Riding the Rails

A couple of weeks ago, a friend (who lives in New York) and I were hanging out with another friend from out of town. We were all going to a birthday party together and were driving around looking for parking. We circled, stalked, pointed, cursed, read signs, and circled some more, until we finally parked. This is the dance that all New Yorkers are familiar with.

My local friend was commenting on how it was unique to New Yorkers to have entire conversations about parking. Not only that, I said, but when New Yorkers meet up for dinner or whatever, the first question—or one of the first—to come up is, “Where did you park?” It is of great interest to drivers where their friends/colleagues park. If someone gets lucky and finds a spot on the same block as their venue, or maybe even (gasp!) right in front, that elicits a dual response, a combination of gladness that the other person didn’t have to walk far to park and a deep-seated envy. Maybe even frustration knowing that they must just missed that spot out in front, that someone must have pulled out right after they drove past.

I’m sure that parking is a huge topic in many big cities—Chicago, London, Rome, Paris—but I honestly don’t know if it’s a topic of conversation. (Is it?) Not many establishments have parking lots in New York. Restaurants and stores throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx are parking lot-less. (Staten Island is different—it’s much more sprawling and suburban and has the space for parking lots.) I’m not saying there aren’t any parking lots in New York City, but the percentage of establishments with lots is small.

This is why most New Yorkers take public transportation. And the beauty of that is once you’ve ridden the New York subway system long enough, you will have a plethora of stories to share and characters to write about.I have seen so many stories play out and many colorful characters on the subway. Guardian Angels (the famed vigilantes of the 1980s) standing guard late at night. The guy so fried on drugs that he started wailing on a complete stranger. The performance artist dressed like an eight-foot tree, his branches scraping the ceiling of the train car. The mariachi trio playing Mexican folk songs. The young lesbian couple sleeping it off on a Saturday morning, probably on the way back home from a wild party. The busker who always sang “Roxanne” in a voice that told he’d lived a rough life. The woman who randomly burdened people with “ten thousand Chinese curses.” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.This happens to be a true fact of any public place. I know as writers, we very often burrow in nests to put our brilliant thoughts to paper, but we need to get out as well. If you have a train system near you, ride it once in a while. Or, better yet, ride the bus. I can tell you that some really funky people ride the bus, and they do funky shit. Take my word for it.If public transportation is not an option (or you have a severe aversion to it), go to the park and do some people watching. Or a museum, or any place where lots of people gather. I guarantee you will pick up a story or two, or encounter a colorful character that you can use.Remember—a writer uses all her experiences in life. And if you ride the New York City subway, you’ll definitely have some experiences. I invite you.



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