The only way I could make it through the 34th Street Station at rush hour was not to look. If I focused too hard on one person at a time, I might mistakenly run someone over, or worse, slow down. New Yorkers live in a world of periphery. Aware of everything but seeing nothing.
We soften the edges, letting the borders of other humans and moments blur in and out of focus just so we can absorb it all. And in the process we absorb nothing. This is what I was thinking as I sat down on the Q train to Astoria, packed up next to two women on Facebook. I couldn't really judge. How many times had I been just the top of my head, face planted in my phone, to the passersby on a crowded sidewalk?
I thought, let me just look up. Let me just be present with whatever this subway ride is today.
Across from me, seated between a hipster and a nurse was an old man. Among the sea of black, he stood out in browns and tans. The earthiness of his clothing almost camouflaged his jaundiced skin. The plaid of his shirt mimicked the age spots of his hands. One hand gripped his right knee. One hand held a paper coffee cup from Fresh & Co. The hand with the coffee shook. I thought the coffee might spill. I looked up at his eyes and they looked sad. Or tired. Or maybe I was projecting.
I tried to see him as a boy. I do this sometimes when I am trying to have patience with other commuters: I try to see them as they were as children. Simple or joyful or uncertain or proud. These traits are sweet when they're in children. As the child grows up though, the traits become too large. The sweetness turns to neuroses and we start to insta-judge so we know what's coming and how to dodge it. We don't want them to rub off on us after all. We don't want to catch anything.
I looked back at the man whose coffee was shaking. I wondered why he didn't switch hands to the better one that gripped his knee. Then I thought, maybe this was the better hand. Just as my chest started to get tight, I looked out the train window to the Fifth Avenue station platform. A middle-aged man stood, hands clasped beneath his chin, eyes wide open, and prayed. Back and forth I looked from coffee man to praying man. Coffee to praying. Coffee. Praying.
The fullness of the moment caught itself in my eyes and my tear ducts released what my body couldn't hold anymore. It was the first time in a while that I allowed the world to come into focus and what I saw was beautiful and diverse and sad. What I saw was fragile and hopeful. What I saw was the heaviness of life, countered by the buoyancy of our human optimism.
The train lurched above ground in Queens and the six'o'clock sun had just begun it's uneven descent through the buildings. As we climbed from the depths of the East River, the light slashed through the subway car like a scalpel, amputating my ability to see straight. My eyes squinted and finally acquiesced to the brightness. Looking up, face to the world, meant getting smacked with too much sometimes. It meant being struck and sometimes blinded. But it also meant feeling full and deep. It meant allowing myself to be with these blurry strangers, their troubles and hopes, and the made up childhoods I wrote for them.
Focusing on those strangers and their private-public moments blurred my own edges. I would go back to worrying in a second, of course. (I mean, let's be real, I had a list of accomplishments to accomplish.) But actually seeing them made me fade just enough to be present. Actually seeing them made me squint just enough to feel alive.