Some people want to be rock stars. Some want to climb mountains. Some want to be the president. I wanted to see everything in New York City.
One day, a couple of years after I had moved to the city, I was waiting for a train after a late-night poker game at a friend’s house. I had won 30 bucks and was feeling lucky, and Leigh and I had been fighting so I didn’t want to go home yet. A train had just passed and the subway platform was empty except for me. I made my way down to the end of the platform, where a dull red sign marked the end of the space freely available to each of eight million New Yorkers, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and marked the beginning of a mysterious world known only to a few small subsets of the city:subway, workers, graffiti writers, the homeless. I was sweating as I gazed down the tracks into the dirt and darkness. It was only one step past the sign, but the mental barrier was enormous. We live our whole lives as prisoners of artificial boundaries – boundaries put in place not by mountains, rivers, or walls but by people and institutions who simply tell us that they’re there. Crossing these boundaries, realizing that this prison that has been constructed in our minds doesn’t actually exist, isn’t physically difficult. But for people like me – people who had spent twenty-seven years waiting for the sign to say “Walk” before crossing the street – it can take an unprecedented act of will. I had to steady myself on the ” Do Not Enter or Cross Tracks” sign that marked this mental border and physically push my leg forward with my other hand in order to step around it, I went down the short ladder onto the tracks and started down the tunnel. Glancing back, I remembered the Woody Guthrie lyric from the fifth verse of “This Land is Your Land” – the one they don’t teach teach you in school or play on the radio.
As I was walking I saw a sign
And on the sign it said ” No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Of course, Woody Guthrie’s side of the sign probably had open fields and a nice cool breeze blowing, not striped “No Clearance” signs and 600 volts of direct current in the form of the third rain running next to him a foot away.
That first time I didn’t go far, or stay long, or really even see much I couldn’t already see from the platform. But the sensation, the feeling of being in a new environment I’d only thought abut experiencing, was there. The light, the smell, the air were all different. My curiosity had been satisfied, another perspective on the city gained. To me it was amazing.
When I got back to the platform, panting not from exhaustion but excitement everything in the station was exactly the same. No alarms had gone off, no overzealous straphangers had “seen something and said something.” No police had suddenly appeared, waiting expectantly for me to return before whipping out their handcuffs with a patronizing quip. The only thing that was different was me. It wasn’t just the act. It was the opening of possibility, the realization that the boundaries that had kept me from sating this desire were totally in my head. In addition to the dozens of neighborhoods and thousands of streets above, more than a hundred miles of tunnels underneath New York City had now been added to my mental geography And if these boundaries were a figment of my imagination, what other boundaries were as well? i had wanted more, and now I realized that I could have it. The experience was like giving someone who struggles with a small coffee addiction his first hit of cocaine.
Since that first step, I’ve walked tracks on seven different subway systems around the world. I’ve gotten this same slightly nauseated feeling of nervousness, the same adrenaline-fueled alertness, every time. I never fight it; in fact, I’ve long since learned to welcome it.