The Brighton Beach train station stands above a maze of old brick apartment buildings and a gray polluted ocean. My grandfather and I would walk through the maze every morning from fifth to seventh grade, past windows that opened to kitchens with steaming tea kettles, and past vendor women in scarves setting up their pierogi and fruit stands. We would climb the stairs towards the B train and sit in our usual place. My grandfather would tell me Russian anecdotes, while we cracked sunflower seeds and listened to Chopin on his portable CD player. The two of us laughed like lunatics at six in the morning. He started getting tired though, sleeping through his stop and ending up in the Bronx. He started showing up with different shoes on each foot, slippers sometimes too, and soon the seat beside me grew cold. From then on, I kept myself company with the people I met on the train.
An actress sat next to me once, distraught by the disinterest of her audiences. Her brother sat next to her trying to calm her down. I could not help but think of my own audiences, who slouched in their seats while I played the piano, as if my music was just another nuisance in their appointment books. As we headed towards the Manhattan Bridge, Zooey, the brother, told her that we weren’t doing this for anyone but ourselves and we were fools if we didn’t do something with the artistry we possessed. If we performed for our own fulfillment we would be bound to affect someone else. Zooey, with his common sense and snarky remarks, reminded me of my grandfather. They taught me how to be an artist.
Later a disheveled journalist squished beside me with a typewriter bigger than she was. She wrote about water; not about the ocean or sailing, but about pipes and dams and her desire to control them. Water was fundamental to Joan Didion’s Californian existence, much as the subway was to my own. Didion came to realize that controlling the water was as futile as trying to prevent the deaths of her husband and daughter. I control the trains as much as I control my drunken biological father’s abandonment or my mother and grandfather’s cancers. Didion taught me that our words are the only things we can ever control. With her essays on water and mortality she made me want to be a writer.
I sat next to a Colombian man with a bushy moustache. He told me about a family with many repeating names, and like my grandfather’s stories, his were woven with humor, and wisdom. But instead of jungles and gypsies, my grandfather sold forbidden chocolates in the USSR. Just as my grandfather’s stories eventually came to a close, so did Garcia Marquez’s.
I close my book and walk through the train doors out into streets of the city. I do not smell the ocean or pierogies, but coffee carts and the businessmen’s cologne. I walk with opera singers past the chandeliers and red velvet stairs of the Metropolitan Opera to the new Steinway that waits for me at my school.
At the end of my day, I walk back to the 59th Street station, and think about the 3,780 hours I’ve spent on the B train. I think about how much I love the city, its opportunities and spontaneity, and how much I love Brighton and all it has given me that New York cannot. I think about the steel current below me that strings together these different worlds and how it has allowed me to form my own story that may keep another commuter company some day. I stand smiling like Franny, eating a peach from a fruit vendor like Joan, and feel the subway air blow from the train that will take me back to my little Odessa by the Sea.