It’s easy to feel reflective when you’re sitting on a train on your way to work, watching houses and streets whizz by. In California, there’s a sort of homogeneity along the major transportation ways, a blur of sand colored buildings and red Spanish tile roofs broken up by the occasional strip mall with their standard regiment of Pho restaurants, bike shops and $2.99 cleaners. Unless you’re stuck in traffic, listening to the prerequisite NPR story about gray fog settling in some valley or about the realities of string theory that’s almost expected of you when it comes up during lunchtime conversations, the truth of the matter is that the morning/night commute in the Bay Area can be rather…well, routine.
When I was an intern at Marvel, getting to work was a little different.
It started with the 10 minute walk to the subway station at Borough Hall in Brooklyn Heights, but to be more specific, it was a 10 minute walk to the often-closed and always-flooded Montague street entrance to the R train. Didn’t matter the time of year, there was always a puddle of dirty water you had to tiptoe around that meant either some pipe was leaking questionable water or the hobo that slept in the stairwell had an incredibly large bladder. In the summer, the humid sticky heat brought with it the pungent rotten fish smell from the Chinese restaurant on the corner of Henry and Montague while the winter highlight was the gale force wind so cold that it felt like needles on your skin, regardless of how many layers you wore.
Once underground, the heat from the subway tunnel rushed up through the stairwell, either a welcome respite from the cold or a urine-tinged slap in the face depending on the season. I made my way down the dark, dank and narrow staircases covered in graffiti where the homeless man slept, usually sans pants, and hoped that the rumbling I heard from the distant tunnel below wasn’t my train leaving the station.
A mad scramble down the rest of the stairs, a mad leap through the closing train doors and I found a seat among the rare empty ones that all shared the same scratched up yellow color that Burger Kings had in the mid 80s. The thing about the New York subway system is that you can tell which lines service the affluent and/or tourist infested areas of the city by the level of cleanliness and the cars’ general state of repair. Trains that service the Upper East and Upper West side? Super nice. Ironic given that residents of those areas rarely set foot in a subway. Trains coming out of Brooklyn and Queens generally require a tetanus shot after you ride them, so when I transferred to the 4 train at City Hall, a train that services Union Square, Grand Central and the Upper East Side, it was like traveling through time and social strata just by crossing a train platform.
Things would start to get a little crowded by 14th street. The boundaries of personal space (and my patience) were tested by loudmouth Yankee fans talking trash to each other, glaringly out of place in a subway car full of people, who were often in suits, on their way to their respective offices. The day of the Yankee Parade after they won the World Series – for the 26th time mind you – was the closest I have ever been to murdering a fellow human being by punching them in the neck.
By the time we reached Grand Central, I had been crammed into some guys armpit, nearly had coffee spilled on me by oblivious workaholics clicking away on their Blackberry’s and had at least one troubled drug addict tell me their life story before moving onto the next train to start their story over again with the next unsuspecting rube. Keep in mind, this is the good train. At Grand Central, the doors would open and a flood of people would rush out, bottle-necking at the staircase that led up to the main concourse. There is no place that is more of a sensory overload than Grand Central Station at rush hour – the wall of elbows all jockeying for position, the screeching from the train across the way as it pulls into the station, the unintelligible garbled radio voice of the conductor, the smell of astringent body odor and the general roar of shuffling feat and muddled voices lost amid the din of the train station will turn even the most gregarious of personalities into an agoraphobe.
But the view when I finally made it out from the rat race – damn. Stepping out into the coral colored corridors of the main concourse of Grand Central, with it’s soft gold lighting and reflective polished tile is an odd sensation. It may be different for someone who has grown up in NYC their entire life, but even after months of the same commute, I always felt like I was stepping into an embodiment of the the old notion of what New York was meant to be, from a time back when the city was flourishing with the spirits of Art Deco and the New Deal and the overwhelming sense of human potential manifested itself in the incorrigible attitudes of its people and the lofty, monolithic buildings they created to reach up and prod the gods with concrete reminders of their determination. The astrologically themed ceiling in the main terminal was testament to that perhaps overly poetic feeling, and there was hardly a day that I didn’t stand slack-jawed, if only for a moment, staring up at the ceiling like the dozens of dumbstruck tourists who I so often chastised for being in the goddamn way.
I grew up reading Marvel Comics. I can remember the first issue my dad brought home for me and as I would read it on the floor of the living room, I knew it was something special. These were fantastic characters set against the backdrop of the world’s greatest city and as I pushed open the heavy iron doors onto 5th Avenue, to the streams of yellow taxi cabs and the canyons of gray office buildings, I have to admit that on more than one occasion I imagined Spider-Man swinging from building to building or the Fantasticar jetting off to the next adventure. My conception of New York was largely defined by the Marvel Universe and though I never actually saw the web-slinger, that walk up 5th avenue toward Bryant Park from Grand Central did little to assuage the idea that I might actually catch a glimpse of red and blue.
Landmarks are a huge part of New York’s appeal and on my walk to work at Marvel (which has since moved offices), I saw the Chrysler Building with it’s mercurial silver curves and Bryant Park with the New York Public Library (of Ghostbusters fame) from across the street. These weren’t just buildings, these were monuments to a better time in our history. After turning left down 5th, passing some stern looking business women, the occasional crazy person and a weird, out of place liquid nitrogen tank that had pipes going down into a manhole, eventually the quintessential New York landmark came into view: The Empire State Building. Every morning, the rising sun hit the windows of the eastern facing side of the building and man, if it didn’t just glow.
By the time I made it to the office to work on comic books filled with the world’s most polychromatic collection of characters, it was no mystery where Stan Lee and all the other writers and artists from the last 70 years of Marvel found their inspiration. The City was – and is – such an incredible living organism that from the grimiest, lowest part of the subway to the lofty, heaven scratching point at the top of the Empire State Building there is literally nothing else like it in the world…not even the red tile roofs and beige strip malls of California.