I’ve done it before, mastered them. I’ve traveled beneath the earth’s surface in Hong Kong, Paris, Rome, other places. Just to make that clear, you know. Mitigating circumstances for finding myself in New York City for a day and needing to re-master the subway because of my annoying tendency to forget basics.
So here I am, looking at the hole in the bustling sidewalk like it’s the one Alice fell down. Dare I? I mean, once you step into it, can you change your mind, turn around, resurface?
My legs are going there it seems, despite my irrational fears. The three of us, my legs and I, descend into the Middle Earth of Manhattan, me telling myself I can always reverse, no matter how silly it looks. I need to cover a lot of ground in one day and this is the only way to do it.
I make it down the stairs and sidle up to the ticket window.
I’d like one ticket to 59th street, please. The man behind the window snickers insolently. Yes, I realize the tickets cost the same for everywhere. There’s something a little pathetic about my insistence on sharing my destination with him. But there is method in my madness.
“And I’d like to know which one of these”, I mouth at the opaque glass gesturing over my shoulder at the three turnstiles that all seem to say the same thing but in different ways.
“which one of these I need to take to 59th?”
The man behind the window speaks indistinctly, in a surly West African accent. I, in barely disguised, slightly panicked, South African. He is saying something I can’t understand, something that borders on confrontational, or so it seems. We repeat this a few times. The only thing that becomes bleakly obvious is that he is not going to sell me a ticket. There is a reason why, but my South African brain can’t decipher his West African reason.
I won’t go away, though. I notice this. So does he. I mean where can I go? There is no way I can follow his directions, they’re as opaque as the window.
There are absolutely no subway maps on the walls, the way there are supposed to be. A small, slight, dark haired woman wafts by and I fall upon her. She opens her mouth to reply and my worst fears are confirmed. We can’t understand each other either. Melting pot becomes Tower of Babel.
I turn back to the window filled with a subterranean desperation: “So you’re not going to sell me a ticket then!” I shout at the sullen shadow, attempting to somehow bully it into saying something I can comprehend. He lilts something at me defiantly. It sounds final. I glare at the window. We‘re having some sort of face off, I gather. It feels oddly intimate.
Nonplussed I turn to the machines against the wall, they seem almost sympathetic by comparison. Standing there in front of them, no shadow of an irascible, fellow foreigner lurking, I manage to figure it out, the purchasing part.
Next are the three turnstiles. I pick one. Randomly. I drop further into the bowels of the earth, find a platform, wait on it. My method is not yet foolproof. Lets just say that I overshoot my destination once or twice on this particular day. I sail nonchalantly past my goal more than a couple of times. When I emerge into the sunlight, here and then there, I wonder around brand new in various surprising locations and in various versions of lost. It’s a spontaneous way to see the city.
And, somewhere along the way, I begin to enjoy myself.