Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Subterranean Epiphany: Vivian Gornick Rides the Subway

For decades, I've been immoderately obsessed with the New York subway, in part because I don't live or work in the city and can indulge my obsessions on leisurely visits. I try to get to New York a couple of times a year—with my wife Amy, or solo—and when I'm in town I ride the trains as often as I can, for hours. A marvel of engineering and efficiency (nowadays), the subway is an unparalleled way to take a measure of the city's social pulse, an intensive and rich experience I don't quite feel in trains in other American cities (San Fransisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., etc., though I did experience something similar in the crowded and noisy London Underground). The hours I've lost sitting in a front car, gazing forward through grimy glass as the train moves through tunnels under boroughs and the East River, ascends and descends in and out of daylight, arrives at stations. I've even fantasized about moving us to New York and taking a job as a subway conductor—an indication of the urban romanticizing of which I'm unfortunately guilty. I recently finished 722 Miles, Clifton Hood's history of the subway, an engrossing if in places unexciting read, a well-researched account that unfortunately stops short of the subway system's notorious era of mechanical and cultural dilapidation and disrepair, a time period in which I'm especially interested. Then last night I came across "A Ride on the New York Subway," an essay by the great Vivian Gornick, in The Village Voice Anthlogy (1956-1980).

Gornick's essay ran in the December 21, 1972 issue of the Voice, and opens with a familiar note of nightmarish terror at the deleterious condition of the subway. "The New York subways are, and always have been, a kind of Kafkaesque parallel to the life that is lived above ground on the streets of the most quintessential city in the world," Gornick begins.
Each working day of their lives, millions of New Yorkers “willingly” descend hundreds of feet, through huge manholes in the street, into a subterranean world of darkness and gloom; there, in the dimness, they crowd mechanically together in astonishing numbers at the edge of a deep pit riven with tracks of steel fatal to the human touch, along which will hurtle with exhausting irregularity an iron monster spitting flame and noise like some pagan construction designed for the express purpose of intimidating the cowering human; when the monster comes to a temporary halt, doors slide open in its sides, and the men and women at the edge of the pit tumble inside, very much like Jonah tumbling into the whale; the doors then lock shut, and the iron creature goes roaring off down the pitch-black tunnel with its cargo of human prisoners—sullen penitents all: confused, silent, passive-aggressives doomed to an hour or more of suffocating companionship; during which time it becomes extremely difficult for anyone aboard the monster to see his own reflection in the closed faces that are relentlessly jammed, eyeball to eyeball, breath to breath, blackhead to blackhead, up against one another. . . .

But there are times when the subway, like the city itself, seems so grotesque that, indeed, one wonders how this entire enterprise can continue to call itself human. Much less continue.
Vivian Gornick
Gornick's eye for detail is remarkable, such as in this terrific paragraph, which is as evocative as a sharply-focused photograph:
The platform was indescribably filthy; the tile walls surrounding the staircases were streaked with years-old dirt and the graffiti of a thousand greasy marker pens: Johnny and Velda, ’69; The Jets Was Here; Lindsay Sucks; Tony and Maureen, ’71; Benny and Concita Forever; Loreen Is A Cunt; The Black Hawks Can Beat The Shit Outta The Silver Eagles Anytime. On and on it went, in an endless abstraction of red, blue, and black that covered the walls, the staircases, parts of the platform itself. The floor was littered with the overflow of the few trash cans that stood vaguely about: candy wrappers, orange peels, leaky milk cartons, prophylactic wrappers, torn nylon stockings, pellets of chewed gum, discarded junk mail, globbets of spit. The lights in the ceiling were crusted over with webs of dirt that threatened, momentarily, to fall onto the heads of the passengers. The ceiling of the tunnel seemed lower, the walls more porous, the floor harder than ever I remembered; the black metal pillar supports were caked with rust; tiles in the walls on the far side of the tracks had been ripped out, and the plaster within hung loose like a set of nerves that have been severed.
As Gornick scans the station, her feverish reaction intensifies, and she dissociates herself:
I was the only white person on the platform. All around me were New York‘s working-class blacks and Puerto Ricans, pouring down onto the wide, gloomy subway platform from the offices and factories that filled the streets above our heads, jamming the uptown trains that, at the end of a weary working day, would release them some sixty or seventy minutes later into the streets of Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Their numbers seemed extraordinary to me; I seemed to have no recollection of this many people on the trains, even at this hour. The platform was filled to capacity, and still they kept coming: the strongly muscled young black men who push the heavily loaded dress racks through the streets of the garment district; the fat Puerto Rican women who sit at the machines in the dress factories; the Puerto Rican men, thin and wan, who spend forty hours a week tying packages or keeping track of shipping orders; the black and brown girls who bring home fifty-five dollars on Friday after a mindless day of clerk-typing; the gray-haired messenger boys, the round-shouldered bookkeepers, the lunch-counter waitresses; that whole tight, closed, no-way-out world up there seemed bent on pushing its way down here, onto this grimy black metal construction, and now threatened, nearly, to spill over onto the tracks. . . . I looked around in alarm.
By this point in the essay, even forgiving Gornick the era in which she's writing, the reader might be turned off by Gornick's racist, obsessive attention to cultural otherness, as her fears—mostly, it appears, stoked by imaginary threats—mount and as her self-pitying overheats. Standard-issue brown-skinned juvenile delinquents and a young black man, to Gornick clearly high on drugs, loom nearer and nearer, and Gornick sees no one to aid her, only faces battered by exhaustion and lost to defensive and intractable self-absoprtion.

Gornick makes eye contact with a woman whom she'd noticed in passing earlier in the essay. "Abruptly, I looked up and out into the platform crowd," she writes, "and there, still leaning against the metal pillar, was the young Puerto Rican woman in the pink plastic slicker—staring at me. What’s this? I thought, and looked back at her."
Our eyes locked. For a length of time which felt eerily like a slow-motion sequence, that strange mutual stare endured, creating a sudden, curious silence in the midst of all this turmoil. And then—as in a dream that may take only eleven seconds to unfold but gives the illusion of hours passing—I felt the entirety of my immediate experience here on this subway platform tumbling, quickly-slowly, through a kaleidoscope of altered meaning, spinning and jerking inside my head, buzzing through the unnatural silence that now surrounded and penetrated me.

For, there in the eyes of the young Puerto Rican woman staring at me, I could see my own face reflected. I could see all of my thoughts and feelings of the last twenty minutes being summed up and appraised. I could see the mixture of mockery and sympathy in her eyes that said so clearly and so honestly what I had not quite been able to say to myself. “We are ‘those people’ to you, aren’t we?” her eyes said, “and all this is happening in another country, isn’t it?” I could see the weary, working-class sophistication with which she “recognized” the entire human scene around her, and the amusement with which she observed middle-class panic. I could see the bitter intelligence that indicated she knew I’d been looking at the people around me as though they were animals in a 200. But, more than any of these things I could see in her face, I could see me in her face. I could see me at seventeen (she was no more than eighteen or nineteen), standing exactly where she now stood, thinking exactly what she was now thinking....
This empathetic communion (felt by Gornick on her end, at least) has an unburdening effect:
The young Puerto Rican woman and I were still staring at each other; I shook my head slightly, and smiled into her face. I wanted to laugh and hug her. I felt free, as though a weight had been lifted from my chest. It wasn’t racism, after all, that I had been experiencing, only a classic instance of “class alienation.” Which, of course, is what New York is all about. . . . How was it possible that in only one short generation I had forgotten who I was, and where I came from? And what I knew of the varieties of human pain experienced behind that annihilating phrase “those people”?
Appalled, Gornick uses this moment to delve into her past and into her Jewishness, a cultural heritage she recalls in her family's own dire and oppressive rides on the subways decades before her, a stigma she now recognizes that she herself was applying to others. This passage is the essay's strength, and it's a turn that I'm glad Gornck makes, as she indoctrinates herself in her own unappealing, knee-jerk behavior, and writes honestly about it. But I'm of two minds about Gornick's subterranean epiphany. Her discovery—led by innate biases and personal history to a surprising and humane recognition—rings true, and feels as if it's the genuine occasion of the essay, but there's a tone of defensiveness also, as if she needs to work extra hard in the first half of the essay to dramatize her revelation in the second half; her descriptions of minorities' unhappy and burdened experiences in the opening, though finally something she understands as spirit cousins to her own past, smacks of overwriting. If Gornick did inappropriately feel as oppressed and ganged-up-upon as she describes in the first half, then she might've done a little more self-interrogating in the second half. But an essay is as imperfect—or as perfect—as the essayist's imperfections. That's why I love the form.

"A Ride on the New York Subway" ends with another moment of communion, unspoken but deeply felt largess from a man whom Gornick had earlier, characteristically, stereotyped. He steers her away from perceived danger on the platform, toward the relative safety of the train car. At the ride's end, Gornick is warmed by her experience of empathy and dignity, and possibly altered:
At 149th Street and Third Avenue, in the Bronx, the train left the tunnel and emerged into the early evening twilight. Half the people in the car in which I was riding went spilling off onto the first elevated station, which is situated in one of the worst black and Puerto Rican slums in the city. The man in the red shirt was one of the last to leave the train. As he reached the door, he suddenly turned and looked at me. The dead cigar was still stuck in his mouth and his eyes were once more expressionless; but he lifted his porkpie hat to me, and lowered his head slightly in my direction. I nodded back. He disappeared through the door. We had spoken not a single word to each other.

For an indication of how much things change to remain the same, check out Colson Whitehead's underappreciated The Colossus of New York from 2004, a smart, kaleidoscopic, essayistic take on the city. Writing three decades after Gornick, Whitehead considers riding the subway in a manner that echoes Gornick's epiphanic experience, his perspective shaped in part from being African American, in part from being a fellow, and weathered, native New Yorker. "This is the fabled journey underground, folks, and it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better," he writes in the essay's second segment:
On the opposite track it’s a field of greener grass, you gotta beat trains off with a stick. From his secret booth the announcer scares and reassures alternately. The postures on the platform sag or stiffen appropriately. With a dial controlling the amount of static. What are their rooms like, the men at the microphones. One day the fiscal improprieties of the subway announcer’s union will be exposed and that will be the end of the hot tubs and lobster, but until then they break out the bubbly. Look down the tunnel one more time and your behavior will describe a psychiatric disorder. It’s infectious. They take turns looking down into darkness and the platform is a clock: the more people standing dumb, the more time has passed since the last train. The people fall from above into hourglass dunes. Collect like seconds.
Moving forward darkly underground in vastly different times in the city's history, Gornick and Whitehead arrive at similar destinations.


Finally: some terrific photos of New York subway history here and here.

Top photo via Historical Images of New York City Subway.

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