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  • Writer's pictureBella Ve

(re)Cognition Summer: Reconnecting with the Subway Car

Do me a favor. Next time you’re out running errands, existing in a liminal space, or in the coffee line, look around. Look with intention.

I was riding the subway the other day. Every single person on my train car had bent necks, eyes locked on screens, and ears plugged with headphones. Every. Single. Person. Me included.

This (Re)Cognition Summer at Hot Literati, we’re challenging ourselves to be uncomfortable. Moreso, we’re challenging ourselves to remember what it feels like to be uncomfortable. It’s different from the more introspective vein of uncomfort that I mentioned while writing about Playgirl Spring; it’s more to do with the external. To sink into anxiety and uncomfort in those situations where it is abundant.

It makes sense that everyone on my train was so entranced by their screens and their headphones. Riding the train is anxiety-inducing. Even without the risk of being thrown onto the tracks at any given moment, it’s dirty, it’s loud, it’s too hot and yet it’s blisteringly cold, it’s crowded, it’s crowded with strangers, and all of this makes for a wildly painful experience.

And what time is it? Showtime!

(Showtime, for those unfamiliar, is a non-consenual mid-train ride performance in which two to five men blast the worst song you’ve ever heard on a 1980’s boombox, breakdance in the center of your moving subway car, and miss your nose with their foot by mere inches. At this point, it has become a meme that Showtime Guys only come on the train when you’re having the worst day of your life.)

But I’m having a great night. I just came from a very fun party which will turn into a Very New York Story, and I’m attempting to practice what I preach. I’m resisting the reflex to take out my phone, idling away the time, instead of engaging with my surroundings. So I give Showtime my full attention.

“The worst Showtime ever, we’re not that good” the guy says as they set up, and I laugh. “Any happy people on this train?” he asks, and he catches my eye, and he returns my smile. “Okay, we got one happy person.”

The speakers start blaring some sacriligeous Whitney Houston remix, and it’s immediately clear that the Elder Showtime Guy tells the truth. They are not good. The Younger Showtime Guy can’t be older than 16.

They finish, they go around with their upturned hats for people to throw in spare dollar bills that they weren’t using anyways (there are a few takers) and they tell us they also accept CashApp and Venmo. Here we are: Showtime in the 2020’s where we’re taking electronic payments. You really do have to admire the hustle. I can’t help but titter.

I’m the only one laughing. Everyone else is, as previously mentioned, locked into their phone screens. I guess you can’t blame them. As if the train wasn’t unbearable enough, here come these guys further disrupting the peace, and there’s no choice for us schmucks but to sit there and pretend like we don’t notice it. To distract ourselves. But distracting yourself also makes you miss moments like this. Even if it’s a fleeting moment of joy, it’s still joy.

And even if Showtime didn’t come on the train, we would’ve been distracting ourselves anyway. We’d be avoiding our anxiety; avoiding our thoughts. It’s a lot easier to be distracted than to think. A lot of times it’s more preferable, too.

Like, I’m trying to break in my Doc Martens gladiator sandals (any tips, by the way? My feet are genuinely suffering), and I really wish I could play some music right now to distract myself from how my heel is getting ripped in half. But I left the house without headphones, and so the only choice I have is to listen to my thoughts. And my thoughts are ouch, ouch, fuck, fuck, ouch.

Not playing music, and not distracting ourselves when we’re forced to confront silence, is what Hailo referred to as the moment where God talks to you. I’d add that it’s also a reconnection to our primal ways of life - our caveman sensibilities that we’ve so distanced ourselves from.

Wash the dishes without a podcast. Ride the train without looking at your phone. Fight that urge to distract yourself and see what comes up. Let your mind run wild, or go nowhere at all. Focus on what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Think about it.

Because we’ve gotten used to never not multitasking. It’s like we’ve forgotten how to not keep ourselves constantly stimulated. Like we’re scared of focusing on one thing at a time, or like we need to maximize every sensation possible at every second of the day.

Despite the fact that music is magic, it’s also something we’ve lost reverence for. In Jane Austen’s day, music used to be a production. Both musician and listener were engaged in the active participation of the pianoforte. Seeing music live still has the same effect, I think. Personally, I prefer to do it in seedy bars, or basements, or free shows by artists whose names I’ve never heard, rather than sold out stadiums.

Music has gotten so very commercialized. It’s also more accessible than ever, which is a beautiful thing (someone will need to pry the new Sabrina Carpenter song from my hands before I beat it to death) but it’s also something we do very passively. As background or as distraction. Yes, you can still think your thoughts while something is playing, but I reckon they wouldn’t be as loud as if they didn’t have anything to compete with. It’s like we use it to drown out our thoughts. Wouldn’t it be nice to listen to music and really listen to it; to have it fill your room, your head, and your soul with all that it is meant to? It would make it more special, too. It would make the break in silence more gratifying.

I ran cross country in high school. We were not allowed to wear headphones. I had memorized a few songs (Wet Dreamz by J. Cole and Lizzy Love by Vel the Wonder) and would play them on a loop in my head while climbing the hills of Van Cortlandt Park to distract myself. I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon this April, and because I’m some kind of masochist, I decided to listen to The Tortured Poets Department (my Swiftiehood begins and ends with the nature of my being a white woman who grew up in the early 2000s). It was not in any way sufficiently distracting enough. I don’t think I’ll repeat either of those exercises ever again. There are exceptions to every rule.

Beyond the fact that I do my best thinking when I’m still, it’s also fun to observe for the sake of observation. When you’re not looking at your phone, or distracting your brain with music, you can listen to the world. Eavesdrop on a conversation, read a stranger’s text conversation over their shoulder, hear the tinny sound of someone else’s song choice through their headphones, learn a word in a language I don't know, and emphasize my presence in this world and among its people.

If I had put my headphones in while running errands around the city, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the truly beautiful trombone playing on the corner of 42nd and Lex.

I wouldn’t have been amused by the high school girls on their way to GovBall talking about how spray tans contribute to bad gut health.

I wouldn’t have heard the half sentences of one-sided conversations from people on the phone.

A most honorable mention: “she fucked the guy…and she got chlamydia from him!”

I wouldn’t have been present.


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