I wrote this when I was feeling particularly optimistic and I think it came at a time when I needed optimism in my life. The message is somewhat cheesy and overtly happy but that’s what propelled me to write it; it’s a solid change of pace from the sad undertones I usually dwell on. I hope it brings you the same uplifting thoughts it brings me.
Anyone who’s ever been to New York City knows that it’s the home of the world’s most eclectic, interesting, and driven people. It’s the home of those who have ideas, who have goals, and those who have nowhere else to go. One of the most beautiful things about the city is watching these people. These nomads, these workers, these dreamers – they’re bustling on the pavement, celebrating on rooftops, and wandering the undergrounds. The latter group is perhaps the most interesting. At the end of the day, you’ll find that there are some who are quietly coming home from work, some rushing to meet up with friends, and some who are trying to talk to anyone who will listen. The common ground here is that they are all milling about in the same creaky metal train cars, just looking for a way to go from point A to point B.
I don’t usually remember the people I see on the subway. I’m one of the quiet ones. I mind my own business and go where I need to go. I usually ignore the beggars and the singers – though I’ll donate praise if I’m particularly impressed, a feat that so rarely happens in such poor acoustic underground dwellings. I do remember one particular woman I heard talking to another stranger once. She was no one special and frankly, I’m not sure I could even give you an accurate representation of what she looked like but she imparted wisdom, never intended for my ears, that has resonated with me since that moment on that rickety train.
It was early evening and I had just gotten off from work. I swiped my used and abused MetroCard and entered the subway at Grand Central, headphones in my ears and intent on catching the 7. The heat of the underground in the summer was all too encompassing and instantly I felt the back of my shirt sticking to my skin, the hair on my scalp suddenly too thick. Right as I felt myself on the verge of breaking into a vicious sweat, the lights appear at the far end of the tunnel and before the first bead fell, I was stepping into the frigid air of a mostly empty subway car. I took a seat and the plastic felt cold against my thighs, sending a shiver up my spine – a feeling I was uncomfortably relishing at the moment. With my headphones embedded in my ears, most sounds around me were drowned out by the melodies on my “Recently Added” playlist – all sounds except for the voice of the woman seated diagonally across from me. Portly and animated, the woman appeared to be in her late forties, early fifties. Looking at her made me roll my eyes, making my first thought become, “do you need to be so goddamn loud?” Annoyed albeit curious, I swiped the pause button on my iPod and listened.
She was gesturing and going on this long tangent that made no clear sense to me, seeing as I entered the interaction mid-discussion, but the gentleman next to her seemed entranced. He sat solemn and nodding, but not in the way that you nod when you want someone to shut up – he was genuinely interested. I sat watching them for a bit, for no reason other than having nothing else to do until my stop was reached. She had no particular interest to me until there was a lull in the general train conversation around us and she said, in her booming voice:
“Nobody can give you total freedom except yourself.”
It seems like a totally trite statement and something you’d almost expect from somebody who doesn’t seem to have all their marbles but I think that’s why it stuck out to me. There are thousands of things we get told by other people, things we hear that make us outwardly groan, and things that we deem “all too cliché” but what makes these phrases, these nuggets of invaluable advice so integral to our mental health is that we need to hear them. You can read a quote said by some dead famous person a million times and it won’t have a single impact but if that same quote is appropriated by a human being and said to you, just when you need to hear it…well, that’s a world of difference.
This ridiculously loud woman went on talking to that solemn gentleman, unknowingly not the only player in her audience, and said:
“I’m like a bird. No husband, no kids, no pets.”
Initially, I pitied her. Here was a woman, past the point of being of prime fertility, who’s trying to tell herself she’s happy when she’s obviously miserable. But then I sat there and thought of how similar that woman and I are. I’m not miserable and yet I have no husband, no kids, and no pets (or rather, pets that I alone have to take care of). What I never realized until that moment was that I’m like a bird too. I am totally and completely free and I am in direct control of that. How obvious.
I got off the train that day and made my way to Penn Station, ready to make the longer ride home to Long Island but something in me had changed. It wasn’t something noticeable and it wasn’t even something new. This grain of knowledge, from a woman I never even met, was once just a few familiar words tied together and now it has woven itself into the synapses of my mind as a dictum. Palpable and strong, it reminds me that I am as free as I want to be and that everyday is mine. It’s an idea that is so neat, clean, and wholesome that I almost feel like it should be wrapped with a red bow and given to a child. But maybe that’s why I like it so much because maybe it shouldn’t be given to a child, but rather an adult or a twenty-something New Yorker who has lost their way. From the depths and dark of the subway tunnels, who knew that one of those wanderers of the underground could shed so much light?