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Refreshing lessons from subway knitting

I’m not from New York.  In the two years I lived there, it often felt that no one was, that everyone there had come from somewhere else, and that everyone there would eventually go somewhere else, either back home or to the next urban thrill.  It was a transitory city, and its streets were clogged, and the only way to get anywhere was by public transit.

My second year there, dismayed at rising rents, I moved farther away from school, and my transit time increased. I must have averaged at least two hours a day on the subway, spending an eighth of my waking hours not in the city, but under it. 

Large companies tend to buy an entire left or right side of a subway car and run similar ads in all available space.  I often found myself sitting across from a side bought out by an airline, my eyes fixed stop upon stop on enticing photos of far-away places, imagining myself in Accra, in Berlin, in Kiev, imagining myself lying comfortably in my bed, imagining myself at my final destination, imagining myself somewhere, anywhere other than the passing stage of the subway.  The nowhere of the subway.

I almost never took the subway with friends, riding it instead on my way to meet friends, or of course on the obligatory morning and evening commute.  Instead, I would sit or stand tightlipped, alone, in a car full of equally tightlipped passengers sitting or standing with me.

It was a stressful city, and eventually, I attempted knitting to relieve stress.  I had dabbled in knitting before, but had never made it past the scarf and baby blanket stage, and had never justified to myself the use of any material other than acrylic.  This time, I delved deeply, visiting a tiny but richly stocked shop in which women and men sat around tackling ambitious Fair Isle sweaters and crocheting purses that I would have thought were impossible to make by hand.  Knit bikinis hung from the walls next to balls of yarn marked at prices unheard of in my local warehouse-like craft store.  Intimidated, I finally got the courage to walk up to a salesperson and ask her for advice on knitting a bikini of my own; I walked out with yarn, needles, a pattern book, and considerably less money in my bank account.

I was hooked.  Knitting during every spare moment in my apartment, I finished the bikini within a couple days and, emboldened, returned to the yarn store to begin tackling a sleeveless shirt.  Encouraged by the quick gratification of the bikini project, I was a bit put-off with waiting day after day for the shirt to take shape in my living room.  That’s when I decided to take my knitting to the streets – er, under them.

My previous subway pastimes, reading and staring off into space, had the distinct advantage of being able to be pursued while sitting down or standing up.  Knitting while standing, however, proved too difficult for my level of coordination.  At first, I waited until the last few stops of my commute, when the train became less crowded and I could finally snag a seat, to pull my yarn out of my oversized purse and begin to have a go at it.  Eventually, I found myself choosing to take slower local trains; they were less crowded and it was easier to find a seat on them.  What I lost in speed, I told myself, I made up in enjoyment.  And I began to get so caught up in my knitting that I found myself, on occasion, wishing that my stop would be delayed, just so that I could finish the next row.  If I now spent more time on the train, I spent less time wishing to be in Accra instead.

After a while, I began to have subway knitting down to a science.  I stuck to projects that would require only one color of yarn, not wanting to bring multiple balls on the train.  I chose stitch patterns repetitive enough to memorize – having learned early on that it was difficult enough to manage my purse and project at once, and that taking a pattern out for reference threatened my precarious balance.  I developed a distinct seating preference, vying for the right end of a row with my back to the wall, to the point where I would get up to switch if one of these seats became available.  I relished in the extra room on my right side, my elbow free to jut out and bob up and down as it pleased, without putting other passengers in mortal danger.  If I was lucky enough to have a little wiggle room in my row, I would wedge my knitting bag between my body and the divider next to me, safe and snug and unlikely to fall down with my yarn tumbling out of it.

There were snags, however.  Sometimes my yarn did fall out of the bag, in which case a stranger would usually be so kind as to bend down and pick it up for me.  I would thank him, and smile sheepishly, and go back to my work.  But my interactions with strangers didn’t stop there.  Before beginning my stint as a subway knitter, the longest sentence any passenger had addressed to me was the occasional “Excuse me,” excluding, of course, less polite turns of phrase.  With yarn and needles in my lap, the passengers around me became more and more garrulous. 

“What are you knitting?” being the obvious question on everyone’s mind, I reveled in defying expectations.  Sure, there was the sweater for my little brother for Christmas.  But there was also the tank top, and the nightgown, and other fare that promised to either stilt or spark conversations, depending on the dispositions of those around me.  Some people know exactly what to say to the girl knitting a lacy nightgown on the subway.  Others just don’t.

Men, above all, wanted to chat about knitting.  Ignoring both my boyfriend’s and my stepdad’s warnings that, well, these men had other subjects on their mind, I still firmly believe that they were attracted to the craft, not by me.  There’s something mesmerizing in watching lank and shapeless string slowly and rhythmically take form, one loop at a time.  I imagined a city full of latent male knitters, unaware of their passion for the art until they saw it done before their eyes.  In our conversations, I tried to emphasize the fact that they, too, could knit if they wanted to.  No one seemed interested, but who knows?  Maybe I planted a seed…

Then there were the cheerleaders.  Like the man who sat next to me as I pulled out my fuzzy pink yarn and sleek bamboo needles, attempting no more than an innocent purl-two, knit-one rib.  He turned to me, shook his head, and exclaimed, “That’s awesome.”  There was also the woman who admired one of my more intricate projects and told me, simply, that it was beautiful.

I don’t want to say that New York got me down at times, because cities get everyone down at times, and I would be completely ignoring the times it got me up, because the excitement and the light and the footsteps and the car horns and the height, the sheer and brazen height of it all, did a lot to get one up.  To state it in other words, I was becoming frighteningly used to the silence of strangers who, when speaking, so often came up with abruptness, derision, or a protective dose of irony.   To have a stranger sit next to you and tell you that what you’re doing is beautiful, completely devoid of sarcasm in her voice – well, that’s beautiful.

During my entire anonymous subway existence, I had been secretly and silently dying to talk to strangers, and it turned out that I was not alone.  Although knitting needles occasionally constitute weapons in airports, on the train, they disarm.  They instantly made me more approachable and other passengers less creepy for approaching me.  It turned out that knitting did, indeed, reduce stress. 

Pleased and comfortable with my status as a subway knitter, I worked on the finishing touches of the nightgown I had been knitting for several months and innumerable stations.  A woman sat down across from me, pulled out a large ball of pastel rainbow yarn and a purple plastic crochet hook, and began to do her stuff.  She created, out of nowhere, a square the size of a CD case, and then began to make another.  I smiled as I knit, looking at her work, reveling in our shared craft: we were those who made beautiful things out of yarn on the train.  I got up at my stop and approached her on the way out.  “That’s great,” I said, and smiled.  “That’s great,” she replied.  A sentence no longer than “Excuse me,” but much more refreshing.


Lacey now lives in Portland, OR, where she enjoys aboveground Tri-Met knitting [see second picture, above]. 

In addition to yarn and public transportation, her other interests include travel, languages, literature, and dinosaurs. She blogs here.