Forget the office towers, exclusive boutiques, world-class symphonies and operas, museums and galleries. Nothing defines a great metropolis as much as a subway. Consider the cities that have them: London, Paris, New York, Moscow, and so on … Then consider the remainder. Underground, you’ll see the collective psyche of a people and place ride.
For many individuals, a metropolis becomes a destination, a nexus where dreams play out. In its locus of massive power, culture, glamour, and wealth, not everyone enjoys all the benefits, a fact one cannot avoid noticing in the subway. In the tunnels appear the price tags of the social machine – the city itself – extracts from many whose labors make it function.
Perhaps it’s simply that ancient lure of adventure – the call of the open road and countryside beyond – that gave hitchhiking and its distant cousin, bumming the tracks, their timeless Gypsy appeal. Nothing symbolized freedom more than riding the rails as a hobo or flying down the highway in the company of colorful kindred spirits. Combining subway rails and hitchhiking, moreover, as I did in one novel, re-creates a time of collision, an era that encompasses the late Sixties through early 1990s.
The conflict – between old and new, past and present, limitations and desires, the given and the dreamed – is that of a generation attempting to live simultaneously in the countryside (the back-to-the-earth movement) and in the metropolis (Bright Lights, Big City). It’s the struggle of a generation that wanted to have its cake and eat it, too – only to discover there’s no such thing as a free ride forever.
It’s ultimately a metaphor of the search for meaning in this era, station by station leading into the vast universe before arriving in an unexpected and yet nearly familiar place of communion.
Adapted from Third Rail
copyright 2016 by Jnana Hodson