There I stood on the platform, thinking I’m a pretty smart woman. Why can’t I figure this out? I looked at the map, repeatedly, tilting my head as though that would help me make sense of all of the pretty colors. I had two apps on my phone, and I knew I’d started with good information provided by two highly intelligent guides before I descended into the white-tiled hell in which I stood. But somewhere in my psyche, there was a disconnect between my navigational skills and what had been easily distilled by the sea of humanity milling around me. I was standing amongst at least 200 people and I felt utterly alone. I hated and loved it all at the same time.
The problem sprang from a lack of basic information, which was then complicated by simple things: multi-level platforms, express versus local trains, which boroughs were where and the piece de resistance, apps that didn’t work in the subway. All finally culminating in a transportation failure of epic proportions.
I was genuinely, comically lost in a New York City subway.
It hadn’t escaped my attention that I’d come to New York to find something I didn’t think I could get at home. I am creative: constantly seduced by ideas and a pathological need to focus and massage them into something brilliant and new. I’d come to immerse myself in a new place, new people and their ideas. As I stood on the platform at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, trying to find the N train into Manhattan, I began to realize that I had no idea where to start.
I stared down the long corridor, marveling at the contrast between the white-tiled walls and the grimy concrete floor of the tracks. I chuckled at the pretty blue tiles that interrupted the long white walls, letting riders know which street was above their heads. Because my problem was direction, knowing what street was above my head did me little good.
So, finally, I surrendered to something I knew. I smiled sweetly and asked the closest friendly face if I was in the right place to get to Central Park. I engaged his eyes. He didn’t look away, and returned the smile. “Yes, you’re in the right place.” Still engaged, I said thank you and stayed where I stood. Moments later, the N train arrived and I was on my way to 77th & Lexington.
Having now found my way onto the right train, I still needed to find my way off at the right stop. My friend had said, “It’s simple. Just get off at the 77th Street stop.” Simple. Nothing so far had been simple. I looked at the app on my phone to review how long this ride should take. 25 minutes. No problem, simple, sit here and read. I buried my head in the book and so relaxed was I now that I was moving in the right direction, that I lost track of time and completely missed my stop. I looked up just in time to see that I had ventured into South Bronx. Jesus! I’m leaking IQ points 10 at a time. I scrambled out of train, and up to the street. Checking the app again, I was certain I’d get instant and useful information. I imagined Alexander, leaning on his sword as I stood and stared at a phone that had frozen in defiance. I looked up at the sky; having fun testing my mettle? I was on my own for the moment. Focus! I thought. Just focus!
I had a small epiphany when I realized that all I had to do was cross the street to get to the other side of the platform where another train would simply take me back in the right direction. There it was, the first of the simple things that even New York children understand. I was getting closer. It was just three stops.
Triumphantly, I stepped out of the subway and onto the corner, now entirely panicked because there was no way for me to call the one person who could rescue me from this oddysey. Think, I repeated to myself. Reset your phone, moron. My inner voice, however rude, was right. I pressed the right buttons and waited and just as the little white apple appeared on screen, I looked up to see that, knowing where I should be standing when I exited the subway, my friend had found me. Relief came in a heavy sigh as he wrapped his arms around me in a solid and much needed embrace. I couldn’t help but burst into hysterical laughter at both my misfortune and my relief at finally arriving unharmed and enlightened at my final destination.
Other subway disasters followed this first Gordian foray into the city but that first day was the worst. Finally, after two days, I was able to ride with one of my native friends. I learned a lot by watching him, which is my strong suit. Things began to crystalize after that night, despite the volume of tequila I’d consumed. I began to connect to my adventure and sense it as it wrapped itself around me. Slowly subsided the fear of taking it all and I began to focus on how within twenty feet, I heard five different languages; how people who wore pedestrian, western clothing came in every color, shape and size; how cologne was as familiar to some as was body odor to others; and above all, how around me were hundreds of people who carried just as much baggage into that subway as I did.
Sometimes knowing how to navigate means more than an ability to read a map. Sometimes, it’s knowing how to read people. It’s knowing when you need them and how to ask. It’s connecting to someone on whom you’ve never laid eyes, but whose heart you’ve been able to see through words. In the future, I’ll venture into the subway again, and it will likely be to get to a new place. It’s very likely that I’ll get confused a few more times before I know it well. But as long as I have something waiting on the other side, something that makes me quake with anticipation, then I’ll muddle through what I don’t know using what I do know, simply because the payoff is priceless.