The Spinanes, “Kid in Candy”
One fall evening back in the late 1990s I boarded a Manhattan-bound subway train at the Carroll Street station in Brooklyn. The stop was near a friend’s apartment, where I was staying for a few months in a tiny room while I looked for a new place to live. The train rattled towards town until, somewhere under the East River, the emergency brakes were activated and we jerked to a halt. New Yorkers know how this goes. The ventilation fans switch off and the car becomes very still; the lights dim and then brighten. Time slows to a crawl. The passengers look around, huff, check their watches, shake their heads. The few announcements that come over the loudspeakers are unintelligible. This had happened to me before, and it’s happened to me since, but on this particular night, I became intensely agitated. I wanted to leave, to exercise my freedom as a person with two legs to go wherever I wanted, and I couldn’t. It felt like being buried alive. After about fifteen minutes, MTA track workers slithered past the windows in the narrow space between the car and the tunnel wall, trying to determine what the train had run over, and I knew we’d be there for a while. It was then I started to panic. Heart racing, throat dry, cold fear coursing through the brain.
I was already in a pretty tender place. I had just left a long-term relationship, which meant moving out of my apartment. I had also recently quit a full-time job in the hope that I might make a living as a freelance writer, and it wasn’t working out all that well. I began seeing someone new, but the relationship was a mess from the start, and later on the evening that the train got stuck, after meeting him a half-hour late at Film Forum and sitting through Cindy Sherman’s dreadful movie Office Killer, he told me that he didn’t want a boyfriend, thanks. I rode back to Brooklyn that night without any problem, but something about the subway incident—something about being trapped in a place I didn’t want to be—scared the hell out of me, because the next day I couldn’t ride the subway anymore. I boarded my train at Carroll Street and immediately felt the same panic sensations; I got out at the next station and raced upstairs like I had just been released from prison, and took a cab to wherever I was going. For the next few months I refused to have anything to do with the New York subway system.
This wasn’t easy because, unless you’re very rich, you can’t really go anywhere in New York without using the subway. I somehow had to get to my few-days-a-week copyediting job in Manhattan, where I sat at a long table and mostly spent the day filling the other copyeditors’ ears with my despair over my recent breakups. I relocated my suitcase full of clothes and books and CDs to the home of another friend who lived in the East Village, mainly so I could walk to the office. I began to walk everywhere. All the walking made me very thin, and my ribs started to show. When I had to go somewhere farther than I could walk, I took a taxi, even though I didn’t have much money, or I took the bus, which wasn’t so bad, I used to say, as long as I added a few hours to my travel time.
My phobia started to spread, until I became afraid of most enclosed spaces. Elevators made me nervous, though they moved so fast I didn’t have time to get too panicked. The holidays came—I would normally be taking a bus upstate to visit my parents. But the bus went through the Lincoln Tunnel, and to be stuck there, even for a few moments, seemed unimaginable. So I rented a car to drive home, but then I became anxious about the prospect of steering through the partially sheltered section of FDR Drive underneath the United Nations. And even a bridge was confining; you could become trapped in traffic, high up on a thin strip of road suspended above water. Of course, my world became somewhat circumscribed. One of my editors wanted me to do some extra reporting for a story I had filed months before, pre-phobia, which would have required me to go out to Brighton Beach. I was too ashamed to say why I couldn’t do this, and had to flat-out refuse, which made her understandably angry.
In the new year I found an apartment share in the Village and a new job in midtown, and my life seemed to be getting a little better. Still, I traveled the distance between home and work by bus or foot. On the first day of spring, I met Caleb. We started seeing each other, and I didn’t want him to think I was a head case. He lived near Columbia University, and after a few 113-block taxi rides, which began to make him wonder (“Why don’t you just take the train? It’s right around the corner. It doesn’t take that long to get back downtown,” etc.), I realized that I had to make my peace with the subway and its terrible claustrophobia-inducing ways.
A friend recommended that I try distracting myself. One morning I walked down the stairs of the 8th Street N/R station with my Walkman and a tape, on the first side of which I had recorded the Spinanes’ then-new album, Arches and Aisles. The train pulled into the station. I stepped on and pressed the “play” button and this song, the first one on the tape, came through my headphones; the song had forward motion in it, and wide open spaces. We started to move. The voice of Rebecca Gates—the voice I miss the most, for she hasn’t released an album in nine years—was confident and calming, and I realized that everything was okay, I was going to be safe. There were empty seats in the car, but I didn’t take one. I stood up, and did the little surfing thing you do on the subway, where you wobble back and forth but find your center of gravity so you can stay upright. The stations went by, one after another, and I was fine, I could have stayed on that train all day.