I have always lived near subway stations that are above ground, meaning that many of my days have begun by standing in the cold for a few minutes waiting for the train to roll in – the 1 at 125th Street, then the F at Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in Brooklyn. During the winter months, when the train doors open at these stations, the cold air is allowed to enter the car shoulder to shoulder alongside the new passengers. But the warm – or reasonable, though not odorless – air of the train has no chance in the outdoors. When it’s cold outside, the first few minutes of my tenure on the train are always a bit chilly, and the body will take its time heating up, though as you get closer to the city center the train begins to fill up with more bodies, themselves heating up at their own pace, and then the whole moving box is toasty enough.
I found myself waiting on the platform at Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street in Brooklyn one January day, even though I didn’t have anywhere to go.
I simply wanted to be out of the house, so I left on a lark, no destination in mind. The Polar Vortex put the temperature in the low teens (Fahrenheit), and it was only the middle of the afternoon. The sun managed to hang exposed in the air in all its glory, suggesting warmth and then delivering none. I entered the F train and immediately found a seat. I put my bag on my lap as a sort of blanket and I kept my arms near my sides and my knees close together, not only to make myself into a compact bundle saving room for the passengers who would board the train at the coming stops, but to make sure that very little body heat would escape through my wool coat or my regretfully thin jeans. I opened my book and started reading as the train approached Smith and Ninth Street (also above ground, a burst of chilly air) and then went back underground.
The population of the train increased exponentially. It became inevitable that someone would sit next to me. I have no qualms brushing shoulders, sides of knees, or elbows with my fellow MTA riders, but I’d be lying if I were to suggest that sitting quietly and reading should be a full-on contact sport. At Jay Street, a woman in a knee-length puffy brown coat boarded the train. She was swaddled like a baby in her multiple layers, and a few shopping bags dangled from her gloved hands.
She sat to my left, between myself and another subway rider who had been stationed approximately one “person unit” away from me. Though she was slender, it was a tight fit, as the winter goods make us all seem a little bit larger than we are. Winter coats are a great equalizer. Even the sleek, expensive ones look as though they’re only one wrong accessory away from being dowdy.
While the woman settled next to me, I kindly shifted myself closer towards the slick metal bars that straddle the newer light blue benches on subway trains. I knew that I was creating absolutely no new space, but it’s my experience that people appreciate mere effort. I could, however, create more room by pulling my elbows in a little closer, which meant that my paperback of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America was now a little further from my eyes. I’m neither nearsighted nor farsighted (in part because I don’t know what these mean, and whenever I look up the definitions of the two terms, I instantly reverse them); however, I do prefer whatever I’m reading to be a certain distance from my face, approximately 12 inches.
It seems unnatural and, perhaps worse, the opposite of New Yorker-ly to suggest I was peeved that I had to alter my reading position on a train, but I was. The story of Moore’s I was reading had me in a trance, and the interruption took me out of the rhythm I had established.
But it should’ve been easy to reestablish that rhythm, since the woman sat perfectly still. She had streaks in her brown hair, which fell below the edge of her knit winter cap. She looked straight ahead. I looked straight ahead at my book, no longer reading with the kind of intensity I had experienced just moments earlier. My attentions were now stretched between the book and the person next to me. I would’ve ignored her, like I have every other stranger I’ve ever sat next to on the subway, but as my body was taking forever to heat up, I couldn’t help but notice how warm her arm felt next to mine, and how the left side of my body – the side nearest to her – seemed better adjusted compared to my delinquent right, which still felt the effects of the vortex a bit more acutely.
She remained on the train as I got off at West Fourth Street, which I selected for no reason other than it’s a good area to get lost in. I wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t going to meet anyone for dinner or drinks. I was just going outside. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had gone out in the cold for some warmth.
Ryan Lejarde’s writing has appeared in great numbers on his own hard drive, but even more of it has appeared exclusively in his own head. He lives in Brooklyn.