Nobody talks while riding a New York City Subway. Me? I talk to anyone. I own New York and the trains that tie it together underneath. I’d tell ’em that I had just returned from the ancient city of Rome-I had just conquered the world. New York was not as big anymore.
It’s a long ride from Kennedy to the GWB. I’m traveling backwards. My seat faces the other commuters. Yesterday, I was in Rome. Last night, I looked through the window of Alitalia flight 7604 and saw our moon painting pastel blue light on the snowcaps of the Swiss Alps. It’s August.
Platform 9-B: To Trains
Two days ago, I danced in a bus terminal in Milano with a homeless drunk who speaks only Italian. Today, an ocean away, I ride beside him on the train in New York-except he doesn’t speak at all. I had conquered civilizations, eras, oceans, mountains, deserts, languages, cities, cultures, climates, and currencies, all at the age of 20.
This journey would have been impossible before May 21, 1927. The whole experience of leaving Europe by sea was long and often life-threatening one century ago. In the sum of human history, our time here is unnoticed and silent, but we feel immortal and without limits.
Platform 8-A: To Busses and Taxi
I am fourth of six siblings-raised in government subsidized housing in economically-depressed upstate New York. It seems to me that I’ve climbed to the crest of the known world, taken my picture, and now I was going to get swallowed up again into average life. Where do go once you leave Catanzaro Lido? Last week, I ate a dark chocolate-covered coffee ice cream on a stick while watching a pizza-colored moon rise above the Mediterranean Sea. I had become new friends with Franco, Franco, and a most-affectionate Simon Pietro. We shared wine, pasta, and watermelon. I had mixed mortar in their arid summer sun and sat beneath a single orange porch light in the evening rain. None of us had any money, and it would seem we were better off for it.
I stood reverently in St. Peter’s Cathedral two days ago. Suddenly, I am whisked away at breakneck speed through congested and dirty airport customs, to train, and then to bus. I’m still in the same clothes. Sand from the ancient city is still in the tread of my boots. Use to being out under God’s canopy of stars, I pull out a fresh shirt from my duffle and change.
No one notices.
Someone has cast a terrible hex on the city. I’m gone 8 weeks and everyone’s become zombies. Am I alive nor dead? I own the city. It was all running smoothly just for me-right on schedule. Everyone played his or her roles just for me-to land, to travel, to eat. I even felt patriotic seeing Lady Liberty from the plane window. I was glad to be home, but terrified that such a godless place not only exists, but also had become my home. Do I belong here?
Afraid of what I may have become, I grabbed my notebook and listed all of the ways that I was not like my surroundings. In a crisis of identity, I scribbled what I am by naming what I am not.
Platform 19-A: No Pedestrians Beyond This Point
My back slides left and right against the seatback and my shoulder bumps the graffiti scratched into the Plexiglas window every couple of seconds-rocking with the city beat around imaginary street corners. Our express train takes center lanes at full speed through stand-still stations. This passing sends strobe lights on my page like I were a flying insect in a thundercloud-all of it moving at terrible speeds. Sometimes the rate of the strobes would double as a southbound train passed us traveling the opposite direction, missing us by inches.
I feel frail. I feel mortal again. I don’t believe I can conquer this city, or any other city, anymore. In fact, I am the city. I didn’t rise to the top of the world. I am the sand of ancient cultures stuck in the tread of someone else’s sole. Not only am I just another silent commuter on the A Train, I am invisible. This machine operates independent of me, back and forth over the same iron rails, regardless of whether I am even on board. The city does not run for me. I am a mere observer, a participant, a supporting cast member at most-maybe an extra.
Stoic and zombie-like, I looked again at the list of words that I had just written- identifiers that I had just made. The qualities that define my surrounding were suppose to set me apart from them. I must know myself, independent of where I am. Instead, however, it was like reading an exact description of myself. It was as though I were trying to look through the Plexiglas subway window, but because of the darkness outside, I only saw a reflection of my own face-“frail,” “frightened,” “alone,” “invisible,” and “moving at breakneck speed.”
The sum of my life is seemingly immortal and without limits. Instead, my time here is unnoticed and silent.