When I talk about my city, I treat it like a person I love. I know it intimately and could never be away from it for long. The city is my fuel and it drives me to keep going. On a bad day I can let myself get lost on the streets. The city and I have shared my best moments. When I’m discouraged, it will remind me of my triumphs and the promise my future holds. I’ve shared much of my growth with the city. When I walk where a different me once lived, familiar sights allow me to see and feel all the ways I’ve changed since those times. They reveal how much stronger I’ve become.
Lately, I’ve taken to walking to and from Manhattan on the Williamsburg bridge whenever the weather and my schedule allows for it. I almost always find myself smiling at the skyline. The city seems to greet me as I walk off the humming bridge into the bustling L.E.S. There’s a tenement museum there on Delancy about which my grandfather joked, saying that some pictures of my family might be hanging there. Grampa didn’t share my adoration for this city. As a child, his family moved from one cramped apartment to the next, fleeing the unreasonable landlords and the unlivable conditions. Grampa was very sick as a kid and often couldn’t even go to school. Instead, he spent much of his youth in the grime of the tenements and decay of narrow side streets. I feel a connection with him when walking those same streets, even if they’re now full of trendy gastropubs and espresso bars.
My grandfather’s New York is still around, in some ways. Like anyone I know and love, I’ve become familiar with the city’s darker side too and descending below the streets is usually a grotesque reminder of its flaws. Those dirty and dark platforms always bring me close to aspects of the city I like least: the trash, the noise, the rude commuters, and all the people who won’t miss out on the opportunity to harass a model when she can’t easily avoid them. But it can get worse and on March 23rd, around 10p.m., it did.
David and I were on our way back to Williamsburg after a yoga class and dinner in Union Square. I had recognized a beautiful model on the train and I was telling David about her breakthrough show season last fall. When we stepped off the train at Bedford Ave., conversation was light. Then, there on the platform, a fight erupted.
We saw the dispute move from the stopped train to the empty Manhattan bound track. People started shouting for them to stop. I froze in my tracks and looked at David as he put his arm around me protectively. After weaving between the steel girders of the platform, the fighters hesitated for a moment on the edge and then vanished onto the tracks. Just then, lights appeared at the far end of the tunnel. I saw one of the men on the tracks. He was terrified, trying to find a way out. People were screaming and running towards the stairs. In those few moments, the crowd on the platform with us recognized that there was not enough time. Each second between that recognition and the train grinding to a halt was filled with terror.
David had pulled his hands over my eyes. He led me out of the station. We were amid a flood of subway passengers that night who didn’t need to stay for the aftermath. People repeated what they had seen and what others had said as they flooded out of the station. Kids enjoying their Friday night in Williamsburg joked, oblivious to the ashen faces pouring from the subway. We were quiet on the way home but police trucks rushed to the scene, sirens wailing. David held my hand and tears rolled down my cheek.
This sort of thing happens all the time in New York City. I know that a lot of people meet unfortunate ends. The L train has been particularly lethal lately and, within the confines of such a big city, people are always doing awful things to each other. I realize that I’m not any less vulnerable to a mishap on the platform and recklessness down there makes me nervous. Even so, I didn’t expect to witness a stranger’s last moments on my way home that night.
The studio David and I were coming from that night spent all of March discussing “the practice of dying.” Traditionally, yoga has had a lot to do with achieving immortality or, at least, transcending death. Even so, modern yoga doesn’t have a lot to do with that part of the tradition, and despite the teachers’ valiant efforts all month, I have had a rough time understanding or accepting what had happened to the stranger on the platform. They had talked about death as it comes to people (and cats) who’ve lived a full life and had years to supposedly practice and prepare. They had explained the ascension of energy and spirit through the body. Never did we talk about the pain or horror of a life cut short.
Regardless of how the fight started, how could anyone deserve that? If there is a proper death, why should he have been denied it? If there’s a consequence to how you die, why should this young man suffer for it? Asking myself those questions makes me emotional and conflicted. The past week, I’ve felt like I needed to practice and be still with my thoughts. I have tried to dedicate my practice to the family and friends of the man killed on the platform. Neither I nor anyone who witnessed those events will forget them.
As for me, I still love the city, even if some parts are scary and dark. I see it for its best, even if I still see that face and hear those screams every time I’m in the Bedford Ave. station. I take from my teachers what I can and I don’t judge them when they can’t give me the answers I want. I love my teachers for help they provide and how they provoke me to dig deeper since I still have so much to learn about yoga. These questions are as tough as they come. Sometimes a yoga practice is a better place for questions than answers anyway.