When I was younger I used to visit New York City every year with my family. It was part of our autumn tradition ever since we moved from New York State. On the way to Rhode Island for a thanksgiving/Davis family reunion we would stop and see my mother’s father and stepmother in Queens. Part of the tradition involved my father taking us into Manhattan to see the sites, his old haunts, and, I think, for the overall NYC experience.
A key part of that experience was riding the subways. This was insisted upon and my clearest memory of this was my father’s lessons in “Zen Subway Riding.” He would have me stand in a strong stance, often called a fighting stance. One leg in front of the other, knees slightly bent, the kind of stance I learned in Karate and Aikido classes. It was about balance. He would challenge me to stand for as much of the trip as I could without holding onto any of the poles or handles.
I am sure everyone’s parents had their own eccentricities that annoyed their children immensely and yet those children, as they grew up often look back on them fondly. This was not the case for this particular eccentricity. I feel as if I enjoyed the challenge even back then. I do not remember complaining much about it though my father may remember differently. I remember that as I tried to maintain my balance on the train car with my hand poised to grab the pole my father would tell me stories of his life in the city.
One story in particular that pertains to the skill he was teaching was how he taught himself “Zen Subway Riding”. But he added another component, he would ride between subway cars (DISCLAIMER-WARNING: Please do not attempt this. Adhere to all MTA guidelines when riding on the NY subway system). Needless to say I thought my father was…to put it in the most elegant terms I can, badass. Perhaps a little crazy but I would not want him any other way.
Why, among all the lessons my father has attempted to impart to me, does “Zen Subway Riding” stand out? I have found myself practicing it on the buses in Boulder and the airport tram at Denver International. I would still put my hand up occasionally, ready to grasp the bar if needed and sometimes cheat a bit, as I definitely did as a child, by saying I was not actually touching the pole when in fact I was leaning against it a bit with the palm of my hand.
I live in New York City now, riding on newer cars and some that look like the ones I rode in the 90s. I do not practice “Zen Subway Riding” each time I am on the subway but I think about it each time the train lurches to a start. While I try to fit in and read or check my phone while sitting, leaning against a door (you’re not supposed to do that either) or trying to look as nonchalant as possible as I awkwardly grasp a bar above my head I still maintain the stance my father always told me was the best way to keep my balance. Any time I stumble a bit I evaluate why it happened so I can work to avoid it.
It is not overtly noticeable but it is a connection across time that links my father’s life in the late 70s and early 80s to my childhood in the 90s to my adult life in the new millennium. Transitions. This one has reaffirmed or even created a shared experience and has not weakened the connection.