WHEN I MOVED from Minnesota to New York, so many New Yorkers warned me against setting foot in the subway that I naturally headed there first, and I've been riding it daily ever since. It's dirty, plagued with beggars, sometimes miserably slow, and yet, it's a train and that gives it grandeur, even with homeless people sleeping across the seats. When you grow up in a little town like Lake Wobegon, next to a deserted railroad track rusting in the weeds, and you imagine a shiny train chugging in and carrying you away, it marks you for the rest of your life. When I stand in my dreary station on West 86th Street and see the C Train's lights come around the tunnel bend and feel the rails shake, my heart smiles. I feel fulfilled.
You can tell I'm not a real New Yorker, by the way, when I call it the C Train. The subway is such a part of the soul of the city, the mark of a native New Yorker is the way he refers to the subway lines by their antique names -- the BMT, the IRT and the IND -- the initials of transit companies dead 60 years or more. To us immigrants, they are the A Train or the No. 1, known only by the letter or number on the sign in the train car window.
The pace of life in New York tends to be stately, and tourists think of it as fast only because they're here on weekends when there's less traffic. During the week, especially in Manhattan, the pace is so slow, you often feel that any mode of transportation might be as fast as any other -- you could walk, drive, take a cab or ride the subway and get there about the same time -- so we choose our transport more on aesthetic grounds.
Like most older American men, I'm sentimental about trains, but my real love is the automobile. In a car, you can sing along with the Temptations or interview yourself ("Gar, you're 48 years old and yet you're the leading pitcher in the National League. What's your secret?"), or yell at your boss. The subway forces you to act reasonable and wear a public face.
The automobile is the sweetest privacy a person gets in a day. But in New York, having a car of your own is a handicap, like having a hump of your own. At parties, you sometimes see clumps of car-owners comparing costs of garage space, the merits of various routes out of town, discussing the hump. Taxis aren't much better. Traffic in New York ebbs more than it flows, and the narrow cross-streets go into coronary occlusion regularly. Sitting motionless in a cab for 15 minutes as pedestrians flow by, you feel a vibration from deep below. It is the subway. You should get out and go down and take it.
Life in New York is slow, but I feel my steps quicken when I take the handrail and climb down the steps to the subway station. The beggar who sits on the top step never gets a nickel from me. I hurry down and when I go through the turnstile I break into a slow trot down the next flight to the platform. I hurry because I don't want to barely miss a train, which feels logical, but of course, by hurrying, I sometimes barely miss a train that if I had walked slowly I wouldn't have been aware of. If I find the platform crowded, I'm happy. It means that some of the job of waiting has been done by others.
If I find a train pulling out, its red lights disappearing into the dark, it's a sad moment, in a place that is forlorn already: water dripping, garbage on the tracks, a raggedy man asleep on a bench. I stand and think of all the things I could've done differently this morning and saved the five seconds I missed the train by. I could've shaved faster or toasted the bagel lighter. I could've skipped the editorial page of The Times. Once every few weeks, I come to the platform as the train is rolling in. It stops and I board it, as if it were my private subway. This is a great day, always.
A speed merchant it isn't, though the view from the front window of the Broadway Express as it races downtown from 96th Street, zooming through the turns at 40 miles an hour, is as exciting as the Coney Island roller coaster. Elegant it ain't either. In the stations and cars, none of the ads are for BMWs or ski resorts; they're for hemorrhoids and sore feet, bunions, bad skin, bad teeth, drug treatment. The movie ads show glamorous stars, but subway riders like to draw on them, give them warts and pimples, black eyes, make them cry, make stuff come out their noses and draw big balloons overhead where the stars confess to their homosexuality, their drug habits.
It takes a strong person to pursue elegance at street level in New York. A new sidewalk cafe, Chinese-Mexican, with six tables, opened in my neighborhood this summer, and every night I walked by and saw people eating Szechuan tostadas and drinking Dos Equis or Tsing-tao beer, truck exhaust swirling around them, panhandlers leaning over their table, a homeless man curled up in the doorway, and the diners looked as cool as if they were at The Ballroom. I admire the resolution of people who can look reality in the face and deny it. People who are drawn to the romance of the subway, for example.
The subway is where you can study people, through discreet glances, and ponder their histories. The man in the expensive suit with The Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm: Who he? A young black woman sits reading Thoreau's "Walden," a woman who, if I saw her on the street, I'd never associate with Thoreau. Thoreau was a suburban guy who walked to work at his pond and who wrote, "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! Our life is frittered away by detail. Let your affairs be as two or three, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, a man must live by dead reckoning if he would not founder and go to the bottom. Simplify, simplify." Thoreau never lived in New York. He did not envision the subway.
The subway is where I stand, studying Spanish from the advertising placards, such as the ad for Tide detergente with the phrase blanquea tan blanco, as a young black man in a dark suit and a narrow black tie, stands in the middle of the car, swaying and preaching the gospel. I don't imagine that what I read as the Spanish for "whiter than white" is a particularly useful phrase in New York, but it describes how I feel sometimes: too damn white.
But this is what the man is preaching, that ye must be washed in the blood of the Lamb and be made spotless, whiter than snow. This is a message I grew up hearing, and I look at him and smile to show my agreement, but he reads something else in my expression, like spiritual need. He zeros in on me. "There are two trains in this life and only two. One train to heaven and the other to hell. Which train are you on, brother?" he asks. His judgment is fierce, like my father's.
Across the aisle is a young black woman wearing the biggest hair comb ever seen, with her name spelled out in rhinestones: MICHELLE. As if life is a show and here is her marquee. She needs the gospel more than I do, but he comes and preaches it at me.
I avoid his eyes. I study the Spanish on the signs, such a graceful language. The phrase, No se apoye contra la puerto (Don't lean against the door) sounds like an invitation to dance, compared to what they said where I come from ("What's the matter with you? For crying out loud. Quit leaning against that door!"). Spanish is the loving tongue, like the song says. My dad told me, "Get a job." Aprenda una vocacion, says the ad. He said, "Listen to what I'm telling you!" Este atento a los instrucciones. If my old man spoke Spanish, maybe I'd have listened to him. The preacher closes up his Bible and gets off at 14th Street. My stop, too, but I ride on to West 4th. I'll walk back.
The subway is a great cultural institution. It makes New Yorkers stand close to each other, which we imagine we don't want to do, but really want to be made to. We need an institution to bring us together, and the subway does that in a big way. Life is constantly spinning, you see, and a powerful centrifugal force wants to hurl us apart, alone, into the darkness, to become recluses in cabins in Vermont. We need to get in a crowd now and then to experience the pleasure of the city, a painful pleasure at first for those of us from the provinces -- in the Midwest, a comfortable conversational distance is about four feet, and the first time a Midwesterner boards the subway, he reaches critical mass and implodes -- but you get used to it.
And then it seems lovely. Like when we were kids, and were jammed together in a car. My aunts and uncles produced flocks of kids and believed that, no matter how many were in the back seat, you could always get one more in. If we could exhale enough to whisper, then there was room for another one. The subway operates on a similar principle. At Times Square, they pack into the cars and then more people get on. The train is so packed, you don't even need to hang on, you just ride in a loose human gel.
When people are squeezed tight, they become extremely courteous. No eye contact. No sudden moves. Nothing sudden. Nothing loud or rude. Ten of us stand in 12 square feet at the end of the car, 10 people carefully balanced as the train starts, 10 arms holding onto a bar so we don't lurch into each other, 10 people trying to maintain a half-inch space between each other. Of the nine people around me, five are black, which is more black people than have come through Lake Wobegon in 20 years.
To be packed in so close to black men and women seems like a privilege, if you consider that all systems of oppression and cruelty require distance to be maintained. Segregation means exactly that, and so does apartheid. So, to stand inches away from each other is liberating. I wouldn't say this to the woman standing next to me, whose hip I feel against the side of my leg, but it's true.
It occurs to me, riding the subway, that the Golden Rule is a matter of great practicality, reminding you to look at every situation from both sides because the person you are doing it to today can do it to you tomorrow: Count on it. Our situations are easily reversed. The Rule means: Whatever you do, don't be too arrogant -- the person you sack today is the person you'll need help from tomorrow, the man you put in prison will someday be the warden, so resist the temptation to moral grandeur, because the world does turn.
The people who are crowded around me, whose bodies touch mine, are the broadest slice of New York I'll see today and the closest neighbors I have. I am stunned by their civility. I think of the Rule here because there is no place in New York where it is so assiduously applied. Packed in tight, you feel the social contract and sense its fragility. The train lurches and instantly we each rebalance so as not to break it. Solidarity forever, as the old song says, the subway makes us strong.
Garrison Keillor is creator and host of "American Radio Company."