Life, Life, LIFE!
Whether the words, spaces, and punctuation marks appear in The Iliad or Don Quixote, a fluffy sportswear catalogue or a dense computer manual, the goal of all writing is to get some tiny bit of the gargantuan energy we call life onto the page so that other humans can read it and say, "Yes, that writing describes the life I know."
For instance: as I write this, it's 11:30 in the morning of July 23, 2015. I'm riding on the #1 line of New York's subway system on my way to the 242nd Street station in the Bronx, one day in a summer of trips to play folk music at a summer camp. The train has just come out of a tunnel a few blocks south of 125th street into a gorgeous summer morning, the sunlight golden, the air dry and crystal clear. The car is less than half full of passengers, but one man for his own private reasons stands by a door.
After a stop or two, we head back into the light-dotted darkness of a tunnel. As we approach the 157th Street station, the train slows down a bit and the driver gives a few warning blasts of its horn, why I don't know. We roll into the station, and a man's voice with an Irish brogue announces something that the speaker's hiss and crackle makes unintelligible. After a brief stop, we roll again at reduced speed.
Now there are only nine people in the car; many of the orange seats are empty. Two young Asian men sit a few seats to my left chatting quietly. Just past the train's middle door, an African-American woman in a maroon dress sits with her eyes closed. I wonder if she is asleep, but her upright posture tells me no. At the next stop an older white man gets on and sits down opposite me. A fresh bandaid is stuck on the inside of his elbow — has he just come from having his blood drawn? He's wearing glasses and a gold wristwatch, a blue t-shirt, black shorts, and brown loafers; his mustache is well trimmed; carefully combed wisps of hair try but fail to cover his gleaming pate. He is reading a piece of paper that looks like a medical report. He looks serious.
The train is now crawling; oops, suddenly it's rocketing. The African-American woman gets off. Four people are now grouped at that end of the car: a heavy-set Hispanic housewife with a wheeled basket, a young red-haired woman checking her make-up, a young fellow in a blue button-down shirt and jeans, and a tough-looking guy with tattoos up and down both arms who fiddles intently with his mobile phone.
At Dyckman Street we again emerge from the tunnel. A man with a black beard, white t-shirt, brown shorts, and gray sneakers gets on at 207th Street, sits down and mops his bald head with a blue towel. We rattle across the bridge over Spuyten Duyvil, crawl the last few stops, then halt for good at 242nd Street. I get off, descend the metal stairs to the street and start my trek up the hill to the camp where, with a little band of old pals, I'll play a concert of folk songs for the campers.
This description of my morning subway ride has, I believe, a down-to-earth accuracy. I took notes as I rode, and in turning those notes into prose, I've purposely used ordinary words and sentence constructions so that you, from your own experience of similar trips, may easily see and hear what I saw and heard.
Yet I know picture of daily life is woefully incomplete. I've sketched a few dress and physical details of several passengers and noted the train's orange seats, but I didn't describe anybody's shoes or point out that some of those orange seats were light orange, some dark orange. I put in the toot of the train's horn, but where are the clickety-clacks and rumbles of its steel wheels? Where is the banner of ads unfurled along the length of the car just above eye level? Where are the "Do Not Lean Against the Door" signs, the shiny poles for standing passengers to hold on to? Since it was a sunny day and we were rolling north, when we were above ground the sun came streaming in the east-side windows, making bright rectangles of light on the car's black floor. I didn't paint those, nor did I describe how, when we passed tall buildings standing beside the track, those bright rectangles were momentarily eclipsed.
I'm also dissatisfied because the details I do give obscure a notable aspect of my summer commute to the Bronx: its recurrent rhythms. Far more permanent in my memory than the old man with the bandaid on his arm or the tattooed man playing with his mobile phone is that for six weeks I made this trip five days a week. Each of those thirty trips was unique in every detail, but even as they happened they began to blend in my mind as a wash of events more noteworthy for their sameness than their uniqueness. Often as I passed familiar landmarks—the 96th Street station where I switched from the express to the local, the Spuyten Duyvil bridge—I'd think, "Wow, I was here yesterday and the day before yesterday, and today everything is different but everything is the same!" That day as we played our concert, I fluffed one chord on "This Land is Your Land" that I'd strummed perfectly the day before, but on both days the song rolled on, the campers sang along, and Woody Guthrie's stalwart vision came alive one more once: "This land was made for you and me!"
Where in my sketch, moreover, are the thoughts and emotions of the passengers and me? I know that I was anxious to get to the camp on time, so every time the train slowed down I'd think, "C'mon, c'mon, I don't have all day you know." What was the old man with the bandaid thinking and feeling? Had his blood test revealed a life-changing illness? Was the African-American woman asleep, and if so what was she dreaming? What had made the bald man so sweaty that his head needed drying? Life had brought me and everyone in the car to this particular, unique moment; we all had hopes and plans for what we'd do next, but none of us knew for sure what the future might bring.
And life continued in the world outside our one subway car. When we rode on the elevated sections of the subway line, the bustling life of Bronx below us was nakedly on display: store clerks carrying out "20% OFF!" signs to attract the passers-by walking and stopping and turning on the sidewalks; cars and trucks waiting at red lights then honking the moment the lights turned green. Looking west I could get occasional glimpses of the Palisades across the Hudson River in New Jersey; looking east I could see cars stopping and going on the New York Thruway; the buildings of Lehman College made elegant profiles against the cloud-flecked sky.
In my imagination I could see still further. Iron ore dug from Minnesota's Mesabi Range had become the steel wheels on which my fellow passengers and I rolled; gasoline refined from oil drilled in wells deep below the Texas prairie and Arabian sands powered the cars on the city streets and thruway; the foods that powered the people on those streets and in those cars came from California, Florida, and Brazil, and people in China, India, and midtown Manhattan had sewn the clothes they wore. And above us all the sun and moon and stars and planets and galaxies and nebulae spun on courses appointed for them a billion eons ago...
...and all that, and so so so much more is still only a teeny tiny corner of life. Our goal as writers is to get as much of life into our words, spaces, and punctuation marks as we possibly can. What are we waiting for? Let's get to it!