By Gabby Iriarte
Riding the subway taught me all I needed to know about people. It’s interesting if you actually pay attention. For instance, to my left is an old man with a wrinkled face and hands who sits, muttering nonsense to himself while swaying to a beat only he can hear. To my right, a young mother is pleading with her children to please, sit down and be quiet! Standing up, there’s an assortment of businessmen, college students, and teenagers. This group slowly thins as each stop approaches, past Eighth Street, Thirty-Third Street, Fifty-First Street.
Those who enter the train car with an air of quiet confidence, with hair neatly pulled back and horribly mismatched clothing are usually the ballet dancers. Occasionally, they’ll actually be the chorus dancers from the next run of Cats, but it can be hard to tell. The actors, artists, and musicians are harder to identify, but it’s a safe bet someone is a musician if they carry a large, oddly-shaped black box and clutch it to their chest as if it’s going to run away from them. There’s usually a number of people who don’t stand out in any particular way; I can’t determine what they do for a living and they don’t draw attention to themselves, so they tend to fade into the crowd. And then there’s also the homeless; scattered across the cars, sometimes crumpled in a heap on the floor, looking pitiful and other times walking down the aisles, begging for money. I always feel guilty when I see them; sitting here with my brand-new pair of shoes, my trusty iPhone, and the prospect of a warm, cozy apartment and food to return to. These people always mystify me too; what brought them to this place in their life? Are they really homeless, or just trying to make some extra cash? And where do they go when the temperature drops below freezing and the city falls under darkness?
But what strikes me the most about my long subway rides from Hudson Yards all the way up to One Hundred Forty Eighth Street—West Harlem—is that the subway, and most of New York City, for that matter, allows me to be exposed to what seems like the entire world and all types of people, all in the span of a few hours. There aren’t many places where that’s possible.
I’m jolted from my thoughts when I realize that we are indeed at 148th street—my stop. The last few people remaining in the car with me are getting to their feet, preparing to leave and continue on with their days.
And that’s when I see him.
A homeless man, trying very unsuccessfully to lug a shopping cart, stuffed to the brim with all of his belongings, onto the train car from the subway platform. The front end of the cart keeps getting caught in the gap between the platform and the car, and the man is too weak to lift it up. As a result, the doors to the car are frantically trying to close but stopping as soon as they realize there’s something in between them. The announcement over the intercom is telling everyone to please clear the doorways, but obviously, the only issue is the man. He looks close to tears, exhausted, and truly not all there.
I look around, wanting to see what others are thinking or doing, but anyone who’s left is either caught up in their own world or purposefully ignoring the awkward situation in front of them. Not sure if I should approach him or not, I then have a thought: what’s the point of trying to understand people if I don’t help them when the time comes? Taking a deep breath, I cautiously walk towards the man, half-intrigued and half-terrified.
“Hey sir, can I help you?”
“Um, maybe I can help you get your stuff into the car? It looks like it’s stuck.”
“Hhh…oookayyy,” the man said in a muffled voice. I couldn’t tell if he was on something or just not fully functioning.
As I reached out to jerk the front end of the cart up and over the train car floor, I noticed that people were watching us, curious but silent. I saw a teenage boy out of the corner of my eye whipping out his phone, presumably to capture a video—what the hell for? The announcement was relentlessly repeating itself and the words were starting to swim in my head as I heard them for the hundredth time. The man was virtually no help to me, but with a violent tug, I managed to lift the cart up into the car. As the cart entered, it rolled quickly, knocking me backwards against the other side of the car. I heard the man shuffle towards his belongings, and he gently pulled the cart away from me.
Once the commotion was over, everyone quit staring at us and continued on with their business. The teenager with the phone had stuck his headphones on and was obviously jamming to a song we couldn’t hear. Some lady was stuffing French fries down her throat while sobbing on the phone. A middle-aged man with wiry black hair and glasses was reading the newspaper. Everything was normal, as if nothing unusual had happened. But then again, I guess this really wasn’t unusual at all for New York. All of my years living here, and I still can’t come to terms with that. I guess that’s what is so remarkable about this place.
I shook my head to clear those thoughts as I realized that I still had to get off at this stop. I glanced towards the homeless man and he had gripped the pole in the center of the car, clutching it with one hand while holding the handle of his precious shopping cart with the other. He said nothing to me as I walked off, but he gave me a big grin that looked slightly unhinged. Maybe it was his way of saying thanks.
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Gabby Iriarte is a second-year college student majoring in Film and minoring in Theater at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She is also an actor and has appeared in productions at the Michigan Actors Studio as well as at Wayne State. In her spare time, she enjoys watching and analyzing movies, writing poetry, reading plays, and exploring new cities across the globe.