Uncomfortable Underground

A summer of subway blues

by Maddie Pillari; illustration by Rachel Fischman

New York City in the summer is notorious for its uncomfortable heat and sticky humidity. Tourists in Midtown sag together,  pushing past each other in a sweaty August frenzy. Taxi exhaust clogs the air, the sun tries hopelessly to pierce through the smog and Manhattan swelters — a tired, miserable haze. There is no reprieve beneath the sidewalk. Steamy subway platforms seem to breathe, and the metal cars push columns of air even hotter and denser than the oppressive heat in Times Square.  

These scorching gusts of subway wind greeted me every weekday morning this past summer, whipping my still-drying hair out of my face, drawing out beads of sweat from my forehead and pushing against the stiff collar of the shirt I had to wear to my internship at a law firm. My commute was simple: a three-block walk from my apartment to the subway station at 92nd and Lexington Avenue, and then the four or five express train all the way downtown to the last stop before the Brooklyn Bridge. I lived in the apartment with my older sister, Mollie, who was interning on Wall Street. Investment banking hours are not the same as those at the law office, and I rarely saw her. I was lucky, faxing and filing strictly from nine to five. Mollie wasn’t home until at least two in the morning and then up again to run before I opened my eyes. Essentially, for the first time in my life, I was alone. But I knew that my time in New York City was short, and so I didn’t put in the effort or energy to change anything about my solitary situation. 

I listened to music on my commute but hadn’t downloaded anything new in three years. At 8 a.m. I would walk down Lexington Avenue before descending into the depths of New York City, thankful that the heat hadn’t truly set in. Sometimes I didn’t listen to anything, just kept the white ear buds in so as to look busy and unapproachable. I wore a mask. I never recognized anyone because I made a conscious effort to keep my head down, selfishly avoiding eye contact with the homeless and their cardboard signs and mattresses. I didn’t respond to the people selling newspapers at the top of the stairs, didn’t smile at the eyes I accidently met as I made my way to the platform. I made sure my face was blank and that my expression was neutral. I made sure that I blended in. 

Rush hour on the subway meant a lot of shoving and a lot of physical contact with strangers whose hygiene habits, in many cases, left much to be desired. This meant jamming myself into a barely-air-conditioned steel box and forcefully pressing against other blank-faced and sweaty individuals. I lurched forward with them, the train rattling and picking up speed, and then tensed my entire body, every muscle, as the train screeched to an abrupt stop and I fought gravity, trying to stay in place. We unwillingly swayed forward and settled back like some kind of awful plant at the bottom of a freshly disturbed but never-cleaned, algae-full fish tank forgotten in the corner of a childhood bedroom. 

The law office I worked in was bigger, but it was hard to breathe in there, too. It was an insurance law firm, and I had my own cubicle. My neighbor was a partner at the firm, and my mom told me that any internship is a good internship, that often it meant finding out what I didn’t like. Even if it’d be boring, it’d be on my résumé. She was right, but it didn’t make me any less miserable. 

An exhausted lawyer would drop a pound of paper on my desk. “Three copies,” he would say, “and staple this pink sheet to the back of each page with a signature, and then paper clip the separate cases within the copies. Thanks,” “Maddie.” I would supply. They would grant me an apologetic, weary smile and hurry back to their office.

I don’t know why I found it to be such a nightmare. The end of the day brought the same crowd below the concrete. The train would screech into the platform, and the doors would shudder open to reveal a packed car of despondent commuters. There would be an anxious pause as the people standing next to me waited, all of us hoping this was someone’s stop, praying for the car to empty by even one body. But more often than not, those prayers would go unanswered. Both those already inside and those trying to get on seemed to collectively steel themselves as they came to terms with the harsh reality that they would have to create space where there really wasn’t any. And then there was the push. A new batch of wearied souls on the platform heave, aggressively shuffling forward, pressing themselves into each other, desperate to become a passenger. 

I’m sure, for some, it was merely a commute. A slightly unpleasant but otherwise unremarkable part of their day. I dreaded the entire experience, hyper-conscious of staring too long at a particular person across from me, of the accidental graze of flesh on flesh, of the smell of someone’s Chinese takeout breakfast. I discreetly watched people complete crossword puzzles, jealous of their ability to be appear both restless and bored. The subway maps above the seats were a safe thing to study: colorful lines and organized chaos. It looked clean, easy and almost fun, printed onto the wall, as if it all could be reduced and made sense of. 

My blank face wasn’t reserved just for the subway. I never let my guard down, and as the only intern I quietly went about my day, running errands for lawyers who didn’t have the time or energy to push past my polite neutrality. I didn’t try to, either. 

 I’m the kind of person who is really only comfortable around people I’ve known for years (plural). Around my family and my longtime friends, I feel like myself. I am not shy or anxious or forced into a facial expression of calculated apathy. I laugh freely and often and I talk too fast and I’m sarcastic and happy. But alone in New York City, I never found the opportunity to be that person. The older I get, the more often I find myself in situations where I am not surrounded by people who I love and who love me. I find myself surrounded by people, whether physically pressed up against them in a steaming subway car or sitting across from them at a desk, people who will judge me solely on my current presentation. They will not have a trove of childhood memories, shared experiences, inside jokes and history to tap into and know me better. Finding some kind of refuge in this self-induced anonymity, falling into the trap of selfish unfriendliness—it only works for so long. If you wear a mask for long enough, you run the risk of losing the ability to take it off. 

I would emerge from the depths of the subway station in the evenings, shoulder-to-shoulder with what seemed like the rest of the world. 5:30 p.m. in New York City isn’t too hot, but it’s more humid in the evenings. The sunset is a smog-induced ephemeral lavender, but blue also and maybe orange, too. I would walk up Lexington Avenue as the streets grew quiet, imagining the sun was melting not against skyscrapers, but sliding behind a snow-dusted Pikes Peak.