Today’s post was originally published by LARB Channel Avidly.
“City’s hard,” my three-year-old son occasionally remarks. He offers those words as mere description, though, no real judgment. (I mean, he’s three; lack of judgment is the best and worst thing about him). He’s no stranger to the strains of urban life. He helpfully reassures my husband and I as we lug ninety pounds of children plus stroller up and down the urine-soaked stairs of the subway station. “We’re okay!” he chirps in encouragement from his seat, and we grimly move forward.
Last week’s cold open of Broad City found the unlikely protagonists running for the train, high-fiving when they snake between the closing doors, and then turning to confront the hell of other people on the train along with them. The bit that follows is a riff on the dystopian film Snowpiercer, in which humans have taken refuge from a dead world by boarding a never-stopping train that simply becomes yet another vehicle for brutal class warfare. But where the protagonists of Snowpiercer move forward through the train cars aiming to assassinate the single guy (heh) in charge (heh) of stoking and maintaining class warfare, Abbi and Ilana move in another direction.
“We need to move to the back,” Ilana declares, after their shared triumph of making the train. And so they move through the cars, navigating the subway’s horn of plenty of horrors: pink-faced tourists chowing down on bologna hoagies, public toenail clippers, other people’s armpits, crotch grabbers, rashes, and a pile of human shit in the middle of a nearly-cleared car (a single woman sits in that car, enjoying her lunch, having presumably weighed the options between personal space and olfactory assault). Finally, they enter a car full of Hasidic men who part to let the scantily clad Ilana and Abbi through. Once out on the platform they groan, “We needed to be in the front of the car” and turn to trace their steps back, literally playing grabass with one another as they go.
The bit isn’t just a film buff in-joke, but a New York City in-joke, or probably more expansively, an urban in-joke. On the surface, the joke is broad (just like these broads!)—a mother drapes a barber’s smock around her son as she clips his hair in public—but underneath that broadness is an affection that runs circles around Snowpiercer’s “dorm-room deep” premise. It’s a love letter to the city, not despite its hardness but because of it.
Abbi and Ilana run for the train, barely pausing as they swipe their way through the turnstile, and achieve an economy of motion that might appear to be about efficiency, and efficiency’s taskmaster: profit, having-it-all, blah ditty blah (Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run” playing in the shoulder-padded background). But anyone who knows these unruly stoner girls knows that they aren’t in anything for the profit. So why run for the train?
Because it is an unmitigated pleasure! I sometimes set myself the personal task of not ceasing motion when re-upping my metro card. The choreography goes like this: nearly empty Metro Card in hand, I flow toward the dirty-ass machine. Still moving, I reach into my backpack for my wallet and have it opened the minute I arrive. With one hand I press the filthy touch screen buttons, knowing exactly which part of the screen to touch at each moment; working the touchscreen with my left hand, I feed my card into the machine with my right. “Add Value” or “Add Time”? the machine confoundingly asks. But I know the answer! My body doesn’t pause. A few more touches of the button simulacra on the screen and I’m moving toward the turnstile.
It’s a fucking ballet. And there is very little reason for me to do it other than: it feels good.
It’s true that while I perform my ballet I’m likely mentally preoccupied with many of the inhumane aspects of the city: exhaustion, financial worries, environmental discomfort (why is it so hot/freezing/smelly rn?) professional stress, daily confrontation with how horrid this society’s manifestations of class, race, and gender privilege are. In the world of Snowpiercer, there is A Person in charge of this inhumanity who I should set my sights upon destroying. In the world of Broad City, intimacy is in charge—in charge of the ellipses and circles, and of the grabassing that can joyfully result from taking the inhuman demands of an inhuman society and turning them into a game.
Broad City’s representation of friendship and the city is remarkable and fresh, and a reminder that moving forward isn’t really the point.
A few neighborhoods ago, my best friend and I would sometimes make plans to go to a movie. The plans would be complicated and involve some sort of train transfer. How to do thistogether when we were coming from different places? So we’d pick a station and a line: “I’ll be on the first car,” she’d tell me. On the platform, I’d peer into the dark, lonely tunnel until the train would come flashing toward me, and I’d search the lit-up windows. There she was, and she’d see me too! We’d grin at each other through the glass, because we’d figured out a small victory in a hard place, if just for a time. I’d get on the train, and would barely be seated before we’d be absorbed in a conversation that never seemed to end. The train might be moving forward endlessly, but we were turned to one another, small warmth in a cold, hard place.
 “We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bed-clothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.” Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 11