The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is a colorful, veined spider extending its legs across 3,249 square miles. It carries a daily population of 1.3 million citizens, mainly commuters from the suburbs, and tourists visiting the city. This writhing hub is broken up into six different systems: the screeching, grubby subway, swerving buses heaving exhaust fumes, the commuter rail carrying nine-to-fivers, chugging back and forth from Providence to Boston, and the lesser-known The Ride and MBTA Boat. The MBTA is the fifth largest transportation system in the country, and it’s easy to see it as nothing more than a machine. And it is, in a way – a metal heart beating in the center of New England where the weather changes more than most people change underwear, an entanglement of railways, cable lines, and the famous dizzying Massachusetts rotaries – something that exists only for the purpose of carrying those 1.3 million people to their jobs and back again. It seems so impersonal, so cold and mechanical.
The subway is most prominent in Boston, Massachusetts, which many a city child learns to navigate with ease by the age of twelve. The famous “T,” a great beast threading under the streets of Boston, especially appears to be an ecosystem where everyone exists in their own private bubble. Nearly every passenger has ear phones blocking their ears, their eyes glued to a glowing screen, chattering into their phone, or is staring blankly off into space.
But I believe there’s a reason why the subway is the most common location for Massachusetts’ “Missed Connections” on Craigslist.
Intimacy is often craved, but not easily found.
I’ve read that everyone in our dreams are people we have seen before. I have dreamed of conversations in sign language with a brown-eyed child on the subway, sitting in her father’s lap. I love you, she tells him. The colorful plastic beads hanging from her braids patter together when she moves her head. The lights in the car flicker green and white and go out – she cries out, her voice unheard. I wake up. Out of 1.3 million people, I remember her. How alone can it really be if I remember who she is, even in my sleep?
Skin is a language that is not spoken, but felt. My hand brushes against someone else’s as they clutch the pole. They slide their grip upwards to make way for mine, and I wrap my fingers around the still-damp aluminum. The contact both repulses and fascinates me. I want to draw my hand back quickly, knowing that our sweat and germs are mingling on my palm, but wishing to know what their fingerprints would look like overlapping mine.
Sometimes I feel the residual heat in a seat from someone else’s body like a phantom, a tangible reminder that we both existed in the same space.
An elderly gentleman with a mahogany walking stick and blue cataracts glistening in his eyes, a pregnant woman juggling groceries, her shirt stretched tight across her swollen belly, a young college student with dark sunglasses and a white cane, gingerly stepping up into the train. I touch each of them carefully on the shoulder, ask if they would like to sit, and see gratitude, surprise, and relief cross their faces.
I tell a girl I love her shiny red rain boots, nod my head along to the music pumping from someone’s headphones, and smile at a baby in a stroller. I knock my water bottle against a child’s sippy cup, and he shrieks in glee. We toast again and again, to me, to him, to the miles we still have to go.
People crush into the car, even though the bored, frustrated operator insists that “there’s a train directly behind us, folks.” Many bodies are touching my body, holding up my own tired limbs, but I find this rush hour closeness comforting; these people are going home to families, lovers, or perhaps canned soup, and a pet goldfish. Their lives are touching my life for these brief stops, our bodies swaying together like marionettes.
A 74-year-old homeless Veteran named Jake sits outside Copley station and sings songs by James Taylor, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. I offer to buy him food, but he tells me someone already did, calls me darling, and says I am blessed by God. I buy him a Beatles CD from the discount section at Newbury Comics and wrap it in a glittery blue bag. I hand it to him, nose shyly buried in my scarf, unsure of how he will receive this gift. He beams, and proudly tells his companion, “Look what this young lady bought for me!”
Jake is one of the 19,000 homeless people in Massachusetts who takes refuge in the shelter of train stations and in the kindness of others. Even on the coldest winter days, Jake’s singing echoes off the concrete.
I'm surreptitiously watching a middle-aged couple on the train, a few feet down the car from me. The man is balding and has bright blue eyes, framed by deep smile lines at the corners. They go almost all the way up to his temples. His wife is blonde and tan and her eyes are warm and clear. She is dressed very tastefully. She is clasping his hand and they frequently meet each other's eyes and smile, as if, even forty-odd years later, the honeymoon never really ended. These are the type of people who look like they're smiling even when they're not.
The man bends his head to talk to his tall teenage grandson. The boy is wearing a Red Sox cap slightly askew on his carefully mussed hair, his t-shirt a bit too big for his slim body. He doesn't seem to mind though, ginning easily back at his grandparents. His grandfather smiles down at someone out of my line of vision. The teenage boy moves and I see a mini version of him wobbling behind him. The teenager says something to his little brother and I can read lips well enough to know that he's telling him what stop they're getting off. He adjusts his cap with a deft flick of his fingers. The smaller boy looks up at his brother with thinly-veiled admiration.
I find I like this family.
As they exit the train, the grandparents' fingers are still twined, the younger brother is stumbling on his untied shoelaces in eagerness to keep up with his big brother, and the teenager is thumbing the keypad of his phone.
I almost wave goodbye.