Opinion | Columns

Finding your place, one subway ride at a time

This semester, I’ve been working as an unpaid intern in the Flatiron district. In addition to all that I’ve learned from the experience (future employers, take note), trekking downtown and back three times a week has also made me a veritable New York commuter. The most rewarding aspects of my internship have come about because it has compelled me to leave Morningside Heights with great regularity. Though they are often irritating and crowded, the hours I now spend underground during the week have given me a sense of being a New Yorker, rather than just a Columbian.

As a (former?) Angelino who doesn’t drive, my love for the subway system seems obvious. In New York, more than anywhere else, I’m mobile and connected. Mobility offers me a sense of adulthood and self-reliance I’m sure most felt when they first received a driver’s license—I can go almost anywhere I would like to, when I want to, without any help. That kind of starry-eyed fascination with the train also struck me as a little naïve. Of course New York transit is still a bright and shiny marvel when you’re not using it daily and running late to work.

The 116th Street—Columbia University stop used to be a comforting anchor to any train ride, but it’s now joined a series of other stations as mainstays of a new mental map. I’ve learned what parts of the platform from which to board the train, and the rhythms of rush hour foot traffic. Familiarity with the underground tunnels is definitely not a new way of legitimating ones claim to the city—one of my roommates, the real New Yorker among us, scoffs at those of us who still use Google Maps to find our ways around. Being able to give directions about trains not on the red line is something I take a strange kind of pride in, proof that I don’t live a life just on the upper half of Broadway.

In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, it was unclear exactly how the storm would impact the train system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority didn’t seem to agree on a timeline for the restoration of service, and others noted that the subway had been around since 1904, and this may well have been the worst storm it has seen. The eerie absence of subway-car noise from the streets coupled with the many voices speculating about the damage raised an alarming question: What would New York be without the subway system? Was there a real possibility that many would be unable to move between the boroughs with the ease they had been previously afforded?

Meanwhile, Columbia remained relatively isolated from the devastation Hurricane Sandy left behind. We felt the immediate effects primarily through canceled classes and news reports. Most of us didn’t lose power or suffer any serious inconveniences. Despite this, so many individuals on campus worked to connect with their homes, high school communities, or simply lent their hands to those who needed help. To see so many of my peers open their homes and showers to those without power and make their way to the outer boroughs with little easy access to transportation was a heartening reminder that we are all individuals living in a city rather than just on a campus. Far from visible damage, the empty subway became a reminder of my myriad habits and routines that were rooted in New York’s health and well-being as a city.

I’ve never been one for excessive historical nostalgia or infatuation with governmental bodies (the Roaring Twenties was also the era of Chinese Exclusion, and FDR signed an executive order interning Japanese Americans). Despite that, I found myself filled with admiration for the massive undertaking that is the subway system once I was allowed to enter once again. I’ve often taken the huge stone tunnels underground for granted, as a given element of the city, rather than a project made by men. New Yorkers before us all had laid the stone and track, dug underground, and engineered the system. New Yorkers currently among us worked long days to make it work again. Though we had proof that these seemingly ancient tunnels were entirely fallible, crowds shuffled into the giant concrete tunnels under the ground without thinking twice.
Required to get on with my weekly commute and to leave the Columbia bubble, I joined hundreds of other New Yorkers simply moving back into their day-to-day lives. While they grumbled about long waits and limited service, no one questioned that the city would survive and recover with remarkable haste.

With slowed service and crowding, I’ve gotten to know New York even better during my commute. New York has been pressed up against me, New York has exhaled bad breath in my face, New York has glared at me like a surly teenager, and New York has tried to pick a few fights with me on a crowded platform. It has also shown me a softer side of those who stand for the elderly and the young, and spared me the requisite platform scuffle when a particularly rough week of papers left me a little disheveled. I realized, while feeling the obvious pride of a sign that read “L Train: Service Restored”—a train fairly irrelevant to my daily routine—that New York is a lot less lonely when you see yourself as a New Yorker, and not just a Columbian.

Salonee Bhaman is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. She is a member of Alpha Delta Phi. Points of Connection runs alternate Tuesdays.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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