Emotional traumas often demand to be overwhelmed by levity. My family and friends have always advised me to distract myself with happier things following the inevitable disappointments of life. Listen to your favorite songs. Seek out exciting activities. Enjoy the reassuring company of loved ones. Drink, but never alone.
Instead, I often choose riding the subway.
Several weeks after a particularly messy separation from a long-time partner, I found myself fleeing into the steely embrace of Washington D.C.’s Metro system. Stumbling down the escalator in Dupont Circle, my gaze fell upon the inscription in the granite walls above the north entrance, an excerpt from Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘The Wound Dresser’ from Leave of Grass:
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad
‘The Wound Dresser’ was about Whitman’s experience as a nurse during the Civil War. A few bourbons deep, I wondered what the hell WMATA was playing at: with constant work stoppages and hermetically bland cars, the Red Line is far from a naturally restorative environment. But within minutes of dumping myself into a small plastic seat in the midst of D.C.’s rush hour commute, I realized that Whitman’s words were describing a phenomenon I’d been experiencing throughout my entire life, from growing up riding Boston’s T to navigating the gritty catacombs of New York City’s sprawling subway system. Wrapped in steel and plastic and surrounded by strangers, riding public transportation can be therapeutic as a trip to a local psychologist or a night out with my friends.
Public transportation is an inherently contradictory experience. You insert yourself into a highly public, perpetually crowded environment and immediately retreat into the privacy of your own interior world. German sociologist Georg Simmel, in a famous passage from his 1912 volume Mélanges de Philosophie Relativiste, was struck by the new spatial and sensorial regimen that transit provided:
Before the appearance of omnibuses, railroads, and street cars in the nineteenth century, men were not in a situation where for periods of minutes or hours they could or must look at each other without talking to one another.” The result is an odd form of salutory neglect, an unspoken agreement to ignore those with whom we’re forced to share the same crowded space.
Sociologist Erving Goffman called it “civil inattention” in his 1971 book Relations in Public: “individuals exert respectful care in regard to the setting and treat others present with civil inattention.” This doesn’t mean ignoring people or treating them in a rude or dismissive way, but respectfully acknowledging their presence in an unobtrusive manner. It’s no wonder, then, that public transportation has been a fascination for generations of psychologists and sociologists: as Tom Vanderbilt noted in Slate in 2009, “the subway—which keeps random people together in a contained, observable setting—is a perfect rolling laboratory for the study of human behavior.”
That I feel comfort in the subway seems awfully counterintuitive: the presence of human beings is not the same as the presence of people (Simmel in particular cautioned city-dwellers about the dehumanizing effects of urban life). Nor does the commotion of public transportation offer any level of relaxation. Most people don’t like crowds in general, let alone being in steel tube jammed with commuters heading towards (or escaping) eight hours in the office. Individual comfort with crowds is dependent on personality, of course: an extrovert may thrive on the overstimulation of a roiling audience at an outdoor concert or the latent energy of a sporting event, while an introvert may shy away from excessive, unwelcome invasions of personal space. Others are almost entirely negative, like the sea of frenetic shoppers pressing against the automatic doors of their local Wal-Mart in the hollow darkness of a Black Friday morning. The subway lacks the commonality that underpins waiting in line for an event, the anticipation surrounding a shared experience. Most subway solidarity comes from a single shared purpose: I want to get to where I’m going, and I want to get there and out of this concrete labyrinth as soon as possible, and let’s just please not make this more difficult for each other than it has to be.
I realize now that I’ve always had a mild penchant for subway therapy, even before I started a regular commute that necessitates a routinized relationship with a major metropolitan transportation system. In high school, I’d spent afternoons riding the T in circles, thinking about daily frustrations and the anxieties of applying to college. As a student at Wesleyan University, I often insisted on traveling to and from Boston for Thanksgiving or to New York to visit friends solely by train (or on one of those hellish low-budget buses), more for the distinct experience than to avoid the distinct stresses of flying. Ta-Nehisi Coates would eventually distill my love for train travel in November 2011 into a blog post at The Atlantic:
The train, in all aspects, was a superior experience. The first thing was the feeling of everything melting away, of someone else taking control. When flying there are generally so many rules to be obeyed, and times when specific things can happen that I generally feel like, as a passenger, I’m actually a co-pilot. Lights tell you when you can and can’t move. Announcements indicate (because I use a laptop and iPad) when it’s safe to read, write, or listen to your music. Food and drink are administered at precise times. All of this within a confined space.
But there was a freedom on the train that you may need to be taller than six feet to really understand. You could walk as you needed to. You could sit in the cafe car and watch the scenery. You could fall into your book. Or you could just sleep, something I can’t really do on airplanes.
I didn’t think really think critically about my habit for subway therapy until that day in March. My former Atlantic colleague Eric Jaffe, upon leaving for a research hiatus from his job as a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities, had written about his love for the New York subway system that week, and a few paragraphs of his post stuck in my head as I rode D.C.’s Red Line in crowded solitude:
In his essay "Here Is New York," E.B. White famously wrote that the city bestows on its inhabitants the gifts of loneliness and privacy. New York feels at times like a breeding ground for solitude, but what I think this contention misses is the charm of being alone together. New York City residents do all the things all other Americans do by themselves — ride to work, listen to music, pick their noses — but do them while sharing intensely close quarters with perfect strangers.
This sort of independent coexistence, as it might be called, seems like a defining quality of any functional democracy. The pressure of one’s own convictions and quirks, pushing outward against those of the rest, looping back into an honest reassessment of the self. Nowhere in America is this delicate balance more apparent than on the New York City subway, where mayor and citizen, rich and poor, wise and weird, late and lazy, picker and proper alike all share, for a short time each day, the earnest desire for a seat or at the very least a sliver of standing room. The car and the highway have come to represent American freedom, but it’s the subway train that truly reflects its egalitarian spirit.
White hints at this recognition later in his essay when he writes that New York “compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island.” That makes the city like a poem, he contends, which also compresses a great flood of humanity into a teacup of space. If you accept White’s metaphor of the poem then I submit the subway system must be its refrain: the familiar lines that help otherwise stranded words feel like part of the same group.
Public transportation, as Simmel pondered in the early 20th century, equalizes the human experience. It is the fundamental, almost ritualistic glue of urban life: traders or artists, rich or poor, we all inevitably occupy the same confined space for hours each week. Often the experience of riding the subway is terrible, but it’s a shared terror, one where its inconveniences (delays, unruly homeless men and women, drunks, and the like) elicit furtive glances and shared exchanges of rolled eyes before riders transition back into their shared state of civil inattention.
This is why riding the subway has become something of a therapeutic experience for me. An orchestrated meeting with friends has an undertone of concern and necessity: we are here because I am a somehow world apart and they’re here to fill me with booze and keep me focused on other things. It is an abnormal exercise, a break from routine with a very specific goal. Going to the gym for relief is similar: post-trauma exercising binges are designed to simultaneously exhaust and distract, cutting the day’s frustrations with endorphins. A ride on the subway is an exercise in solidarity by shared banality. The paradox of the subway allows us to work things out in solitude but to do so in the comforting presence of other people, under the shared solidarity of subway introspection.
People-watching itself, the ultimate exercise in passive-aggressive stimulation, becomes an accidental act of introspection. On the Red Line, I start making up stories about my fellow commuters. Frumpled Suit blew a major deal today; anxious, he occasionally fingers his wedding ring. He gets off the train in Van Ness, and I imagine his climb up the station’s escalator as one last chance to formulate his thoughts before he goes home. Cute Young Professional is reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and sighs a lot. I anticipate she’ll go home and look at plane tickets to exotic locations in India and Western Europe before returning to the work she brought home from the office. Too Many Grocery Bags looks like she’s about to cry. I don’t even want to imagine a story for her, because so do I. Every person who entered and exited that car has had the worst day of their life, or maybe their best. Some are beginning new lives, reinventing themselves in the arms of a new city and a new job. Some are dying, or wasting away in the throes of their own private crises. But we share this structured retreat into our interior worlds. The subway becomes a shared celebration of the victories of the day and an exercise in collective mourning, a place where our people’s lives intersect for split second of collective frustration. Seemingly isolated by frustration, or anger, or sadness of personal or professional stress, the subway offers therapy through collective anxiety. Alone in a crowd, I exist in the negative space between a multitude of interior worlds. Somehow, I gradually regain my sense of regularity, of focus.
After a little more than an hour, I transfered to the Green Line at Chinatown and, 10 minutes later, exited the Metro in my neighborhood. The combination of the gentle lull of my swaying car and the company of perfect strangers has left me feeling focused and clear-headed. I’ve spent an hour working out my frustrations in the comfort of shared interiority and the Whitman quote above the Dupont Circle Metro station sudden snaps into focus: overwhelmed by the anxieties and frustrations of urban life, I emerge from my commute soothed and pacified by the cleansing banality of travel. Some speak of escaping from civilization as a way to recenter themselves: going on a ‘digital sabbath,’ camping for a weekend, and generally fetishizing the absence of people, of connections, as the necessary conditions for self reflections. I know now why I prefer the claustrophobic currents of metal and flesh that are the nervous systems of cities: I find reflection best maintained against the thrum of human activity, the casual, unspoken recognition of making (and often struggling) our own way through life, alone together.
The quote inscribed above the Dupont Circle Metro station is only an excerpt from ‘The Wound Dresser,’ pulled from the very end of Whitman’s poem. When I returned home, I unearthed a dusty, worn collection of Whitman’s poetry in search of the full poem. This excerpt caught my eye:
O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)
Above: A New York City commuter reads The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Photo: Ourit Ben-Haim/Underground New York Public Library)