Writing the Subway

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The New York City Subway System can be a hotbed for the worst of humanity. Here are two stories that always come to mind:

I was making my way down a crowded stairway to get to the subway. Foot traffic was excruciatingly slow because a woman was struggling to carry her bulky stroller down the stairs. A man pushed past me, and I figured he was rushing to help the woman with her stroller, but instead he ran past her and yelled, “if you make me miss this subway, I’ll kill you and your f***ing baby.” To this day I wonder where he was going to warrant such hostility.

Another time,  a homeless man asked a guy for spare change. The guy didn’t have any cash so he kindly offered up his Chinese takeout. The homeless man took the food and threw it against the subway wall. Greasy, stir-fried rice flew everywhere. Then he pinned the man up against the wall and yelled in his face, “Do I look desperate to you?” I was picking rice out of my purse for weeks afterward.

Oh the stories I could tell.

I love NYC but I oftentimes consider moving far far away after every sweaty, dehumanizing, sardine can-like commute. But, as a writer, I cannot deny the invaluable observational opportunities it provides (wow say that 10 times fast).

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A few days ago I did a fun little writing exercise. I had a 90 minute commute ahead of me so I  took my journal and pen instead of a book. I picked a random stranger at each subway stop and wrote down as much about them as possible.  With over 25 stops I really got to hone my observational skills.  The subway ride flew by, and I was a better writer for it.

Here was my favorite observation:

A man sits across from me.  Slumped in his seat, his legs spread wide and his knees pointing toward the ceiling. He wears light jeans, ragged at the hem, a black knitted hat and a zipped up, navy blue parka. Three black plastic bags rest on the floor between his feet.

With sausage-like fingers he wrestles with a small, colorful, plastic wrapped object. He furrows his brow and sighs, bringing the wrapper to his mouth. He bites the corner off and spits it on the floor. His face glows and he smiles wide when he looks inside the newly opened package.

He dips his finger inside the package and pulls out a candy ring with a shiny red sucker. He places the ring on the very tip of his index finger, as far down as it will go. Licking his lips, he opens his mouth to reveal a glistening pink tongue. He takes the candy jewel in his mouth and closes his eyes for a long time.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed that bizarre little moment if I had my head buried in a book as I usually do. The next time you’re stuck doing something you really don’t like, see if there’s a way of turning it into a constructive exercise.

8 comments

  1. Wow … what a great way for a writer to to spend some commute time. Awesome idea … Being a full-time telecommuter I have no commute at all. About all I get to observe is my mini-Schnauzer. While I wouldn’t want to live in NYC, sounds like it would be fun to occasionally experience one of those lively trips on the subway 🙂

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    1. Ok, since you can’t use this writing tip, here’s a writing exercise I did with my cat that you can do with your Schnauzer. Every day for a week I spent 10-15 minutes writing a dream sequence from my cat’s perspective. I would wait to find my cat sleeping and if his whiskers were twitching, and his paws moving, it would be an action dream. If he looked really peaceful, it would be a more relaxing scene. See what worlds you can imagine for your dog 🙂

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  2. I’ve done little writing ditties like that before during different experiences– it hones the observational skills and is kind of fun. Always reminds me of one of my favorite childhood books, Harriet the Spy. Every now and again, I think I crave the culture and humanity of a city, but have to admit I’ve become quite accustomed to the quiet serenity of my mountain life!

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