Life underground

Second Toronto After Dark Film Festival, October 2007.I’m on the wrong subway train. Or maybe it’s the right train going the wrong way. It doesn’t matter. I need to backtrack. Get off at the next stop and cross the platform where I will take the right train going the right way. I’m very nearly always on the right train these days, but in my early days in New York City chances were roughly even I was on the wrong train headed the wrong way. This was before I got an app for that. If smartphone apps suddenly vanished, I might still frequently go the wrong way on trains.
Sometimes you get on the right train going the right way and someone begins to address the assembled riders in a dramatic fashion. You realize you’re about to hear bad performance poetry and be expected to compensate the amateur vagabond poet for his efforts. So that’s really a case of being on the wrong train even though you’re traveling in the right direction.

I don’t want to be on a train listening to a stranger’s bad poetry. I can barely stand my own bad poetry and would only expect to be beaten severely if I dared perform it in public while asking strangers for money in an unconventional venue. The most I could honestly hope for if I were to perform my bad poetry in an entire roomful of bad poets where negative feedback was expressly forbidden would be some kind soul patting my hand gently and patronizingly while saying, “That’ll do.” So, I admire the bravery of vagabond subway poets even as I deplore their poetry.


If you don’t like what’s happening in your particular subway car, you can move up into the next car. That’s illegal and slightly dangerous. But people do it. Just like a lot of things that are illegal and slightly dangerous that people do in an offhand way here in New York City such as constantly jaywalking, riding bicycles in heavy traffic or grabbing onto the back of a big truck as you’re riding your bicycle to save some energy, which I have only seen once.

Most of the time, riding in a subway car is not illegal, dangerous or fraught with bad poetry. It’s just a matter of trying not to stare too hard at anyone. Trying to focus your eyes on the clever advertisements that tout exploring other parts of the state of New York, getting take-out meals delivered to your apartment or taking college classes for credit. You don’t want to get caught up in anyone’s drama or generate unneeded drama by staring at overly dramatic people who are too sensitive to be stared at.

I used to imagine I might spot celebrities in the subways. So many live in New York City that it was just a matter of time until I ran into them. But after a few months I gave up looking for noted Manhattan residents Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman and Leonardo DiCaprio in subways. They must fly by jet packs when they want to move across the city. Or else take cabs. Or most likely, they ride in special cars with tinted windows so no one can see inside them.

That’s what I would do if I were famous. If my jet pack was low on fuel, I mean. Because, my first option would always be the jet pack.

I did see the actress Katie Holmes today at a children’s birthday party at the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. My first real celebrity sighting, but it was anticlimactically mundane. She was talking with other moms and acting normal. I couldn’t bear to take a picture of her. If she’d been doing something more dramatic with her hands or seeming to subconsciously pose, then it would have been no problem. If other people had been snapping pictures of her, I might have joined in. But she was just trying to be a regular human being. No one else was snapping away photos. So, it felt horribly wrong to interfere with her attempt at a normal existence even if I might have easily managed to take a surreptitious I-Phone photo.

While Katie Holmes was busy being a regular human being, I was sitting at a table with Avery and his geometry tutor. I tried to pay attention to the geometry, but I kept staring at Katie. I thought of things I might say to Katie, who was about ten feet away from me at one point getting some coffee. None of the things I thought of saying seemed the least bit appropriate.

“You’re quite pretty and normal-seeming. I like you, even though we’ve never met. And I believe your ex-husband is a weird Scientology monster.” Though it’s all true, I don’t think she’d have appreciated that. Clearly the best thing to do was to stay seated and focus on geometry. So I settled for staying seated and alertly focused on watching Katie move around the children’s party smiling and talking. She was very normal about the whole thing, so I tried hard not to stare anymore than was absolutely necessary.

“You could have taken a picture,” Robyn said later. But then there are a thousand pictures of Katie available on the Internet. What would make my picture any different from those pictures? Except that my picture would be taken on the sly at some strange angle and I’d feel like a paparazzi stalker the rest of the day.

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I wonder why it is that famous writers don’t get recognized much. I would think it would be a lot easier to be a famous writer than a famous actor when it comes to avoiding paparazzi. The famous American writer David Sedaris moved to France to escape being a famous writer in America. That was pretty smart. He wanted his interactions with people to be formed by their perceptions of him as a person rather than because he was famous.

I never want to be so famous that I have to move somewhere else so that my interactions aren’t colored by public perceptions of me as a writer. So far, I am doing a great job of maintaining a level of anonymity that allows me to live anywhere in this great land of ours.

But seriously, how many writers are recognized in public to the extent that it interferes with their normal lives? Maybe J.K. Rowling or Stephen King get mobbed. But I can’t imagine it being a common thing. I imagine many famous writers wander all around New York City every day without anyone even noticing. I may even be sitting next to them on the subway.

We could both be going the wrong way on the right train, and I’d never even know.

Life underground

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