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Subway People

& finding a kindred spirit

By Ellen StedfeldPublished 7 months ago 3 min read

I often drew pictures of people on my commutes through the New York subway system. Carrying a little sketchbook that I could cradle in my hands. It was so beautiful to look at a row of passengers seated across the train car, and see so many different kinds of faces all in one place. All with two eyes, one nose, and a mouth, but each so distinctive in their shapes. As an artist, it was important to examine and determine how to depict such things, how to distinguish on person from another, or find their commonalities. This fascinated me.

For that reason, I had a tendency to put several faces on one page. Also, when someone caught me looking at them, I quickly glanced away and pretended I was drawing someone else - because I truly was! (Along with them.) In that way, I continuously circled around the page, until cut off abruptly as someone reached their destination, or gradually, as the drawings naturally resolved.

I tried to be secretive about my drawing activities. It was all for practice, and I didn't really want anybody looking at what I made, when it might be awkward or uncomplimentary. Maybe someone wouldn't want me rudely staring at them or depicting their likeness without permission, even if it was not going to be publicly displayed, simply kept as a private record attesting to a progression of my skills. Though occasionally, the person beside me would notice and loudly say: "Wow, that's really good!"

"T-thanks" I'd mutter nervously, grateful for their supportive words, but hoping the person in question wouldn't notice.

Admittedly, it was easiest to draw from the many people who were zoned-out bored or falling asleep, fixated on their phones, plugged into headsets, or silently reading a book. One day, the guy who was sitting almost directly across from me, most easily in line of sight, seemed to be reading a book. What luck! But he kept looking up from it. Distracted, perhaps, by the jostling of our train or the thread of his own wandering worries. Ugh, just get back into your novel! I thought with frustration. Isn't it any good?

Then I looked more closely. There was a pencil in his hands. That was not an ordinary book, but a sketchbook. Ooh! Just like me!

He kept looking up because he was drawing the woman two-people-down in my row. I could identify his directive so clearly now. Of everyone here, he would understand, because he was doing exactly the same thing I was. Finally, for once, I stared dauntlessly, my pencil scurrying across the page. He glanced up a couple more times as before, but it seems as though people can uncannily sense when someone's gaze is locked on them. Our eyes met, and for the first time I maintained contact with my subject instead of breaking away, continued on the sketch without pausing my hand. There was a light of recognition. He shifted his hand to the next page. We spent the rest of the ride drawing each other, until reaching my stop.

Then I stood and smiled, holding up the drawing in my book, and he turned his around for me to see. There wasn't enough time to ask about introductions, or ways to stay in touch, or whether we even needed to if the fortuitousness of that moment was entirely enough. So we simply waved a warm goodbye, as the doors closed, the train rumbled away, and I walked home feeling the happiest I'd been in a long time.


About the Creator

Ellen Stedfeld

Perpetually immersed in drawing, illustration, and creative experiments, at live events and

Community arts in NYC/Queens -- LIC Arts Open festival May 15-19th 2024

Love participating in challenges to motivate new work!

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  • Alex H Mittelman 7 months ago

    Great work! Well written!

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