16 September 2011

Ode To That Crying Guy on the Subway Platform

I had an idea of how my life was going to turn out. I had a plan.

My plan was this: I was going to be a teacher. Preferably a college professor. Or, failing that, an instructor at a tony private school in the New England states, not unlike the one that Robin Williams teaches at in the movie Dead Poets Society. I would have my summers off, during which I would sip tea and tinker with my thousand-page novel in the afternoons and kiss my cute wife in the evenings. Each fall I'd select a turtleneck from my collection of turtlenecks--all shades of blues and blacks--and return to the campus where I'd resume my place in my creaking office chair while gazing profoundly out the window at the impossibly red leaves on the old maple tree in the Quad.

It was a good plan. Even now I get a little excited just thinking about it.

That plan obviously never came about for me.

I did go to graduate school, which was the first step in my plan. I mingled with other writers. I taught classes. I shopped for turtlenecks.

But three years later, when it was time for me to graduate, it dawned on me one day that I'd endured a dramatic change of heart. I no longer wanted to teach. I no longer had any romantic notions about colleges and universities.

So I let go of my creaking office chair and my maple tree on the Quad. I would still keep my Latin textbooks on my bookshelves for a few more years, thinking that I still might go back, that I still might get a PhD in this or that eventually, that I still might wind up teaching Antigone to teenagers after all. But what I wound up actually doing was this: I moved to New York.

Which, I now realize, is what people do when they don't know what else to do with their lives.

I thought that in New York, no matter what happened to me--good or bad--at least I'd still be in New York, home of Papaya King, David Letterman, and The Place Where John Lennon Was Shot. I thought, If any place in the world can tell me what I'm made of, it's this place.

So my Latin textbooks, my turtlenecks and I moved to New York.

What followed, of course, were many years of abject despair. I lived in crummy apartments. I worked lousy jobs. I fell in love with the wrong girls.

Then I went through some medical woes in the late '90's. I suffered through things that I wouldn't wish on anyone. In the name of trying to at least slow the rapid downward spiral I was on, I saw a therapist a few times a week. It was Woody Allen-type therapy--me, on the couch, with the therapist, who bore a striking resemblance to Sigmund Freud, sitting in a nearby chair and quietly writing in his notebook.

After my original career had gone out the window--or, at this point, had flown out a series of windows, then fell to the street below where it lay in a mangled heap and then a large piano had fallen on top of it--I decided that I would be part of a new generation who didn't have traditional careers. Those people with careers? Like my college classmates who had taken jobs with Lehman Brothers and would be there until the end of time (or so they no doubt thought)? They were the suckers. They were the clueless.

Me? I'd be like the guy in that old Dion song, "The Wanderer."

"Oh well, I roam from town to town." (I would.) "I go through life without a care." (That's me.) "And I'm happy as a clown." (That sounds fun, right?) "With my two fists of iron and I'm going nowhere." (I have no idea what that last line means.)

Anyway, I distinctly remember one afternoon sitting in my office at the terrible magazine where I worked. I opened a dark red envelope from Fannie Mae, the student loan people. I'd recently missed a series of student loan payments. As Fannie Mae realized this, they began to send me color coded envelopes. At first the envelopes were, in retrospect, a concerned yellow. But when I ignored them, they turned orange. And now, I was up to red. I was pretty sure that the next envelope I received from Fannie Mae would be an extremely angry purple.

I opened the envelope. Though I was fully aware of what was coming, it never failed to completely shock me. I found a bill for more than thirty thousand dollars. I sat there, trying to breathe, wondering how in the world I would ever pay off this monstrous debt. Beyond that, I wondered if I'd heal, if I'd get better. And beyond that, I wondered if I'd ever get out of the terrible, miserable office where I was working at the time.

"You can always come home," my mother said to me over the phone when I told her what was going on. "New York isn't for everybody."

After work that night, I remember standing on the subway platform at the 36th Street and Sixth Avenue station. It was rush hour. People were so crammed on the platform that they were in danger of falling onto the tracks. My train, an uptown B, pulled into the station. It was filled to capacity.

The doors opened. No one got on and no one got off. The doors closed.

The next train was even more full than the previous train. Doors opened. Doors closed. No movement.

A third train was so full that it did not even bother to stop. It simply rolled straight on through the station--something that trains sometimes did during rush hour--with hundreds of bodies pressed against the windows.

I did my best to steel myself. I told myself, This is the universe testing you, seeing what you're made of. I thought, This is the best you've got, Universe? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I am laughing at you, Universe. Because you have a stupid look on your face right now, Universe. Well, you do.

But 10 minutes later, which equals approximately 100 years in subway time, when another train entered and left the station without stopping--this time without so much as even a tapping of brakes from the train operator--whatever steeling I'd done to myself, whatever bravado I'd been able to muster, was completely gone. Before I could do anything about it, I felt tears coming out of my eyes.

I could feel them running down my face. I couldn't believe it. I was standing on a subway platform in New York City and weeping like Ryan O'Neal does at the end of the classic 1970 movie, Love Story.

I was certain in this moment that nothing good would ever happen to me. I was sure--100-percent sure--that my life would be nothing but debt, and terrible jobs, and ruin, and a series of subway trains that wouldn't ever stop for me. What I didn't know that day is that I would eventually turn everything around.


I would, in time--and it wasn't easy--get myself out of that mire. Oh, there would be other mires, and I'd get out of them, as well. (Fact: The mires never end, really.) Earlier this week I realized that I have been doing what I currently do for 10 full years now. And I realized, to my complete surprise, that though I never wanted one, I somehow, someway wound up with a career anyway. I wound up doing something that I'm proud of, something that I love to do. I'm not sure how this happened. But it did.

I've done things, and seen things, and gone places that the crying man on the subway platform couldn't even imagine.

If only I could go back to that time, back to that platform, and talk to that guy. I'd slip an arm around him, and say, "Hey, buddy. It's all going to turn out OK. I know it doesn't feel like it right now, but it is. Trust me. It is."