Dec 23, 2016
Finding Our Stillness: Crying on the Subway
Crying on the subway is a New York tradition. There’s a Tumblr devoted to it; Uzo Aduba has admitted to doing it; and if you ask almost anyone who has lived here for more than a few months, they’ll probably tell you they’ve done it at least once. Yes, the subway is an underground emotional refuge that is unique in our city—a place where one feels alone, and yet, oddly comforted in the presence of millions.
In a city where we do anything to avoid eye contact with others, we somehow allow a diverse group of subway passengers to witness our emotional meltdowns. Jess Goodwin, New York City resident and occasional subway sobber remarks that “there’s a weird anonymity to it. For the most part, you’re surrounded by strangers. Sometimes it’s almost as good as being alone.”
Everyone remembers their first time. Which line you were on (It was the E). Where exactly
you lost it (Somewhere between the 53rd and Lex, and Court Square). How many people were on it. If someone asked if you were all right. If you tried to hide your tears behind sunglasses, or just went for it, and really let it rip. And since the results of this hideous election, the stage has been set for even more emotional outbursts. With reports of an ever increasing number of violent and hate driven-incidents all over the country (in addition to dealing with our own lives) we have all the more reasons to get upset throughout the day. Subway crying is here to stay.
A boyfriend once broke up with me over the phone on the corner of 23rd and 7th and I spent the majority of the rest of the day sobbing all over the A, C, E line, while also numbly trying to continue the day’s errands. When bad things happen, inexplicably, time doesn’t stop. And if you’re in the middle of the city rather than home when they do happen, the subway is there for you, ready to receive your pain. For most of that afternoon, and well into rush hour, I found solace processing my grief in the company of a million strangers.
Another beautiful thing about the subway sob session is that there doesn’t need to be a dramatic or life altering event to prompt one. Some of my best subway cries have been spontaneous bouts of feeling, from something all-encompassing yet amorphous: because I feel fractured into pieces by daily stress, or am reminded of some melancholy moment, or my heart is so full of anything (something that happens often when confronted with the overabundance of life in New York City) that something, simply, has to give.
Greg McGoon, another NYC subway sobber has suggested that crying on the train is a way to slowly start to feel whatever that is. Being in public requires you—in his opinion—“to only partially lose it”; whereas alone, in your apartment, you’re prone to go overboard, to full-on wail, start pounding walls. The subway, though, is a happy medium: a safe-haven, but one that puts our own lives into perspective, surrounded as we are by so many others. There, even as we lose it, we still stay somewhat composed; we can tap into our feelings, perhaps, in just the right amount.
I used to be known amongst my friends as non emotional, and I reveled in this. It was a defense mechanism against bad experiences in elementary school and middle school, when most kids weren’t that nice to me. I used to tell my mom, lying, that I was sick so I could avoid going to birthday parties, where it was rumored I was invited just so the popular kids could do something to humiliate me. As a result, I would be awash in tears that I couldn’t keep to myself. So when I reached high school, I vowed to let no one else see the damage they had done: No more crying. This continued through college and for several years afterward.
It was the subway that brought it back to me—and brought me back to myself, in my truest form. I could release a puddle of honest emotions without caring who saw it, and what that revealed. In this act, we are adults who let ourselves succumb to a childlike, yet fundamental need, and in a way that we hesitate to do above ground when we are alone (where there is no safe and contained refuge) or in the company of our friends. In New York, it’s one of our resident tricks. It’s a reprieve from the overwhelming hustle and bustle, a place to restore ourselves so that when we walk up the stairs, through the turnstiles, and re-emerge into the world, we’re a bit more composed.
What many of us subway criers use—when we really need to get into that protective, emotional zone—is our headphones. Headphones are one of the few ways to dictate personal space in the city, a silent warning to those around you not to interrupt your heart-rending woes. The right song can bring me right back into a moment, instilling me with everything that comprised a specific time in my life—something, of course, that I might need to cry about. Whatever those moments are that thrust themselves upon us, I truly believe there’s nothing more New York than to embrace them on the subway. Breathe into these feelings all the way from Columbus Circle down to FiDi, with the obligatory pause at 34th Street for train traffic. It’s as if that additional pause has been granted to us as a gift, as if the conductor knows we will be grateful for a few additional minutes of emotional stillness, underground.
Collages by Sarah Lutkenhaus
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