I scrambled down the stairs, as the northbound 1 train was just about to leave the station. A black man, who looked to be around 40, rushed in behind me. He sat across from me and was traveling with a rough-looking backpack, an equally rough suitcase, and a tan coat with white fur around the stitching. His shirt had a few holes in it, and to be honest, he looked like he’d done some hard living. A black beanie was pulled down to his eyebrows, and the tag stuck out. I tried not to meet eyes with him, as we were some of the only people on the train. After a minute or two passed, he asked that I scoot over a seat so he could switch sides to read the subway map better. Looking confused, he asked, “Do you know what’s around 34th street?” I told him I was just visiting, but that according to the map, 34th street was at Penn Station. He seemed a bit more relaxed.
“I’m meeting someone, but it’s not important.” he said, as if to quell any concern I should have about accidentally sending him to the wrong station. He asked where I was visiting from, if I liked New York, and why. I told him I liked the professionalism and drive that people have here, that everyone seems focused. He laughed, “Man, you know everything you see in this city is hidden. People be actin’ that way ’cause they gotta fit in.” It was an intriguing thought, so I asked for more. He began telling me about himself, that he’s from Trinidad, and came to New York 20 years ago.
At the next stop, a tall, extremely handsome man in his early 20’s boarded the train. He was clearly a model, actor, or something else. He held papers that were covered in highlighting and text; he tapped his fingers together one after the other, as he mouthed the lines to himself. He couldn’t help but to get distracted by the conversation happening in front of him. He rotated his stares between his papers, us talking, and a woman holding her sleeping baby. The Trinidad Man and I talked about being in the big city, and common misconceptions about it. His biggest worry was that people always seem to think they can just go anywhere and be totally safe because they’re in America.
“You see how quiet this train is?” he asked, leaning in.
An elderly woman was reading a James Patterson book. A man in construction clothes laid asleep, slumped against the rail. Another woman quietly told her increasingly fussy baby that she doesn’t need a performance right now. The man across from us stared.
“It can change, just like that” he said, snapping his fingers.
The deep scar above his lip, and a second one above his left eye told me he was probably right, and he mentioned several times that he never takes back streets or shortcuts after dark.
“Even someone like me,” he spoke through his now-recognizable Trinidad accent, “I just don’t take chances in big cities. Any big city. When you walkin’ in a dark side street, an’ you got 10 shady guys comin’ at you, whatchou gonna do?”
I nodded. He spoke of the dangers of getting into cars when people offer rides, and houses that are too dangerous to go into.
“You know, cause some-a these guys,” he whispered, “they got guns, they got drugs, it’s not good man. Ain’t no one gonna make me go into a house like that. People around here, they get robbed or killed and it’s ’cause they always goin’ in places they shouldn’t.”
I nodded some more, and he chuckled, I could tell he was an easy-going guy. “No offense, man, but really, why are white people so good at that?” The man reciting his papers threw his glance up at us, and the Trinidad Man cracked a big smile, as did I. “At going places they shouldn’t?” I asked rhetorically. He laughed out loud this time, relaxing his shoulders a bit.
“You know these days, it’s just a respect thing. Like why you guys wanna be up there? What’s up there for you?” I could tell he was genuinely curious, which made sense when I thought about it from his perspective. I spoke about wanting to see the whole city, even the parts considered dangerous at times. More chuckling, “thas funny man. ‘Cause like, they way we see it, is like lines. Like we got this area, and we stay here, and you got this area, and you stay there you know what I’m sayin’? Like when you there, you’re on his turf. His turf, man.” He was smiling and spoke in a friendly tone, and I could tell he wasn’t extremely serious.
We strayed from the subject, and he asked about my blog, as I’d mentioned it being about subway culture. He said he sees a lot of random kindness in New York, and a lot of diversity from all walks of life. His eyes dropped to his bags.
“I’m going to Atlanta. I go there for work, I stay for ’bout two three months, and then come back.”
“Do you like traveling for work?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, of course, I love it! I love Atlanta, the food, everything. I love to cook too. I’m always in the kitchen whipping something up.”
“Do you like to make food from Trinidad?”
“Oh yes,” he smiled, tilting his head back slightly. “But I don’t do none of this modern food, modern cooking. I take it way back to my grandma’s recipes you know?”
“When food was just simple and delicious?”
Just then, 34th street pillars whizzed by the subway windows. “Oh, I think this is your stop”, I said. He quickly swiveled his head around to peer out the window. “Oh yeah!” He stood up and bunched his jacket under his armpit, put his backpack on, and picked up his suitcase by the fraying side handle. “It was nice talking to you!” I said. “Of course, man, it was nice talking to you too. Have a good day!” He smiled and stepped off the train, disappearing into the fast-moving crowd. I couldn’t help but realize how small each person is in the big city. Every person standing on the platform is going somewhere, to meet some requirement of their life, and they all have totally different backgrounds that influence who they are and who they’re going to be. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to perceive it all, there just too many people, too many personalities, too many ways to live life. And when I had first seen the Trinidad Man’s torn suitcase and painful facial scars, my first thought was “Crap, I hope he doesn’t try to talk to me.”
I arrived at the 103rd street station a different person, disappearing into the crowd myself, thinking about two complex lives that intersected for just a few minutes on a train, but revealed so much.