622: Self-Portrait With Woman On The Subway

622: Self-Portrait With Woman On The Subway

622: Self-Portrait With Woman On The Subway


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

Right now, public transportation feels a little unsafe, as the Covid case numbers rise and folks hunker down to ride out another surge. Still, there are times I think fondly of the New York City subway. How, even if you weren’t paying attention that much, you could still arrive anywhere with a story.

Some story was always unfolding on the subway. Once, I watched a group of friends rushing to the train and one guy couldn’t get his metrocard to swipe and he just yelled very dramatically, “SAVE YOURSELVES.” I still think about it. Also, they did, his friends left him. I have no idea what they were late for, but they did indeed save themselves.

And the conversations I’ve overheard still delight me. One friend pointing to another friend's very very tiny umbrella and saying, “Oh my god, that umbrella’s so small, did you find that in your drink?” And one man saying to a woman, “But if I’m taking antibiotics and probiotics is it like I’m taking no biotics?” Everywhere there are stories. Sometimes good, sometimes scary. But watching and listening to strangers is a way of life on the subway. You keep your distance, yes, but you are also attuned to the unfolding narratives. And sometimes you’re the story whether you like it or not.

Neither eating on the subway nor kissing on the subway ever felt particularly sanitary to me. Though I’m sure I’ve done both. But what I remember most about all the daily and nightly commutes was a feeling like you were in this together. You made room, you huddled together in the train, you picked up someone’s bag if it fell, you didn’t make eye contact, or if you did it was eye contact that let someone know that someone else might be a loose cannon. Overall, you learned how to respect someone’s privacy in a public way.

Once, after teaching elementary school kids poetry all day in the Bronx, I fell asleep on the subway back to Brooklyn. A man woke me up and said, I had fallen asleep so hard that he was worried about me. It was so kind of him and because of his nudging me awake, I made my stop just in time.

One winter, a woman read to her kid every morning out loud on the train, and if you got in the same car each day, you could catch the rest of the book. Everyone tried not to look like they were listening, but we all were.

In today’s poem, we see what it is to witness a stranger on the subway and then live with the regret of not having reached out. I love this poem because it proves that public transportation means our lives are forever intertwined on the human journey.

Self-Portrait With Woman On The Subway
by Hayan Charara

Across from me she
was crying badly, everyone
around her looking
into their laps trying
to pretend they did not notice.
So unashamed
in her grief she wept
like the N line
was a room in her apartment
and the afternoon
would last forever.
Twenty years on,
I could’ve said something,
“The red of your scarf
is beautiful.”

"Self-Portrait With Woman On The Subway" by Hayan Charara, from THESE TREES, THOSE LEAVES, THIS FLOWER, THAT FRUIT by Hayan Charara copyright © 2022 Hayan Charara. Used by permission of Milkweed Editions.