Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why I Heart the 23rd St. Subway Station

I'm a big general...of a subway station, be it in New York, Chicago, Paris, even London...I probably would have liked the stations in Rome, had I decided to take the train instead of stubbornly walking all over the place, mostly in circles....

I liken my love of subway stations to a similar affinity I have for farmer's markets or street fairs. There is a sense of community, of life being lived unselfconsciously when people are hustling and bustling from one train to another, or out buying their weekly groceries. Granted, down in the bowels of some big city it doesn't often smell as clean and delicious as your neighborhood farmer's market, but there is usually a musician serenading commuters, just as there might be one busking out on the street during a fair....and I'm a sucker for good music found in unexpected places....

Over the years I've developed fondnesses for particular subways stops.

I've got a few favorite Metro stops in Paris, one I wrote about at length because my family went there often. If you want to read that post you can go here...I love that station not for what is inside, but what is outside: a view of the Eiffel Tower unlike any other. There is another station whose interior makes me smile...that one is tiled all over it's walls and arched ceiling with bright orange tiles...burnt orange everywhere you look. Then there is the simple fact that Paris metro stations just smell better than ones in other cities do, don't ask me why, cuz I haven't a clue.

I ran into a friend from college once at a Chicago train stop about 15 years ago. I was going into the "L" on Armitage, and he was coming out. He said, "Morgan, oh my God, I just had the best dream about you. I'm in a rush, so I'll tell you about it later." When I finally got in touch with him again through facebook a few months ago, he actually remembered running into me all those years ago, remembered telling me he'd had a dream, but he couldn't remember what it was. That meeting and that station are clearly imprinted on my brain, as if I'd just run into my friend yesterday.

Subway stations are good for that kind of thing: chance encounters. Metro platforms hold opportunities to unexpectedly share a moment with a long lost friend....or to speak to a handsome stranger who caught your eye.....But most of us choose to rush on to the next destination...completely unaware that this might be the last time we ever see a certain someone or travel to that spot. Commuters on subways, it seems to me, are daily choosing whether to stop and speak to the beautiful stranger or to hurry on their pre-determined course, leaving them fantasizing for years to come about that mysterious person, with the eyes, and the smile and the sweet way he said, "Bon Vacance."

Subways take you all over a city, rumbling beneath landmarks, palaces, and people you long to meet. Often we use them to get from one spot we already know to another spot we know, and we never investigate the landscape in between.

We rumble through stations that sometimes have enticing or exotic names. For instance, my brother once lived in Queens...I don't remember which stop we got off to visit him, but I do know that it was one stop past "Bliss." I rather thought he'd missed the mark there...always getting off one stop PAST bliss. But I was just a kid then, what did I know.

Other stations, most in New York, as far as I can tell, have simple numbers attached to "street" or "avenue". Now when I visit my brother I get off at 96th Street. It is important, I have learned, to specify that this is 96th Street on the 1,2, or 3 line. There is nothing special about this stop, except that my family lives 4 blocks away which, I guess, is really special enough.

My new all time favorite subway stop is also a simple "Street", 23rd Street. This is on the N, R, and W line. Until this afternoon, I had never actually gotten off the train at 23rd Street. I'd breezed through it several times on the Q train. But that is all I'd needed to see to fall in love...the magic, for me, is actually in the breeze by.

You see this station, like many others in New York, has been newly re-tiled and mosaic-ed. The walls are mostly a bright white tile, very clean, very stark. But all along the walls at random heights are mosaics of various hats from days gone by which look as if they have all blown out of a hat shop and are flying down the underground street. This is fairly whimsical to begin with, but then when you add commuters standing and sitting along the walls, all unaware that there are magical hats above their heads....well, to those of us in the passing train who bother to look out the windows, we are treated to the vision of various modern day people wearing crazy hats, or people standing around non-chalantly unaware that they are in a wind-storm and their fancy chapeaus have just blown off their heads. It is utterly delightful! Ordinary folk are transformed into characters out of some surreal Fellini-esque street scene.

I stopped at 23rd street today to try and get a picture of the effect. I wasn't very successful, but here are a few feeble glimpses.

I recently asked people on facebook to guess why the 23rd St. Station might be my favorite. They told me all sorts of wonderful things about the landscape above the tracks. The stairs out of that station take a person to the Chelsea Hotel where Mark Twain, among others, lived, the Flat Iron building is nearby, apparently Bob Dylan wrote songs in the immediate vicinity and there's even a song called "23rd St. Lullaby" written by Patti Scialfa. My friend Jeff also informed me that the hats flying on the walls are representations of those worn by actual people and, sure enough, that is true. Mark Twain's hat is there, as is Houdini's, I can't remember who else. I suspect all the people whose hats grace the walls of the 23rd Street station might have lived in the neighborhood or even at the Chelsea Hotel, but that's just my guess. Someday I am gonna get off at 23rd St. and walk up the steps and check out the neighborhood. I promise.

In the meantime, I can't shake the wonder I have about the artist who put those hats up on the walls and knew that his models would be there all day everyday to make the hats come alive. I am so grateful to her for granting me that unexpected surprise, those moments of delight, in the middle of an ordinary commute.

There's another thing too. I've always had a wee bit of prejudice against rushing. I am a firm believer in the health benefits of stopping to smell the flowers. When I like the music in the subway I walk slowly to the platform, I linger, sometimes I even sway my hips and dance a bit. I tend to want to lounge in a moment, especially if it is heavy with connection and feeling and beauty. But I guess sometimes you don't have to stop or even slow down to discover the miraculous in the moment, sometimes it's better to breeze let the eyes linger...and then let the beautiful stranger go....maybe that one moment is as good as it gets....that fleeting jolt of intimacy is all the gift there is...or all the gift you both need....the 23rd St. Station is a living example of loving something and letting it go....and I'm gonna hold onto that lesson and carry it with me for a long time to come.

1 comment:

Morganna said...

So I investigated 3rd today....and the Flat Iron building is right above the n,w, r line station. Also, the madison square park with the Shake Shack and a beautiful garden that looks more like Paris than New York. The Chelsea is actually closer to the number one line station....but it is close enough.....