I fell in love with a million disparate pieces of India, but never were so many of them collected in one place as on the train.
Later, I rode the BART through San Francisco, and rail cars through Tucson. I took buses into the Catskill Mountains, and I marveled at street art plastered along the outdoor train stations scattered throughout Berlin. I boarded ferries in Budapest and trolleys in Marrakech, and I thought about how lovely it was, on a syntactical level, that I was most often moved while in motion.
So much of a city’s disposition lives inside of its public transportation. Jammed into the stairwell of a bus, you’ll find a people, collected from all corners of the landscape, stripped of all the ceremony that characterizes cocktail bars and art galleries. Here, you have a certain kind of portrait. When on foreign ground, this is important — it sits at the heart of a place. It tells us how a city moves.
While in transit, we often find — however briefly — that we cease to be tourists. Instead, we merely become human bodies, moving from point A to point B along with everybody else.