OPINION: Subway America
I see America every day when I board the subway train in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and take the hour-plus ride up to 145th Street in Harlem to teach classes at City College of New York, the most culturally diverse campus in the world. But I see that diversity long before I reach the campus.
In my America, the Christian brushes up against the Muslim; the Buddhist rubs shoulders with the Jew; the Hindu half-steps with the atheist; and the catch-all nutcase is always near.
In my America, leftover ’60s hippie mixes with young, gay fabulosity; questioning Columbia scholar with closeted Republican; radical rapper with purse-clutching secretary.
In my America, we are wearing headsets, yarmulkes, baseball caps, hijabs, hoodies, and berets, over hair that is dreadlocked, pony-tailed, hidden, colored and coiffed, or shaved bald.
As the crowd reaches its peak heading toward Herald Square, grasping the center pole are the brown hand of the retail store clerk, the white hand of the corporate lawyer, the yellow hand of the garment worker, the black hand of the hospital intern, the gloved hand of the construction worker.
Here on the subway train are the tattooed, the tattered, the tired, the tourist. It would not be unusual to see a Broadway star or even our mayor among us. Even the ripe-smelling homeless man, who comes from the next train, shaking his tin can and shouting out his pitch while standing riders push and jostle to give him a wide path, is also part of my America, not hidden away like an inconvenient political issue.
Each has a destination: to teach, to sell, to negotiate, to visit, to heal, to build, to hustle, to study. Along the way, some laugh, some listen, some complain, some curse, some sing, some dance, some read, some talk, some endure silently.
Native and tourist alike, newly arrived or multi-generational, we speak English, Mandarin, Tagalog, French, German, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Arabic, all dialects of Spanish, and Brooklynese. And that is just a sampling.
Most of the time, we get along just fine.
While presidential candidates recently scrambled across a handful of states, attending county fairs in Iowa and steel mills in Ohio and retirement centers in Florida and college auditoriums in Virginia, in search of the magic formula that added up to electoral victory, they were missing out on my America — the truest America, the future of America. But perhaps the voters saw it.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 81 percent of our country is now urban, an increase of 12.1 percent from 2000-2010, outpacing the overall population growth of 9.7 percent. The Population Resource Center projects that by 2030, we will be 83 percent urban and the growth in rural population will have come to a standstill. Thirty-six percent of New York City is foreign-born, a true melting pot of languages and cultures and still a first destination of those coming to America’s shores—the dream is alive and well in our city.
Oh, I remember my roots. As a small-town New Englander, we learned a handyman trade so we could fix things ourselves, or make a side income helping others. We watched veterans who looked like our fathers and grandfathers march in Memorial Day parades. We went to church on Sundays with folks who looked a lot like us. The other was always in that other America, not among us. Or so we thought.
Many fight to hold onto that America. There are some values worth holding onto, for sure. But we are no longer that America, and we can never go back. We are ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-striving to be the best we can be. And we are in glorious, high-definition Technicolor. It’s time to embrace it. It’s time to embrace each other, rejoicing in our differences and affirming our similar dreams.
Kevin Scott Hall, a Bay Ridge resident, teaches creative writing at City College. He also writes entertainment features for Edge Media and reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is the author of a novel, “Off the Charts!” that was published in 2010.