Riding the A

by

07/28/2019

Neighborhood: Washington Heights

One way or another, everybody needs to get on the A train.

I’m leaning against the back wall of the car, in that tiny corner beside the conductor’s compartment, still managing to read despite all the other people crammed in around me. It’s the afternoon rush hour and you don’t need a watch to tell. The doors open and a horde of humanity forces its way inside. Acting as a unified mass of flesh, bags, and overcoats, they push, squeezing out every bit of space and oxygen left.  We are packed in tight. Women in skirt suits with sneakers on their feet and high heels in their bags; teenagers wearing earbuds, struggling to text with their phones an inch from their faces; businessmen in slacks and sports coats, gripping their briefcases as they reach up to the ceiling for balance; an old lady with a half empty churro cart, so short her eye line is level with most everyone else’s chest; a busker in skinny jeans and a hoodie, his guitar thankfully tucked away in its case. Most people are irritable when the train is this crowded, and the New York City subway system gives us all plenty of reason to complain. I lose my patience once in a while, but there’s still something endearing to me about all of us having to be stuck in here together. Whether we’re making six figures or begging for change between stops, we have to coexist; we have to make it work. The A is our own little melting pot, a kind of microcosm of America: all of us fighting for our own space and learning to live with each other on our way uptown.

Normally I stand sideways by the door, leaning against the partition between me and the three-seater behind me, my book bag on the floor tucked between my legs. I try to take up as little space as possible, but sometimes I get dirty looks anyway. It’s worth it, though. I’ve got a long ride up to 175th Street. Over time I’ve worked out all the A train hacks to make the commute easier for me. I always run to the second car, go through the second set of doors, and take my spot on the side that opens at Fulton Street, where I get on. After 34th Street, those doors don’t open again until 168th, giving me a perfect, undisturbed reading spot while everyone else is trying to defy the laws of physics on the other side of the car. When the doors by me open again at 175th Street, I’m right in front of the stairs nearest to the station exit, allowing me to make a run for it before the rest of the crowd has decompressed enough to move. Every now and then, though, someone else gets the same idea, leaving me to scramble for the back corner of the car instead. That’s how I ended up here. I’ll be stuck in the current of the exiting crowd later on, but at least I have just enough space to comfortably read.

Then, I’m interrupted by a loud noise.

BRIIIIIING BRIIIIING BRIIIIING! BRIIIING BRIIIING BRIIIING!

Startled, I pick my head up and dart my eyes around the train car to find it. The sound is metallic, piercingly loud, and repeating incessantly.

BRIIIIIING BRIIIIING BRIIIIING! BRIIIING BRIIIING BRIIIING!

Through small gaps in the crowd, I manage to spot him. A middle-aged man in a red baseball cap and matching sneakers is leaning forward in his middle seat, grinning wide and chuckling to himself, completely absorbed in the cell phone game he is playing. Whenever he swipes to make his character jump to collect coins, the sound returns.

BRIIIIIING BRIIIIING BRIIIIING! BRIIIING BRIIIING BRIIIING!

I sigh and shake my head in disapproval. Annoying subway commuters are inevitable: the refrigerator-sized dudes who block an entire door and refuse to move over, forcing everyone to funnel in through a half-sized opening; people who keep wearing their back packs despite the crowd, effectively doubling their size and bumping into others whenever they move; and, of course, the overstressed, impatient, and possibly insane people who pick fights with strangers over minor infractions. But few things are more irritating than somebody blasting obnoxious noise from their phones with no apparent regard for anyone around them. I try to ignore it and keep reading, but find myself going back over the same paragraph again and again, unable to register the words, because that fucking noise keeps coming back.

BRIIIIIING BRIIIIING BRIIIIING! BRIIIING BRIIIING BRIIIING!

I look up again and see other people glaring at the man. No one says a word, but every time the sound blares out from his phone again they stare daggers at him, growing more and more visibly agitated with every repetition. Their breathing gets heavier, they shift uncomfortably in their places, and begin to exchange “Can you believe this guy?” looks with one another. From my vantage point at the back of the car, I sense a growing hostility thickening an already smothered air between us all, and the beginnings of that distinct, powder-keg vibe that seeps into a subway car just before a fight breaks out. Meanwhile, the man gleefully swipes on his phone, unaware of what’s going on around him. I’m too far away to contribute any meaningful scorn, so I just watch, bemused at the man’s obliviousness.

Finally, he seems to get the hint. I watch as he pops his head back to sit straight up, looks around at the crowd around him and fidgets with his phone to turn the sound off. After a beat he leans forward again, swiping as before, but this time with no sound. Slowly, the moment passes, the tension dissipates, and I return to my book.

Two stops later, it’s back.

BRIIIIIING BRIIIIING BRIIIIING! BRIIIING BRIIIING BRIIIING!

“You’re shitting me…” I begin to say as I look up from my book again.

Someone else had gotten on the train and was playing the exact same cell phone game at full volume, swiping up to collect coins and bringing that horrible sound back into the car. “Jesus, really?” I mutter, and shake my head in disapproval, as does everyone else around me—including the man who had originally been annoying everyone. My irritated frown slowly morphs into an incredulous grin as I watch the man in the red ball cap silently condemn the newcomer, with a furious gaze of sanctimony and self-righteousness that I can’t help but find hilarious. But he’s not joking. Not only is the man annoyed, he’s pulling out all the stops with his reaction. Freshly assimilated, with his phone now innocuously tucked inside his pocket, he glares at the newcomer, breathing heavily, shifting in his seat, and exchanging “Can you believe this guy?” looks with a few baffled people standing near him—forgetting, or pretending to forget, that he was that guy, just an eye-blink ago.

In that moment something clicks in my head, and I have to smile. This train isn’t just a representation of America—it is America, and the behavior I’m seeing is a metaphor in motion. We’re all so quick to forget where we came from, and just as quick to point it out in each other. The cognitive dissonance is dizzying, but standing here riding the A and watching it play out, all I can do is laugh.

I take another deep breath and go back to my reading. It’s all finally beginning to sink in.

***

Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, photographer, and graphic designer in New York City. He has been published in The Caribbean Writer and Label Me Latino Journal, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Memoir from CUNY Hunter College and is working on a book-length memoir project. More of his work can be found on his official website www.angeleduardo.com

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