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  • Writer's pictureAlice Marks

A Few Feet Under the City Lights

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

Observations from commuting on the NYC underground subway...

While New York sparkles under the summer sun, the city's underground is home to the world's largest sauna.

As one descends into one of the city's near-five-hundred subway stations, one instantly feels the heat closing in. The air seems to almost solidify, it gets so thick. Add the pressure of knowing that your train is about to arrive, on a crowded platform deep within this sweltering maze of long passageways and steep stairwells, and the situation becomes rather sticky. Literally - your clothes will stick to your skin as you run.

I must clarify that although this is a rather uncomfortable experience, this piece is not a complaint about New York's railways. The underground itself is a true marvel. It is the largest rapid transit system in the world, providing constant service to New Yorkers in every corner of the island. You can't walk three blocks around here without spotting an entrance to the subway. Judging by the state of road traffic (that is to say, nobody follows road rules around here), the subway is the quickest way around town. 

The stations themselves emit a kind of industrial charm; most of them are low-ceilinged, tubular-shaped constructs held up by sturdy iron columns and covered with discoloured tiles, and the name of the station is often boasted on the wall with mosaic lettering or an old-fashioned print. The trains are rusty silver bullets - they remind me of the wonky tin sheds that crop up on neglected country properties in rural Australia. The trains and their slightly dilapidated appearance might make one question their functionality, but boy oh boy, do they run - with surprising efficiency and jolting speed. 

Everything is old, smelly, grubby, and a little decrepit, but that's part of the experience - the underground is a home that all New Yorkers, from all walks of life, pass through and share.

So why am I babbling on about this? After all, the magnificent city is above ground.

I have been fascinated by the underground since the day of my arrival - it is, I believe, the place to truly appreciate the diversity of life that New York has to offer. I have never been so captivated by the behaviour of people; an ordinary commute to school or work can be transformed into a highly immersive experience in an instant, simply by whoever happens to step on to the train that particular day. 

So my new habit is people-watching. Not to be confused with stalking, or anything of that nature. Observing the idiosyncratics of everyday humanity is undeniably intriguing.

We all secretly love it. Trust me, you do, even if you aren't aware of it. 

As an actor, I have in fact been encouraged by my teachers to observe the people around me, in their ordinary, un-glamorous lives. Becoming familiar with people's behaviours is becoming familiar with a representation of humanity, however microcosmic that might be, and therefore expands the actor's ability to emulate this reality, truthfully, under imaginary circumstances. Simply by watching someone sitting on the train, one can gain striking insights into their inner life, and allude to what might explain their appearance and demeanour.

Everything is insignificant, yet so incredibly significant. 

The infant who took hold of my hand, on a long ride home one night, and smiled at me.

The man who thanked me earnestly, twice, for pointing out a ten dollar bill that had slipped from his pocket as he sat down.  

The woman who got off the train, turned back, and gave me a beautiful Mona Lisa smile as I pulled away from the station.

The women and men wearing hospital scrubs who plonk themselves down onto seats in the early morning hours of the weekend. Their slouched shoulders and hollow eyes translate as either a long day of work ahead, or a graveyard night shift recently put to bed.

The men who look uncomfortable in their business suits.

The men who look at ease in their business suits.

The people wearing clothes all-too-big who wander down the aisles, asking for change, for food, for help.

The mothers who soothe their tempestuous children, strapped tightly into strollers, with sweet treats.

The tourist couple from Orlando who told me about their daughter living in the city, all the while looking absolutely petrified of missing their stop.  

The children that dance in the aisles.

The adults that dance on the platforms. 

The bookworms who cannot look up.

The women and men who close their eyes, to the rattling of the carriage and the loud-mouthed conversation of their neighbours.

The football fans who take up twice as much space as they need to, talk twice as loud as they ought to, yet seem to lighten up the mood of the carriage at large with their positivity and eagerness.

The seasoned subway travellers, who know every bump and twist of their daily commute to work, and who are unfazed by everything.

The actors. I can spot some of you, others have probably passed me by. But I know you are there, working hard, doing the same thing. Watching, waiting, listening, for the golden nuggets of material that will land us our next role.

So I guess this is an ode, of sorts, to all the people who have enriched my experience on the subway. 

You are noticed, and you are not forgotten.

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