“You shouldn’t be reading things like that. You ought to throw that book away,” came the final words of the woman on the train station platform as I slunk, tail between my legs, between the closing doors.
Having lived in the Empire State for more than a year now, I have become used to idle small talk.
But this was not enough to prepare me for the woman on the train station platform.
I was on Long Island, two lengthy train rides away from my home in Brooklyn, attempting to get inside the locked door of a government building. When you are foreign and constantly filling out forms to avoid being kicked out, you may not know about office-closing holidays such as Labor Day.
Soon after arriving, I was back on the platform, reading a book, ready to return home.
“What you reading there?” came a sing-song voice from behind me.
Looking side to side and seeing nothing but an empty platform, I deduced that she must be talking to me. In my hand was a beaten old copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
I thought of all possible reactions this woman could have, everything the biased British documentaries and skewed opinions on sitcoms had taught me about the United States. Every debate I’ve ever seen between Professor Dawkins and an American minister. Oh dear, I thought.
“Oh, just a book,” I replied. An answer that, though brief, was undoubtedly true.
Before I knew it, she had risen from her seat and taken it from my hand. Perhaps, I thought, I’ve come across the most polite and literary mugger known to man. Her eyebrow raised. “What is this?” she said, her side-eye gaze letting me know the subtext.
“Well, uh, it’s a book,” I added again, reminding myself I suppose, “explaining why there probably isn’t… a god.”
“So you don’t believe?” she blinked.
“Well, no…” I said, and she took a deep breath.
I’d already been denied access to the social security office, and now I was being told that the devil has a hold of me. And I should stop reading evil books and living in sin.
The train pulled up, to my great relief, and we went our separate ways, with her advice on slinging the book into the nearest trash receptacle and the state of my soul contextualizing me nicely for the passengers watching me board.
Sitting down, I tried to wonder how to make sense of what had just happened. I felt suddenly at odds with the city and its people. All the jarring experiences that New York had thrown at me came to my mind all at once. Being scammed out of an apartment by a fake real-estate agent (on my first day); living for four months in a cricket-infested boiler room basement; being trapped by a snowstorm that, after twenty-two years in the cloudy and mild UK, made me think the world was truly ending; waking up to find a week’s worth of groceries being eaten by Brooklyn maggots; being lost countless times after being told the taxi driver couldn’t understand my directions, and wandering the dark streets of Brooklyn for sometimes hours on end. This was now topped off with someone consigning me to an eternity in hell.
Man, I thought, this place going to kill me. Perhaps the Big Apple is not the place of bright lights, muses and inspiration that the movies led me to believe. Maybe a writer coming here is a writer intent on avoiding beauty and encouragement, condemning themselves to mental obstacles for the sake of being close to reputable publishers.
But then, if that’s what I thought, why was I having such a giddy thrill in remembering the woman at the train station platform? Why did her words ring within me like a beautiful Shakespearean monologue? Why were all these misfortunes tinged with a feeling of gratitude? Is this what it takes to realize my masochism, I wondered.
There are many reasons people come to live in New York City, I have found. Maybe it’s for business. Perhaps it’s for the culture. It can entice lovers of history, skylines, famous faces. Someone must even enjoy the merry chorus of people screaming for taxis and at tourists in accents that I still associate more with cartoons than with real people.
I came for the inspiration. There is no better way to be inspired than to take a walk around New York and allow it to happen to you.
And it does happen to you.
What I had gone through were not moments of bad luck, they were gifts. It wasn’t the problems that I was enjoying, but the fact that my inner writer was being force-fed new and interesting situations. The beauty of being a writer is that even if you go through a harrowing series of events, pain, anguish and torture, there is always a silver lining. We can use it. It is subject matter, life experience. It is inspiration.
It took this forthright woman to make me see what a great privilege it is to call oneself a writer. Everything that doesn’t kill me is at least good for something, and I see the real value that comes from New York City. Yes, it can be grotty, and yes, it’s frightening, but there is beauty, there is inspiration in here, as long as you have your writer’s mind open. The woman at the platform may have made me scurry away at the time, but I now have her wonderful quotes and characterization, the knowledge of my own emotion in that situation, to draw upon.
Opening myself up to what I have come to call the writer’s relief has allowed me to notice it all. Including genuine moments of beauty.
I was in Washington Square Park waiting for a friend. Sitting on the fountain, I saw the usual squirrel-dodging acrobats, rag-tag jazz bands, tarot card readers pleading silently with passers-by, tourists photographing anything that dared move. An average day in New York.
Then I noticed the girl sitting next to me. She had lined up five pennies on the stone rim by her side. One by one she tossed them into the water, taking a moment of breath and thought between each. I watched her make her way through the line, throwing each one as if it were a separate idea, deserving of its own moment.
One day you can be doomed to hellfire, and the next you can witness a perfect, personal moment of quiet.
We all have ways of dealing with life, and for dealing with the big city too. We need ways to curb the blows of reality. And it seems that being able to call these experiences inspiration, recycling them into our own stories and our own versions of artistic beauty, is the perfect way to do that.
It made me thank my lucky stars I can call myself a writer. Otherwise, I may as well ride that train right back to the airport.
Josh King is a second-year MFA student at Adelphi University in New York, and moved from the UK in 2014. He is curator of the blog As & When for the literary website Village of Crickets, and divides his time between writing fiction and sampling the New York literary scene.[medium_cross_link url="https://medium.com/@joshuajosephking/strangers-stations-and-surprises-how-i-learned-to-be-inspired-by-new-york-32d66add69b3"]