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Down, Down, Below

By: Katherine Hernandez

Every morning on my way to class I would go into a small café that stood on the corner of Via Guelfa, a narrow street in Florence, Italy. I always ordered a “cappuccino to go” for cappuccinos were all I craved every Florence morning. The barista would always smile and I would always be in such a rush, in an effort to avoid uncomfortable miscommunication, for the language was still unknown to me. Until one day, as she handed over my cappuccino she blurted out, “Where are you from?” “ I’m from New York”, I reluctantly replied. Her speaking in English had startled and relieved me. The wrinkles cornered near her mouth then began to widen as she said, “Oh! New York, the city of dreams.”

New York—the city in which I spent all my childhood years. The city that influenced me immensely in becoming the woman I am today. A city full of myths and realties, controversies and undoubted truths. New York, praised for its amusing charm, the fashion, and stories of being the city to thrive into stardom. We however neglect to embrace the true grittiness of the places, people, and things that make this city one of a kind. For not all that shines is golden.

Down, down, below the city there is magic and a rumble that occurs: the New York City subways. A place where the sweet smell of a stranger’s cup of coffee schemes its way around the poles of a subway cart into your nose. Where the sound of a guitarist vocal penetrates your soul as you wait for the next late train. The roaring sounds of the railings clacking away to your destination, a sound we know of no other. The innocent kiss of a foreign couple discovering the big city. The wistful breeze that seeps through every strand of your hair as the train is arriving at full force. I close my eyes in complete bliss as the breeze awakens my spirit.

A place where the polka dots of gum on the subway platforms stylishly match the vintage skirt of a passenger. The reassuring sound of the automated voice informing you the train is to arrive shortly. The peeking into others lives as the conversations are sometimes too loud, you can’t help but listen at the bickering of a New Yorker’s everyday life.

“ Man, Frank I’m tired of working a nine to five, my girlfriend says I don’t make enough time for her, but I have to pay the bills right?” says the man to my left.

There is always a midnight rush of exhausted workers and partygoers getting off work and heading home drunk. The women stumble in their 5-inch heels wearing suffocating mini dresses. It’s one of the few subway systems to be available 24 hours of the day. If there’s a time or place to be! There is always a train to catch.

You see it all down, down, below. The homeless man taking off his shoes at 1 am on the 4 train, the middle-aged man on the J train listening loudly to hip-hop on his headphones wearing pictures of dildos on his leather jacket, braless women on the M train pretending not to notice everyone is staring intently at their breast.

The odd smells that fill the subway carts of the F train since it has always been a homeless hangout. You hold your breath until the following stop because you know nothing will be done about it. Is it the fashion, the shoes, the envy? Every ride is never just the same ride.

The claustrophobia of it all. The invasion of personal space on the L trains during the 9am rush. Someone’s backpack banging on your behind as the man in front of you has his armpit too close to your face and all you dare to inhale is Old Spice. The youngsters and their latest day routine, slip and sliding down the subway poles as they yell “Show time!” Lets give a stand ovation to the man that sits next to you in an empty subway cart.

Cheers to the view when crossing the elevated J train as it races past the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan. You watch the skyscrapers and bodies of water in between the poles of the bridge as the images pass by like a flipbook. You are reminded of how grand and intimating the city can feel, so many buildings, so many people, and just one me.

“ Yes, you can say New York City is the city of dreams, but there’s so much more to it. You have to come visit and see what I mean. It’s another world, it’s another place, and will take a lot of getting used to”, I replied to her. I paid my two euros, wrapped my scarf over my shoulder and stepped out into the hazy Florence sun.

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