Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Closely Watched Trains

At 8 or 9 PM on New Year's Eve I generally try to phone one of my friends overseas where the year has begun in earnest.  It feels a little special-- as though we are bridging some time gap and violating some order-- me here in the past, getting ready to go to a gig, listening to the sounds of the future-- the singing and rowdy partygoers who have passed the finish line and have already begun to unwind and absorb the vaguely monotonous reality that 2018 or whatever year is not so different from 2017-- at least not yet.  My Norwegian friends were drunk and optimistic that we are all going to blow this one wide open.

Working as a musician on this night is a sort of brilliant copout.  I am not responsible for the success or failure of the party; there is no anticipated date, no dinner reservation or romantic disappointment-- just amps, microphones, music, dancing, alcohol and noise-making... and then I get paid and go home to my peaceful little uptown hideaway where I am relieved that the world passed another milestone without disaster, that there were no deaths in Times Square; the MTA is at least holiday-operative, and the global clock is still ticking.

The subway ride home at 4 AM January 1 is special.  Back in the 1980's public transportation was free on this night-- a gift to the city, so anyone could afford to get home somehow-- even those who had lost their wallets or spent every last dollar in bars and clubs.   I can remember being so poor as a student, we rode the train to Coney Island and back as our celebration; standing on the beach watching distant fireworks was intoxicating.  At some point full-fare was restored;  this year the extreme cold was the main topic...  it made things little extra festive-- we were all so relieved to be off the street and in a relatively warm car.  There was, of course, the prerequisite vomiter, the sleeping drunks... but mostly just revelers with their parties still in tow, stumbling in and out of train doors with paper hats and crowns and joy.

I am always relieved, these days, to go home after a gig-- relieved that there are no major disasters, no stage-pissing or broken bones, no lost chords or tuners-- and somehow this night I sensed the awkward-shaped package of 2017 tie itself off.  I felt clean-- unburdened of dread, and slightly lifted from the muddy ground of the old year which brought month after month of sad news-- death, illness and tragedy.  I was letting it go; or rather, it was releasing me.  Across the car from me was a twenty-something man with his knees drawn up,  skinny jeans down around his hips, designer underwear and bare back in full view.  Obviously he'd lost his coat-- he'd had a rough night.  The boys next to me began to try to wake him-- what should we do, they asked me, the obvious 'senior' passenger and designated mother? Let him sleep, I advised; he's safer in the warm car until he sobers up and can figure out his itinerary.... but they were adamant... he woke, the sleeper-- and in his dark wet eyes was the halo of narcotics.  He was angry-- defensive-- he was some kind of beautiful and non-gendered persona-- belligerent, wounded.  I could imagine he'd been personally traumatized-- disappointed or even abused just hours earlier; there was guilt in his attempt at defiance-- there was also resentment and old grief.  It took a few minutes until he recognized something behind my guitar case and my wraps...  a maternal presence;  on the verge of complicated tears, he at last confided his destination-- yes,  completely disoriented and traveling further and further from his Brooklyn home.  So we all put our January-1 heads together and mapped out a route with transfers and station-jumping so he could remain inside until the last exit.  A young couple took him across the platform at 42nd Street-- they hugged me as they departed the train.

There is always a great media-fuss made over the first baby of the year; inevitably in this huge city there is a birth shortly after midnight.  I realized, as I rode the rest of the way uptown, my train-mates were my newborns of 2018.  The sad, wounded coatless Brooklynite... the young couples with glitter-tattoos, the chef on his way to the morning shift at Mount Sinai, the tired bartender from Artichoke Pizza who plays upright bass and hopes for a career in music; he took his hat off as I left and let down his beautiful black hair-- with his lovely voice and hands-- I know he will be a star.

We humans begin to lose our memory as we collect time, but most of us seem to retain a special slot for 'firsts': the first day of school, the first dance, the first minute of pregnancy, first night we spent with almost every single lover-- even if it was also the last.  We can play back things-- the room, what he wore, the way he felt under the sheets... these things seem to persist somewhere, like a recurring dream.  And of course the moments with our children... even the difficult ones, when you are wracked with some fever or even labor, and your toddler is needing you to read to him.'

I played my  usual Monday gig, still in the spell of the new year, and returned home on the Q, realizing things were already dissolving into normalcy.  People were tired and cold, not many smiled or shared on the train or the platform.  Today I stopped for a coffee and finished my first book of the year, or really, the last of the past year-- a Salman Rushdie.  There was a little girl, nagging her father to read to her; he was distressed, searching his phone, pacing a bit...  she came over to me with her book, and her sad mouth, and I was nearly unable to read-- my voice cracking and nostalgic for the babies that were so grown up and the one that had not made it.  Here, I wanted to say to her father-- you have a clean slate.. what can be more urgent than this opportunity which fate can take from you any moment?  She leaned on me, this child, the way they do--with trust and affection, like a stray dog.

Tonight, January 2,  I wept in the cold-- for the already widening distance of the last year, for the missing children of my first day who are already lost in the city... for the lights, for the ghosts of the Christmas trees that lined the sidewalk on Lexington with hope and anticipation and now would be lying spent on the curb for sanitation pick-up, for the homeless men who must leave the warmth and light of the 96th Street library at 7 PM closing, for the crosstown bus driver who confessed he had no one to go home to after the night shift; for the passion and love and first nights of the past, the small family searching these buildings not so long ago for the home we discovered, for the emptiness of the future as a solitary woman who gleans from fruit vendors and thrift shops in a nondescript coat of non-recognition, trying to savor the grace of the beginning, while the world and time is thrusting us ever-forward.  We are prepared for the weather, some of us-- but not for whatever fate holds for us in the next onslaught of days and weeks and months.  I was so blindsided by 2017, trying hard to re-baptize myself into some incarnation of hope-- resolving, as we do, we perennials, to observe and honor what we are given, and to pray for another beginning when this one, too, has worn itself out.


1 comment:

Swati Srivastava said...

Beautifully written, Amy...as usual! I didn't know about the free ride on the subway on New year's Day, I wonder why the city stopped doing that. It's such a warm thought, sounds like a gift, like...a little cup of kindness from auld lang syne...