Subway Stories

She sighs heavily, the rumbling tracks reverberating through the background as she gently stretches her fingers to keep them loose. This is rush hour, and hardly a moment passes that a train full of relieved laborers doesn't squeal by, momentarily drowning out her voice. That voice, soft and guarded, pleaded for the recognition of the commuters. Her fingers plucked away at the keys dutifully, filling the platform with a hint of a song. A song that would fit perfectly with a film scene of a boy telling a girl he can't do without her, just before she walks away. Perhaps what's why she sang. If her life was that film, she seemed to be the boy, and the music was the girl, ever slipping away. But it was supposed to be different. New York was where she would make it. Where her previously lauded talents would finally be recognized, and she would live the life that she saw when her eyes were closed and her mind went free. So she picked a keyboard and some walking shoes and descended into the subway for the first time.

That was six months ago. Now, as the D train began to disappear around the bend, it's last bit of light fading into the tunnel, she closed her eyes once more. She felt the cool breeze of the passing car and lifted her voice, hoping that someone would really listen this time.

Part III

Paris is a beautiful city. But of course, you don't need me to tell you that. We've all heard the stories, and seen the films. The accordion hums gently in the background as a bespectacled man takes a slow drag on a cigarette, his lover adjusting her scarf. You can almost smell the croissants coming out of the oven, fresh and light, waiting to help you start your day. In my case though, the beauty I found in Paris was its ability to retain its sensibility in the wake of tragedy. In the mere days after the peace of the city was shattered, I still felt at relative ease alone in the city. I still saw old men reading news papers over coffee, and children playing soccer in the park. All of the Parisians I spoke to told me that they wish I had seen the city in its prior state. That the police presence was now crazy and super intense. Even before I went, there were a chorus of voices expressing their reticence at my continuing the trip. But in this case the old New York adage of "If you can make it here you can make it anywhere" seemed applicable. Not so much that New York is some sort of proving ground dispensing impregnable people, but more so that nothing seems crazy after life in New York. Walk through Penn Station and it feels as if skid row has somehow been placed within the jurisdiction of every law enforcement group ever. NYPD walk by New York County Sheriffs, who in turn tip their western era caps to the military police in full fatigues. If the zombie apocalypse goes down, I'm heading to Penn Station, because that place is practically an armory. Comparatively, Paris felt like a police free zone. Sometimes I forget the overwhelming and constant presence of law enforcement in the U.S., particularly NYC. A regular Tuesday morning involves swiping your metro-card only after opening the contents of your bag to an assault rifle clad officer.There is an intensity to New York, for better or worse, always swirling about in the air. All the moments are filled with a certain sense of pressure, like a metropolitan sauna. Stepping out of that, if only for a moment, felt freeing.

That sense of weight off my shoulders comes as a result of varied factors present in each city. The biggest factor? The historical and ever present racial climate in the U.S., and my existence as a black man within that system. Part of my ease in the Paris revolved around the lack of the racial history I've spent my life navigating. There is something to be said about being in a land that you know your direct ancestors were not slaves in. To know that you have never had a cross burned in your yard here. A place where the American Civil War was watched from afar. Even in my few days there, I understood to a greater degree the draw the great writers and jazz musicians felt, like Ta-Nehisi and Baldwin before him. I felt a certain sense of freedom, unsettling in its unfamiliarity.

That is not to say that it is some utopia. To be black in France is generally to also be of African descent, though on average there is a much more unpolluted lineage. A more concrete historical identity. No matter the strength of your identity however, to be the darker brother is to be subject to the negative perspectives of others. But for me as a Black American, I felt that many of the looks directed my way were no longer to ascertain my role as a black man (as it is in the states), but now the first mental inquiry was whether I was potentially Muslim. Brown skin. Bald head. Full beard. I saw questions flitting across the faces of passerbys. Sadly, this trepidation concerning a brown person's Faith is one of the ever present aspects of current society.

Pain and ignorance often beget fear. It's just crazy that it felt good to not be the subject of the old fear.

Paris Part II: Nouveau Yeux

Honestly, that may not even be the correct translation, but I'm trying to tell you that I was looking at Paris with "new eyes". At least that is what Duolingo told me...I think.

I was given a cold reception by the city, as the cool mist in the air shook any hints of jet-lag off of me. With a wariness leftover from feeling like a country kid in the big city, I sat on the metro and tried to make as many observations as I could. Perhaps to little avail, I make an effort to weave into the fabric of the city. My first attempt was a failure, as I stood blankly in front of the train doors waiting for them to open, until a pleasant young woman smiled and pushed the button. With an mechanical click that seemed to be derisively directed towards me, the doors opened allowing me in the train. A few moments later, that same pleasant young woman was walking down the aisles, asking for money. Despite her earlier door pleasantries, my hardened NYC heart took over, and I let her walk by without opening my wallet.

I opted to not spring for the international data plan. I'd like to tell myself I was being an intrepid adventurer, bravely setting forth in a new city without the crutch of Google. Really I was just being cheap, though I began to wonder if it was worth saving the 70 bucks as I walked off the metro. With the help of foresight in the form of map screenshots, I rang the doorbell to the Airbnb,  hoping that if this was the wrong place, the tenant would at least let me use their wifi.