As of last year, I have lost my status as a permanent resident of New York City. I have in many ways become a stranger to the concrete jungle that taught me that the world contained more than my five-person family and two-bedroom apartment located in the scenic neighborhood of Parkchester, centered in the middle of the Bronx, a borough known for little more than its poverty and baseball team.
I moved to a new home, a dorm room located in the orange bubble known to outsiders as Princeton, an idyllic suburban town famous for the fact that nothing ever happens. Moving to this bubble has dulled my senses. It made me forget the realities of race, poverty and the city—something I didn’t notice until my trip home for Fall Break.
When the train pulls into the E. 86th street station of Manhattan, I am reminded that I am a black woman in New York City.
When the white, upper-middle class professionals in their business casual attire, Kindles and white iPhone headphones shuffle off the train and onto the platform, I am reminded that I am from Parkchester, not Manhattan.
When the doors close and all that’s left in my train car is a colorful mix of olive, tan and black skin tones I am reminded of a stern, but unspoken divide.
I wasn’t allowed to take the train by myself until I was thirteen years old. My mother, a longtime hypochondriac and helicopter parent, held on to the theory that if I stepped on the subway without adult supervision that I would end up dead. However, there came a time when my parents no longer had the time to escort me to all of my adolescent shenanigans which included but was not limited to Pinkberry froyo escapades, bar and bat mitzvahs and loitering around Central Park.
Over the years, I grew used to, and increasingly aware of, my difference on the train. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I began to notice “the color line.” This term, made famous by W. E. B. Du Bois’s seminal work Souls of Black Folks, describes the overt and subtle segregation that existed in America since the abolition of slavery. I quickly found out that the subway reflected the subtle racial segregation that still plagues America.
Parkchester is a safe, mostly elderly community, filled with vibrant, white-collar minority families. However, the discovery of this “color line” made me aware that it loses its identity and becomes merely part of a statistic because of its location in one of the poorest counties in America.
It made me realize that I lived in a world where kids from above and below the 110th Street line could learn together, play on the same sports team, attend the same parties but at the end of the day would never really be a part of the same world because we got off at different train stops.
Just as the doors are about to close at the 86th Street station, a homeless mans steps on. He is a tall, white male wearing a dirty navy coat and stained blue jeans. He wraps his hand around a pole near me and I can see his dirty, discolored fingernails and dry skin. His eyes search the car as he steadies himself and I find myself moving back toward the door, even though there is nowhere to go.
As he moves his other arm, I catch the stench of dirty garbage mixed with potent body odor. I desperately want to move but am too afraid to make any sudden movements. In the midst of sorting through my jumbled thoughts, I fail to notice that he has begun to speak.
“Ladies and gentleman, I am sorry to bother you,” he begins. This is how they all begin. Apologizing for their existence.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he repeats. “I am a veteran and upon returning home from a tour in Iraq, I found that my government could not and would not help me. I am not on drugs and I have been trying for over a year now to find proper work, but it’s hard out here,” he continues.
We make brief eye contact and in that moment I empathize with this man. I feel as though I can imagine the hardships he has been through. A sense of obligation washes over me. In my mind, he has done no wrong and has instead been wronged. As I begin to reach for my wallet, the train lurches to a stop and the doors open. The man moves to the next car, having reaped no rewards from this car.
Two women sitting on the bench across from me shake their heads in disgust. One of them, whose black hair is pulled tight against her olive skin and lips are coated in a deep purple pink lipstick mumbles something about the man’s probable drug use and the city’s “the homeless problem.”
At 125th Street, most of the passengers have gotten off the train—choosing to transfer to the express train across the platform. I jump at the next open seat. Dropping my bags, I stretch my shoulders and neck before leaning back. Against my better judgment, I close my eyes for what was meant to be a second but turned into 20 minutes.
When I open my eyes, I see that the train has finally entered the Bronx. I look around trying to reorient myself when I spot him looking at me from the corner of my eye.
Tall African-American male, around 6’5” wearing dark jeans, brown Timberland boots and a gray hoodie with a black beanie.
My mind begins to race as the paranoia sets in. I start counting the ratio of men to women on the car and take note of everyone around me. Next to me, a mother coddles her crying son who insists that he can’t sit in his stroller. To my right, an old man has fallen asleep in the corner. All the other passengers are clustered on the other side and suddenly the car feels longer and emptier.
A fear sets in as I begin imagining scenarios in which I die at the hands of the stranger across from me. I look up at him, pretending to examine the ad for Dr. Zizmor’s dermatology service. After a few seconds I quickly look away. Trying to distract myself, I shuffle through the contents of my tote, check the electronic “map” to see how many stops we have until Parkchester, and resume intense analysis of the advertisements.
At Whitlock Avenue, halfway home, the train emerges from the darkness of the underground. People have suddenly perked up realizing that they can now reconnect to the world. Cellphones begin to ring and fingers begin to frantically type.
I quickly glance at the man in front of me. A sudden tightness occurs in my chest and my face begins to heat up as I see him reach in his rear pocket.
This is it. I’m going to die. I am going to die on the 6 train. I have wasted my life in school.
The train pulls into the Morrison-Soundview station. Two stops from home and I realize that he was merely struggling to find his cellphone in his back pocket. Relief washes over me and I take in a deep breath and look around awkwardly as though the whole world was privy to my shameful thoughts.
We are now at Parkchester. The conductor makes some muffled announcement about the possible bus and train transfers; passengers impatiently huddle at the doors—waiting for the doors to release them. As soon as the door opens, a flood of people rushes out and I start speed walking, but basically running home.
The streets are now an unfamiliar territory.
The cool air slaps me in the face as I rush past Zaros, the bakery where I used to buy bagels by the dozens. The park loiterers appear more intense. Their dark coats and faded jeans are less a sign of their everyday struggle and more a sign of their poverty. The gazes of the men standing in front of the Ellie’s Diner scare me more than they should. I realize that as I walk by their eyes travel south.
Coming home, I realized that at Princeton these people did not have names, identities, families or lives. They were merely theories to be discussed by fifteen to twenty students around an oak seminar table in a Gothic building, monitored by a white, graying professor.
In my new world, words like urban youth, poverty, and welfare get thrown around. Economic viability and the cost-benefit analysis are applied to people without regard to their stories. The circumstances of the “urban, black male, age seventeen, growing up in the projects” are debated without really being known.
I became a representation. I could boast about my experiences in these “urban” areas while still living amongst the comforts of my dorm room in a small idyllic town. I could discuss urban poverty and not live it. I could talk about the racial tension and not feel it. In the new world the reality of economic discomfort and hardships could be remote because I only needed my plastic orange and black identity card to pay for things.
While Princeton is located in America, it does not represent the American norm. I had let this campus shelter me to the point where I forgot the existence of a rapidly changing world.
I was surprised and disappointed with how much I let Princeton change me. I came to campus with a sense of urgency—wanting to take the knowledge I captured here back to the community. However, I became so wrapped up in my new life that trying to understand and theorize the problems of these very communities made me afraid of the people and their experiences.
Upon returning, I recognized that I had let myself become intellectually engaged but emotionally removed from the stories and experiences of the people from the city that raised me.