“A hundred times have I thought New York is a catastrophe, and fifty times: It is a beautiful catastrophe.”
Have you ever ridden the trains without the company of madness? It seems that on every car of every subway there exists a person entirely detached from sanity, to a degree more severe than say…us. There is always someone speaking to their reflection in the window, listening to music with only headphones, or sometimes worse. The entire car unites when the person is identified, silently commiserating with knowing glances or veteran smiles. Below are the sketches of mental illness I have compiled in the last three years. All are at once disturbing, tragic and I hope immensely relatable. None are meant to insult or mock those whom society has discarded; rather I hope to relay my experiences of riding the trains, which are universal in New York.
I am sitting on the Coney Island bound F train with two friends. We are huddled together, telling tales of teachers and homework, so that my back faces the rest of the nearly empty car. One of my companions is distracted from our conversation and her eyes flicker between our discussion and something or someone behind me. Unable to hold it in any longer, she whispers, “That man over there is paying much too much attention to his suitcase.” I immediately thought of the robotic announcements that have been engrained in my consciousness like wartime propaganda, “If you see a suspicious package on the platform or train, notify an MTA employee or police officer. If you see something, say something.” My mind ranked the possible items he had inside his suitcase from eccentric to more than unsettling. I casually made an excuse to turn around, and watched as a young businessman stroked his suitcase.
He appeared relatively normal, wearing a full suit, dress shoes and sunglasses. But he was jittery and was focusing on a silver suitcase that he held at his feet. Suddenly, he jumped from his seat and began pacing his isolated end of the car. We all decided to switch cars when we got to the next stop but before we could he began doing push ups on the seats as if he had been pumped full of testosterone before boarding the train. He then began to punch the poles near him and then the windows of the doors. He punched whatever he could find and lucky for us the doors opened before he made his way to our seat.
More recently, I was coming home and walked onto the car at 2nd Avenue. I saw an available seat on a very crowded train, always a harbinger of trouble, next to man who at first glance seemed only mildly disheveled. I made a calculated judgement to sit at the end of the bench with several buffers in between us. As we approached Brooklyn, he began to speak loudly albeit incoherently at first. I watched his reflection in the window and saw that he was wearing headphones. I figured that he was singing along to his music, but it gradually became apparent that there was no music being fed into his headphones. Rather than singing boisterously, he was saying, “Get up, get up, get up, get up, get up!” the ‘get up’s’ increased in frequency and urgency as he continued. He then began to use his arms, lifting them off his lap and thrusting them into the air, the way you would do to urge someone to get up. I, along with everyone else, assumed he was speaking to the voices in his headphones, and unsettled we all returned to our business.
However, he didn’t stop with the gesticulating or the imperatives and finally out of self-preservation, his closest neighbor removed herself and walked as far away as she could get. He immediately slid into the seat that she had just vacated and nodded his head. “Thank you,” he said with the same tone as a teacher who had just received the answer he was fishing for, for an annoying period of time. I determined from the reflection that there was now only one person between this man and myself. The gentleman seated beside me began packing his briefcase and I established that he was going to be getting off in the near future. I started to pack my backpack as well, shoving my book inside and piling my scarf near the top so that it barely zipped shut. No sooner had I arranged for my own escape, the woman on my right got up. Attempting to maximize the distance between us, I slid over towards the recently abandoned seat. My neighbor who had been packing his bag stood up to get off and looked down at me, “Good move,” he noted to me. “I thought so,” I agreed. Now the man and I sat at opposite ends of the same bench. He continued to argue with himself and I watched him in the window, preparing for him to tell me to get up. My stop came and I got off and never thought of him again until I decided to write this article.
There was the man who used to sit in the Union Square station, holding a small kitten on his lap and the two homeless men that routinely board the R train at 8th St. wherein one begins to beg and the other tells him, “Oh, don’t you start that again.” There was a rabbi who acted as an agent for a violent beggar who went so far as to smash the newspaper out of a passenger’s hand. Then there was the middle aged African American man who when his monetary solicitations were rejected by all the passengers began to rail against white people. As he approached my end of the car, still yelling and cursing about the discrimination he had received from white passengers, I looked down as to not further incite him. He stopped in front of me and I stared at my shoes. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he assured me, “I don’t hate you, just the people who ignore me.” I looked up at him and half-smiled so he wouldn’t think I was one of those people. “I’ll protect you,” he told me. The train took forever to get to Canal Street and he turned his attention from me and screamed, “Oh get me out of this train!” I silently seconded his plea. There was the woman in pajamas who began cursing with words I had never even hear before, while a nearby mother covered the ears of her young daughter, and there was the long-haired blonde man who looked as if he had injected himself with steroids a number of times, without a shirt, who entered the train with a tall woman in stilettos.
Most of them are casualties of a corrupt and unforgiving system, a self-fulfilling prophecy that only breeds more victims. These are the ones who have slipped through the cracks. The only time we get to interact with them is on the trains, those receptacles of fear and convenience that bring us all together. The camaraderie that forms as a result is just as telling of the New York spirit, as the madness that we are attempting to survive.