Falling asleep on the New York City subway at 3 a.m. is usually not a good thing. I’ve lived in a few places in the world that have subway systems – San Francisco, Prague, Paris, Rome – and I’ve had the good fortune to have never conked out on the subway, waking up miles past your stop in a semi-drunken daze and wondering what strange land beyond your usual station you’ve drifted off to. That is until recently. I was temporarily staying with a friend in Brooklyn and one night, after an evening of drinks and dinner (and, um, more drinks) with friends, I got on the D train to head back home.
It seemed like one minute I was trying not to stare at the drunken couple making out across from me and the next I was blurry-eyed and slumped over – the magazine I had been reading still affixed to my now sweaty palm. I was deep into a Brooklyn I’d never encountered before. I glanced at my phone: it was 3:13 a.m. I got off at the next stop and began wandering. The streets were quiet enough to hear a bagel drop. I was hoping to find a car service but I had no idea where I was. A minute later, though, I turned a corner and, as if a chorus of angels were belting out a heavenly note from above and a divine light beam were cast down from the clouds, there was right in front of me a brightly lit sign: CAR SERVICE.
The first thing I noticed in the Spartan lobby was a man. A large, girthful man sprawled out on a bench – actually spilling over it – like some sort of plump over-sized octopus. My first reaction for some reason was to take his picture. I did, and then I turned to the man behind the plexi-glass and told him I needed a car.
“Andrei!” he yelled past me. And then again: “Andrei! You got a job.”
I looked around and saw there was no one else in the room. Except for the guy sleeping in the bench – Andrei.
Suddenly this rotund giant of a man, looking unusually comfortable in dreamland, was roused from a deep sleep.
Andrei, who was born in Russia, was a friendly man. As we navigated the sedate streets, he peppered me with questions. Where was I from? Did I like New York? What was my favorite vodka?
Then he asked what I did for a living. “I’m a food and travel writer,” I said.
“Tra-vel wrrrri-ter?” he said, sounding out each syllable like he was verbally stepping on terra firma after being lost at sea for a few months.
Somehow he didn’t understand. He’d latched on to the words “travel” and “writer,” acting as if they were as incongruent and incomprehensible together as the words “Yakov” and “Smirnoff.”
I explained it in simple terms: I travel to places where I eat and talk to people and then I write about it.
“Ah,” he said. “You write about where to find restaurant.”
“Where to find nightclub.”
I gave him an affirmative “uh-huh.”
“Where to find prostitute.”
Um … not exactly.
“But, you know,” he added, “there are five different types of prostitute.”
And then he launched into an explanation of each plateau of prostitution. I tuned out, thinking Andrei had a Parkinson’s grip on my profession. As a lot of people might. It’s very romanticized and understandably so. Travel is something we all aspire to – it’s our ultimate expression of freedom – a dream job, or in Andrei’s case, one in which you can direct people to the nearest prostitute.
But let’s not jump to conclusions. Every spring I teach a travel writing class at New York University. Within the first five minutes of the first class, I tell my students the bubble-bursting secret: that being a travel writer is almost as over-romanticized as bacon, Brooklyn and Italy. Not that I’m necessarily complaining. Sometimes on the road, we can experience glimpses of a decadent life of Hemingwayan proportions, but when we get back home, the cash-strapped reality sinks in as quickly as it takes to boil a packet of Top Ramen. Travel we most certainly do; money we most certainly do not make.
I’m often asked if my job ruins the act of travel for me. I think back to the epic flights sitting behind guys who unforgivingly recline their seats into my lap, watching mediocre romantic comedies (which are always much better from 35,000 feet in the air, for some reason) and eating microwave-baked gruel all to chase a story somewhere on the planet. I actually hate the act of travel. The word travel, after all, comes from “travail,” which comes from “tripalium,” a Roman instrument of torture.
My answer, though, is no, it actually makes travel richer. I’m forced to go one step beyond the realm of the average tourist so I can attempt to get underneath the place. I end up in restaurant kitchens talking to Michelin-starred chefs, in the passenger seat of other people’s cars going God knows where, and sometimes trying not to fall asleep on the subway after a long night of drinking (and, by that I mean “working,” of course). When I finally do get home, it makes the quotidian pleasures of the familiar that much sweeter. Even falling asleep on the subway and getting a lesson from a Russian taxi driver on how to choose the best prostitute is an exciting endeavor when put in the context of a 15-hour flight.
When we pulled up to my place, I paid Andrei and then suggested that, given his seemingly vast knowledge about the ladies of the night, perhaps he should consider a career change and become a travel writer.
The rub, of course, is that he’d never be able to afford such ladies if he was a travel writer.