The New York City subway. What comes to mind?
Noise, rush hour, confusion, crowds, weird smells, street artists, perhaps even crime and violence. Even if you haven’t stepped into a subway train in NYC before, you probably can describe it to a stranger based on depictions in famous films and TV – Saturday Night Fever, Broad City, Ghost. Not every depiction portrays the subway in a flattering light; oftentimes, if someone in a movie heads underground, it means something unpleasant is about to occur. But New York and New Yorkers are nothing without the subway system. And as much as we complain about the smells, the delays, and the trackwork, this is the bloodline of our city, no matter how rich or poor you are.
More times than not I choose to ride the subway without any distractions. I choose not to put on headphones or read a book. I choose to unglue myself from my cell phone. The subway is in the top three people-watching spots for me in the world (after airports and outdoor cafes). I enjoy building a story for each person, based on how they behave, who they are with, and of course, what they are wearing. I know, I know… we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But is it judgment or mere observation? I strive to do the latter.
Let’s take the first ride with this couple. Ironically what caught my eye about them was the subdued color coordination of their pastel outfits. It’s rare to see this lime-olive green on a man, so it was particularly refreshing to see it styled so effortlessly with well-fitted beige slacks and brown suede loafers. I like to think that his girlfriend decided to opt-in for these warmer peach-colored jeans after seeing her beloved’s cool getup. In my head, they were heading to an afternoon get-together on their friend’s rooftop. In his canvas tote – an essential NYC accessory – I imagined, he was carrying a chilled bottle of a funky orange wine. And at that gathering, they felt 100% comfortable and relaxed, exactly how they looked on the subway.
Next, we’re riding across from this lady, who is lucky enough to have two modes of transportation on hand. When she’s not on the subway, she’s navigating the streets on her Vespa. My first thought: She must be Italian. I didn’t want to stereotype so quickly but then I noticed her red patent slippers. They are Gucci. Could it be an homage to her heritage? Finally, it takes a lot of experience to ride a Vespa/scooter/motorbike in open shoes, not to mention slippers. Plus her loose-fitted top and bottom paired with the crocheted purse were not exactly created to be taken on a two-wheel drive. Ecco! Italian or not, once out of the subway, she confidently hops on her Vespa, secures her helmet, dark long hair flowing down her back, and as she picks up speed, so does her easy-breezy outfit.
New Yorkers are notorious for opting out for an all-black outfit. Take it from this article in The Cut:
”We wear black because…because it confers a no-nonsense power, and we’re certainly interested in that. We wear black because it’s sexy — possibly the legacy of lingerie. We wear black because we’re not tourists here to see a show; because we are, in a sense, with the band. The band is New York, and the color is black.”
I loved how she made the black color work for her. The combat sneakers on a platform – great for walking with a healthy dose of power in her stride. Her fair skin, peeking through the rips on her skinny jeans. The blazer, another power move. Even down to her jewelry – the brass and gold materials, the head of an animal meticulously carved onto her ring – she oozed confidence. Yet somehow, she had a softness about her too. Perhaps it was the round shape of her glasses or the flipped ends of her bob cut. There are so many stories I could create about her but one thing is for certain – she is with the band and the band is New York.
Now, how can I leave the train without catching a glimpse of myself in the window? Even as it collects dust and dirt while snaking through the dark tunnels under the New York streets, it serves as the perfect mirror for me and my fellow passengers. In anticipation of my stop, I have a moment to pause. There aren’t a lot of still moments in a city that never sleeps so I savor it. Masked for protection, the scarf gifted to me by my grandmother wrapped around my shoulders, a vintage Escada blazer I hope will serve me for many years to come, and the classic Levi’s 501. It truly is a glimpse because in just one stop, I’ll be in Bushwick, meeting a friend to go to a concert. And someone else will stand here, watching the stations go by.
all photos by Aika Zikibayeva.
Aika Zikibayeva was born a storyteller. Growing up in Almaty, Kazakhstan, she would often sit on her grandfather’s lap and recite poems to him. A published poet and a journalist, he encouraged Aika and her siblings from a young age to stay curious, to observe, to read. Writing came as a natural next step for her. At the University of Virginia, where she studied foreign affairs, her writing was shaped by political theory, debate and hours of research. Her career took her to Washington, DC and then life turned a corner and she found herself in Copenhagen, Denmark. Five years of an expat lifestyle in Denmark inspired her to write more casually about culture, travel, human-to-human interaction. Since late 2019, Aika has been residing in New York City. By day, she is a marketing professional at a software company, and on her off-hours you will find her soaking in NYC’s vibrant energy one step at a time.