Tag Archives: subway

Under the Boardwalk

11 May

For those who aren’t familiar with the New York subway, it was easily one of the best parts about New York. A cheap, reliable way to get around the giant city, normally open 24 hours, there was always a way to get where you needed to go. Rare, even for large cities.

But during the pandemic, the subways were closed for cleaning between midnight and five am, and most people weren’t using them anyways, especially during the night hours as most everything was closed down. I never had that luxury as I still had to commute to and from work. I had some eerie subway rides where I was all alone, not another rider in site. But last week it was announced that after almost a year of this, the subways are returning to 24-hour service later in May. It feels so hopeful and yet so strange to be back on the subway and see it filled with other New Yorkers.

Last Saturday I was riding the subway home from a volunteering stint in Brooklyn. The subway was bustling with people, all wearing their masks and appropriately maintaining social distances. With the return of some sense of normalcy is also the return of some annoyances. People talking loudly on their cellphones. Teenagers swinging from the handles.

I was sitting on the N when I heard a man get on the train. I heard him mumbling to himself. He had a low, strong tenor and walked with a cane. Something in me recognized his voice. I thought back to pre-pandemic times and remembered a panhandler who frequented the N train. He always sang the same song “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters, as he tapped his cane on the floor keeping the beat. Sometimes he would be accompanied by other panhandlers who would provide a harmony. At the end of every song, he would say in the same upbeat, singsong way “At least give me a smile, it won’t cost you anything!” The man who walked by me sounded just like him, and as the train started, he tapped his cane and sang the same old song. He sang it quicker. He sang it alone. And he seemed to lose a little bit of his upbeat enthusiasm that he’d sung it with before. No cute quip at the end.

But it was him, and my first thought was, “Oh God, I’m so happy that he’s alive.” Because that’s kind of what post-pandemic New York feels like. Everyone’s a little bit on edge, a little bit more alone, and a little bit down in the dumps. But he’s alive! He made it! So many didn’t, and it’s been hard to hear all the stories of loss.

I didn’t think about what happened to his fellow panhandlers, maybe they just left the city. I hope they’re okay. Even though I almost never give money to people on the subway, I fished out a dollar, my heart elated that this stranger had made it through. It reminded me of early Spring when buds start to appear on the trees and the hopeful heart wonders if the long harsh winter could really be behind us. Alive. Alive. Alive.