Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Theater of the Tunnels

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Screeches, wails, electronic static fuzzing the edges of some irrelevant PSA—“This is an announcement from the New York Police Department”—out of such bedlam come the sounds of another subterranean monster. Its lights glow in the distance. The columns separating the tracks break up the scene, like the edges of film frames flickering across a screen. Your train and this other train are edging closer, smoothly eating up the distance between them, looking like they will converge into one.

Then the tracks straighten out. The trains run parallel, two bits of flotsam in the same current.

This is my favorite subway moment: when you can look out the window and see, two meters from your face, a familiar, commonplace and utterly untouchable tableau, a scene that can never be rewound or replayed. A single-run performance in the darkened theater of the tunnels. The train car opposite is exactly the same as the one you’re in yourself, but it never seems that way: somehow that other car always has a homey air, a comforting quality of light, a reassuring calmness and quiet. It’s like looking into a candlelit cottage from a snowy sidewalk and feeling a phantom warmth.

It’s all an illusion, of course. Those other commuters are only heading to their jobs in the morning and back home in the evening, and their subway cars are no cleaner and smell no better than your own. And yet something—the dense darkness in-between, perhaps, or the sepia tint from two thicknesses of old glass—makes that other scene inescapably evocative and unerringly superior.

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And there is something compelling in such a moment of unconsummated closeness. You can always run back after somebody you pass on the street, but you’ll never again find that person you locked gazes with across that unbridgeable underground gap. She’s an express train on the E line, and you’re a local R, and your parallel tracks might as well be parallel universes—no crossing over allowed.

Maybe in Hollywood: undoubtedly there has been a ridiculous romantic comedy about two unlikely strangers (she a hardened cynic, he a reckless dreamer) sharing a mutual glimpse through those two panes and, exactly ninety-seven minutes later, settling into each other’s arms at some unlikely locale—the top of a skyscraper overlooking the East River, or under the Brooklyn Bridge.

But that’s much too neat and cheap to be interesting.

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