Public transportation. Perhaps, with all its hustle and bustle on your morning commute to work, it enlivens you. Maybe, just hearing “public” and “transportation” put together horrifies you. Or maybe you’re unconcerned with the whole thing – in and out and onto your destination. As an outsider in the city of Buenos Aires, I have found the Subte, the city’s underground train system, to signify much much more.
Having ridden the Subte mere hours after my arrival, I have come to see it as a microcosm of the city and people it transports every day. I have frequented the Boston T only a handful of times and the New York subway never, so perhaps my observations are characteristic of public transportation at large, and it has taken me a daily commute in Buenos Aires to realize it.
The Subte consolidates all aspects of Buenos Aires and its personality into its cars: its vibrance, its culture, and its humanity. The Subte is the city and its people in miniature.
Vibrant: not usually the word of choice when describing a transportation system, but the Subte is constantly teeming with eclectic artists. I have heard some of the best renditions of my favorite songs (the Beatles are a favorite here) and I have seen brilliant dramatic improv (granted it took me a few seconds to realize it was acting – translating drama in Spanish is no simple feat). I have seen young men stroll the aisles, speakers in tow, rapping about governmental abuses of power and the plight of the poor (some of the most meaningful lyrics I’ve ever heard). But artistic vibrance also translates into something else, mirroring the climb in entertainment activity during the U.S. 1920s Great Depression. Evidently, artists line these cars and stations; perhaps some are practicing and showcasing their talents, but the others? For them, it’s more than that. It’s utilizing a God-given gift to earn a living.
People have attempted to sell me cake and incense and ID holders and mini tissue packets and dollars (yes, dollars). Just last Wednesday, a man handed me a card imprinted with a Catholic saint on one side and on the other, a message that read, “Please help my family. We have nothing and I cannot work. Clothing, food, anything you have is appreciated.” The man, an amputee, hobbled back down the aisle and recovered these cards along with donations any willing person would give to him. As soon as we stopped at the next station, he shifted from our car to the next one over, likely repeating the process, single crutch in hand.
And so, here it is: Buenos Aires, the abridged version. The Subte has packed in the layers of this city, enabling (forcing) one and all to acknowledge the whole of the city – the parts of it that thrive and the parts of it that hurt, from the shoppers visiting the boutiques of Avenida Santa Fe to the residents of the Villas miserias us tourists are taught to avoid.
But even beyond the class extremities embedded in its vibrance, it is the human interaction that fortifies the Subte’s presence as its own mini society, its own mini Buenos Aires. It’s about the grit that comes with fighting your way onto the train during rush hour or vying for a part of the hand rail so you don’t collapse when the train starts. But it’s also about the senior citizen who rushes to gives up his seat to a barely teenage boy carrying an infant in his hands – who then promptly declines and asks the older man to sit down. It’s about the competition that’s simultaneously accompanied by camaraderie; of every man for himself and also taking care of your neighbor. And while this may be relevant to any city, to any mode of underground transportation for that matter, there’s something uniquely inspiring about witnessing it in a country and language that is not your own.
So perhaps the Subte’s existence as Buenos Aires in miniature is not distinctive. However, handicapped by my lack of Wi-Fi, awaiting my station, and distracted by the incessant staring (not quite sure I pass as a porteña), it’s easier to take note. With my trove of inimitable Subte experiences in my short time here, it is as though I have seen Buenos Aires, its best and worst parts, street by street, not station by station, day by day.