I live off the Gates Avenue stop on the J train. On the Brooklyn-bound train from Manhattan, I always ride the last subway car. When the second to last door of the car opens, I am immediately greeted by the stairway that leads to a swift and immediate exit from the platform. Every move is planned for maximum efficiency; I know which car to ride if I need to transfer to the M train at the Essex stop or if I need to catch the N or the Q at Canal Street. My usual subway distractions are my iPod and a book, which I bring but seldom read. Occasionally performers such as the now-infamous “Showtime!” breakdancers may interrupt the monotony of the commute. After seeing these dancers on countless occasions, you quickly come to accept the performances as part of the background noise of the moving train.
My hometown, Cairo, is almost three times the population of New York. Even though it’s a huge city it seems to have a small-town mentality. Walking through the streets, you have the impression that everyone knows everyone else by name. Obviously, this is not the case. But people aren’t afraid to talk to one another. Whether it is a stranger suddenly entering a debate between two friends about who was the better football team, Zamalek or Ahly, or drivers getting out of their cars on the Sixth of October Bridge to argue about traffic, there are no boundaries.
In 2004, I moved to Istanbul, which I consider to be my home. A now common and accepted cliché of the city is its evident cultural clash. In any given neighborhood, you can turn the corner onto a new street and feel like you are in an entirely different world. This is unlike New York, where the neighborhoods are compartmentalized; each has its own vibe, its own crowd, and its own atmosphere. In a sense, that’s what makes New York exciting; there is something for everybody. This is the big city where “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.” Maybe everyone who moves to New York believes that.
After five years of living in the city, my romantic feelings for New York have diluted. I know the city better now and have my favorite spots. For now and the foreseeable future, New York is where I want to be. But it has become increasingly apparent that it can be a very lonely place to live. I may be bitter; this past year has not been an easy one, filled with personal failures that have brought out a multitude of insecurities. A long and stressful visa reapplication process, mixed with the struggles and many rejections young filmmakers face, put me through a period of uncertainty and aroused a fear of the future (which, to be fair, is understandable for a twenty-two-year-old recent college graduate). At times, I felt that the city was pushing me out. However, I believe that living in New York challenges everyone at times. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard a friend or colleague say something along the lines of, “I need to get out of the city for a bit just to breathe.”
In July, my US visa expired and I was no longer able to work. I had a two-month grace period where I could stay in the States to work on my new visa application and get my affairs in order. I had just come off of a three-month-long job that had drained me emotionally. While I was grateful to have been working, I was not happy at the position. On my first free Friday night, I was out with three friends at an East Village bar, all going through the same visa application process. The cloud of uncertainty hanging over our future weighed on us heavily. Tired of constantly talking about immigration, I left early, walked to the Essex subway stop, and got onto the last car of the J train. It was around one in the morning, so I was comforted by the fact that I had a seat.
Essex Street is the last underground stop the J train makes in Manhattan before going above ground and over the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn. Earlier that night, I had chosen to leave my iPod at home in order to conserve pocket space. Halfway over the bridge, I heard the emergency brakes go off with a loud screech and the train came to a halt. The prerecorded Metropolitan Transportation Authority—MTA for short—announcement could be heard over the speakers, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have stopped momentarily due to train traffic ahead of us. We apologize for any inconvenience.” As the minutes slowly passed by, I regretted not having any music to listen to.
The cloud of uncertainty
hanging over our future
weighed on us heavily.
The passengers in my car sat in silence. Occasionally, someone would check the time and audibly exhale in frustration. After about fifteen minutes, the man sitting next to me complained loudly, “This is some bullshit. I’ve been working all day and want to get home. Look at my shoes!” I looked down, judging by the worn-out soles and the tar stuck to the front of his sneakers I gathered that he worked in construction of some sort. “I’ve been busting my ass all day for the damn train to stop when I need to get home.” The woman across from me pulled out her phone. She too had clearly just gotten off a night shift, as she was wearing scrubs. I only heard snippets of her conversation but it was clear she was talking to the police. She told the officer the car number.
Once the silence was broken, people slowly started to offer their theories about what was happening, or their own colorful complaints. The general consensus: some idiot pulled the emergency brake and fuck the MTA . At about one-thirty a.m., the conductor’s voice echoed through the speakers, “Folks, we ran over a piece of debris and the train automatically stopped. We are trying to fix this issue as soon as possible.” Up to that moment, the man next to me was the biggest believer that someone had accidentally pulled the emergency brake. “Like I said, someone pulled the brake.” Someone explained to him what the conductor had just said. I could tell he was annoyed that he was wrong. If we were stranded on a deserted island, he would be the guy who didn’t listen, insisted on separating from the group, and either ended up eaten by a giant smoke monster or assembling his own small tribe of feared cannibals.
Everyone has a place to be and
wants to get there quickly, with
A young woman, who had been standing next to me back at the Essex Street platform, found the silver lining in the situation, “It’s better that the train stopped instead of derailing and, you know…killing us.” I laughed. I was one of the few who found this funny. In another lifetime, I’m sure this girl and I would have gotten along fabulously over bottomless brunch, but I digress.
Accepting that we would be stuck here much longer, we tried to make the best of the situation. Some passengers got up and started stretching. Others started conversing in small groups, either about the train or just general small talk to lighten the mood. One guy walked out onto the small walkway between the neighboring car and ours to smoke a cigarette. Motivated by his actions, others followed suit.
Assuming the worst in people,
I thought these hipsters had
gone to the roof of the train to
Instagram the moment.
After a while, the compartment door slid open and two new faces entered our newly founded little community. They were a fashionably dressed twenty-something-year-old couple, a tall Asian girl and a blonde, heavily inked boy. They looked out of the window and whispered to each other. I paid them no attention until they walked back onto the small walkway. I saw the girl pass her handbag to her friend and hoist herself over the metal springs that connect the train cars to each other. She grabbed onto the bridge scaffolding and started climbing. After first returning the handbag to his friend, the man followed her. They had grabbed everyone’s attention. Assuming the worst in people, I thought these hipsters had gone to the roof of the train to Instagram the moment. What they did was much smarter (or much more stupid, depending on your point of view). They had scaled the Williamsburg Bridge to get to the pedestrian walkway ten feet above us.
I stood up and watched them. Some passengers were clearly inspired. One guy immediately followed them. Others could not believe their audacity and/or bravery. Looking at the distance between the train and the scaffolding I knew that I could reach it. However, being slightly afraid of heights, I knew there was no way I was going to follow them. Besides, I had no place to be, so I didn’t see the urgency of leaving the train (besides the annoyance of being stuck there). Three or four people climbed up afterward while the rest of us stayed behind. As dangerous as that move was, no one had gotten hurt and it had given us another topic of conversation.
A woman, around thirty years old with an Australian accent, said she was going for a cigarette. Myself and another woman asked to join her. We huddled between the two cars, laughing about the night’s events. Both women had a sharp sense of humor and would have been excellent additions to the imaginary brunch I was planning. Suddenly, we heard a voice from above, “Hey! Why didn’t you climb like those other guys?” We looked up; a young teenager was talking to us from the pedestrian path. “Not worth it,” the Australian responded. “You guys scared or something?” he joked. “Dude,” retorted the Australian, “I’m like five feet tall. There’s no way I could reach that.” With an air of understanding, the teenager said, “Yeah. I hear you.”
After a moment’s silence, he approached us with a business proposal. “Listen, you guys are stuck down there, and I just want to make some money. You want me to toss you down a joint?” At this point we burst out laughing. I decided to play along. “Hey man, that sounds good but kind of inconvenient at the moment.” The teen was somewhat serious. “You sure, man? I’m just trying to make some money and I got some good stuff. See?” He stood on the railing and pulled down his shirt so we could clearly read the words, “I need a blunt,” printed across his chest. I should have gotten his number so I could invite him to brunch, but I politely declined his offer. He nodded, graciously accepting that he would not make the sale.
Suddenly, we saw a large group of people walking toward our car. In the front was an MTA official (one of the conductors). He told us that everyone was heading into this last car. A train was coming to take us back to Essex. We shuffled in with the crowd and waited a few minutes until the train arrived. Being close to the front, I was one of the first to move onto the new train and I started to maneuver my way toward the end of the subway. There is something strangely magical about walking through all the cars of a deserted train. It might have been because it was the first time for me to do this, or because I rarely see the J train empty. I reached my destination and took a seat, patiently waiting for the train to move.
Slowly, it began to move back toward Essex. A few familiar faces, including the Australian, were around me but, for the most part, I was surrounded by strangers. People were in good spirits: some of them were discussing the possibility of splitting a cab while a group of three were talking about Sex Tape, the Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel comedy that had just come out.
As the subway inched its way back into Manhattan, two guys stormed toward the conductor’s compartment to have a word with him. They belligerently complained that this was taking too long. This seemed redundant; we may have been stuck for an hour and a half but we were moments away from leaving the train. One of the men, dressed in a white button-down shirt, was demanding that he be reimbursed for his train ride and for the taxi he would be forced to take. Again, this was pointless because the conductor does not have the authority to reimburse anyone. The pointlessness of this argument was lost on the somewhat intoxicated man. His friend, wearing a black T-shirt, was yelling and getting aggressive. He put his hand on the conductor, immediately changing the atmosphere.
A line had been crossed. Assaulting an MTA employee is a federal offense and no one can blame the conductors for the train stopping. The Australian quickly and calmly intervened, “We are pulling into the station now. Think about what you are doing. And walk away.” The guy considered this for a second, and backed off. Still angry, he attempted to get the crowd to join him. “Come on, this is fucked up! We were stuck for three hours. Everybody here agrees with me. Somebody tell me I’m wrong! Come on, tell me I’m wrong.” The woman sitting across from me snapped, “You’re wrong,” just loud enough for her boyfriend and me to hear. The three of us looked at each other and laughed. Maybe we could have brunch at Great Jones Café, which isn’t bottomless but serves a hearty meal accompanied by some lovely cocktails.
Realizing they were in the minority, the two men walked off and sat at the bench farthest from the front. The tension had dispersed and everyone returned to his or her own conversations. I stood up and thanked the conductor, my small way of saying, “We’re on your side.” With a small smile, he said, “No problem.” We had reached Essex and everyone got ready to leave the train. As soon as the doors opened, there was a rush toward the exit. For a second, it felt like every time I get off the train at Gates Avenue; a streamlined process where everyone ignores everyone else to get out and get back to their own lives as soon as possible. But people were still in their newly formed small groups. As we got out of the station, I could see the plans to split cabs being put into effect. I was alone and still in no rush. I ordered a car from Uber and watched as strangers got into taxis with each other. Eventually, my Uber driver arrived. I got in and rode over the same bridge that I had spent the past two hours stuck on. I was in Brooklyn in a matter of minutes.
New York has a hard, all-business exterior that is best seen in a morning commute. Everyone has a place to be and wants to get there quickly, with no interruptions. It’s a city full of minor inconveniences: late trains, expensive coffee, large crowds, long lines, slow-moving tourists, loud noises, and so on and so forth. When you constantly move at an accelerated pace, it is easy to let all these nuisances ruin your day and get the best of you. I had become so absorbed in my own problems that the city became my antagonist. Similarly, I had built barriers to protect myself from the disappointments that adult life has welcomed me with. Whether I end up in a big city or a small, rural town, life will undoubtedly present me with many obstacles. The self-imposed obstacle that I must overcome is projecting my struggles onto my environment. For just two hours on a typical night, I felt the New York pretense, as well as my own guard, drop. I was forced to slow down and breathe.