With fists, with words, with kindness
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You’d imagine that, in the wake of 9-11, New York City subways would be less crowded than usual, that at least the paranoiacs of the city (no doubt a large population, of which I might be considered a member) would not be in the subway, which seems like a target. For a month after the attack, I observed the multitude of bags every morning and wondered, What’s to guarantee there are no explosives here, no anthrax, no plague? The police who stand around the entrances with their billy clubs, chewing bubble gum, don’t actually check anybody going in. They are here not to prevent anything, but to act once a tragedy occurs, post mortem. Despite all the talk about limitations on freedom, you can still walk in, unchecked, unidentified — unlike in the old Yugoslavia, where I once lived, and where the police “randomly” checked passersby, demanding they produce their IDs. (This might be the case in the U.S. soon, which should make us feel much safer — or much more threatened, depending on which line of thought you take.) Anyway, for a month I imagined explosions and choking smoke, but now such thoughts hardly cross my mind. What crosses my mind instead is that such thoughts don’t. Strangely, there is a sensation — perhaps thoughtless, perhaps thoughtful — of safety here.
On Friday, the subway was so packed that you could see the backs of people flattened against the doors as you waited on the platform. I glanced over at an Asian man, thinking he would be as amused and exasperated by the sight as I was, but he didn’t respond to my attempt at eye contact. Well, I thought, in Tokyo, they even employ subway-pushers, to push people onto the train, so to him this must look normal. But after I had this thought, he burst out laughing and asked me, “You feel like getting in there?”
I mumbled a reply. I had moved on to pondering something I’d seen coming down the stairs from 57th Street: an old man lying on the floor of the submezzanine level (one flight below the ground). One of his legs was dangling down the stairs, the other stretched out in front, culminating in an old hiking boot whose sole was detached so that his filthy toes, with curling blue nails, protruded. His beard was gray-brown; so was his hair; so were his clothes; so was his grimy, unwashed skin. But his penis, which he was stroking slowly, was all white-pink and gleaming, the only part of him that looked young and clean. When he noticed me, he slowly packed away his penis and coiled his body sideways to sleep. Who knows from where he drew his inspiration? There must have been a mind in there to form images, or maybe he did not need images.
And in the subway train just a day earlier, I’d seen a beggar who screamed, “People, I am starving! I need to eat. I ate garbage out of a dumpster, got food poisoning, and they had to rip my stomach open. See?” He pulled his shirt up to show us an unhealed scar. People gasped. He reeked; incredibly filthy, bending, drooling. I gave him a dollar, but was careful not to touch him. Another man walked in wearing only underwear and socks, although it was the middle of the winter, and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have nothing to wear. Please give me some money so I can buy a pair of pants.”
But somehow the homeless don’t go into the most crowded trains. Maybe they are squeamish about contact with the clean.
On Saturday, I boarded the A train at Columbus Circle, relieved that it was Saturday, and hence no rush hour. Nothing seemed unusual, except that everything seemed totally normal and usual. I got on behind a redhead whose hair was flaming orange-red. Although I did not stare at her, her hair burned itself into my field of vision; you could see her while not looking at her. There were hardly any seats on the train, except for one between her and a big, hefty guy. He even breathed heavily. I dislike sitting between two people, because although your asses may not touch, your shoulders usually do, especially when the people are men.
Just that morning, I’d sat between two huge guys and had to lean forward because, had I sat up straight, I would have been squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. Eventually, I thought, The hell with it, and I did sit up straight, and though our shoulders were crushed together, none of us would relent.
But this is not the real macho game played on the subways. The really macho guys sit with their legs spread wide apart. The wider your spread, the more of an alpha male you are. You’re making a statement: I don’t give a shit about your ass. I am going to claim my space. I don’t give a shit if you rub your leg against mine. I am not a homophobe. That’s your deal, not mine. I am a real man, and I have my space, and nothing — I mean, nothing — will move me. You can rub your leg against mine if you dare, but I bet you won’t, because you aren’t as tough as I am. Usually, a guy who spreads his legs also lets his eyelids droop and leans his shoulders back in his seat.
That morning, though I resorted to a shoulder squash, I was not going to rub legs with those guys, so I crossed mine in a retreat of sorts. (Although now my foot was sticking too far out into the crowd, threatening to trip anybody passing by. But that was fine; this would be my form of rudeness.) When I crossed my legs, the guys sat up even straighter in psychological and sexual triumph: they were alphas, and I’d revealed myself as a beta simply by being squeamish. Squeamishness is a beta quality. Tough guys don’t mind touching legs; they don’t squirm. I sat between them like an intellectual who does not have much use for his body, not a prime male fucker who is proud to display his balls and now and then slides his pelvis forward with pride: the balls have got to swell, spread, pop merrily out into the world.
That morning’s ride fresh in my mind, I regarded the open middle seat with distaste, forgetting that the flaming redhead probably would not play leg games with me. She was not a guy (a big plus on the subway, from my point of view) and seemed slender. But the other seat was occupied by a guy, and a real space-hog at that. I looked at the seat and then down the train: Should I walk down to the next group of seats? Maybe I’d find something on the aisle, where I could face away from my neighbor. I know that does not sound particularly friendly, but why would I feel friendly in a crowd of strangers, on those awful, hard orange seats, which hurt your ass even more than your eyes? After months of grinding my sciatic nerve between my bones and that hard plastic, I sometimes lose sensation in my feet.
So I was about to give up on the empty seat, which was almost as orange as the redhead’s hair. I was not going to be squashed like that again today, not even to sit next to a pretty girl. And she was pretty, judging by the way she carried herself (I was trying not to stare), erect and yet at ease. She crossed her legs, and the crossing of her long, delicate legs caught my eye. I was turning away when I heard a voice:
“Would you like to sit down?”
She was addressing me, in a slight lisping accent. She had full, stung lips.
“Sure. Thank you.”
How considerate, I thought. Not that this was an invitation to conversation. She was reading a book of phrases, in French and English, I guessed. People love France. Let her go to France. C’est la vie. Why should I care? I used to travel a lot, study German and Russian, and what good has it done me? Maybe she was French and was actually studying English. I would not look. I didn’t want to be rude — or, rather, to be perceived as rude.
I whipped out my magazine, Poets and Writers. I know, totally lame, but it’s all right for the subway in the evening, when I am particularly scatterbrained. Obviously, a dictionary would be even better. The redhead had chosen well. With a dictionary, I’d need to concentrate for only a few seconds at a time; why hadn’t I thought of that before? I’d read John Dos Passos in the subway the other day, and when I was leaving, I’d seen a man in a business suit reading a shaggy copy of Dos Passos’ 42nd Parallel. In the mornings, I read the New York Times, elbowing my neighbors unapologetically in a form of beta revenge. Why is the paper so large? There should be a narrow subway edition. Hell, if papers can have evening and morning editions, they could have subway editions. Of course, some people develop that amazing accordion technique, whereby they fold the pages vertically in half and manage to whip through the whole paper without bruising anybody. Now, they are the truly civilized, brilliant in every respect. I envy them, but I don’t entirely admire them, for I find something terribly fascist about that organization of body and space; I imagine that most of these people work as insurance actuaries and IRS agents.
I was careful to hide the cover of my magazine from my neighbor. Not that I had any reason to think that she would glance over at my reading material; in fact, she seemed so ultracivilized that she didn’t need to be curious about her neighbors. She read her dictionary. I read about a UNESCO grant, and about awards for the best novel for readers aged ten to twelve. Now, why ten to twelve? There is a huge difference between ten and twelve. When you are ten, you can enjoy Snow White. When you are twelve, you are too busy jerking off to care. Should I write a letter explaining that to the international body? No, fuck them.
I read on. The heavy man on my left got up and left. Although there was no longer any chance of body contact with the redhead, since she had a rather vertical and elongated style, I moved away from her, into the newly vacated seat. Now it was 125th Street, Harlem. More people than I expected got on. It occurred to me that someone might sit between us, and that I would prefer to be next to her for some reason. Or absence of reason. So, quickly, I slid back to my original seat and launched a conversation: “Are you planning to go to France?”
“No,” she replied simply and laconically. (You might think that no is always simple, but sometimes it’s not, so I say it now: her no sounded simple.) Her eyes were a very light hazel, but not green.
“You are learning French, though, aren’t you?”
“No, Italian. I like French, though.”
“Will you travel to Italy, then?”
“I don’t think so. I like Italian but not Italians, if you know what I mean.”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“I hate talking to Italians. They are obnoxious and they give me a headache. Half an hour of talking with an Italian, and you might consider suicide — or homicide.”
“Not in my experience,” I said. “By the way, are you Russian?”
“I am Croatian. I speak some Russian. We could try speaking it.”
“You are a writer, yes?” she said, ignoring my offer.
“How did you know? Oh, the magazine, of course.” Though I had tried to hide the title, she must have read enough to figure it out, even though I never got the impression that she was looking over.
“What do you write about?” she asked.
“Half of my writing is about the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the other half is . . . well, I don’t know what it’s about, and I don’t really care.”
“Pardon? I didn’t catch what you said.”
“That’s all right. It was not particularly articulate.”
“So, what is your writing about?”
“Yugoslavia. Wars. Emigrants. Disappearing places.”
She closed her paperback dictionary and put it in her black purse.
“So, what’s your occupation?” I asked.
“I was just starting to work in real estate, but 9-11 wiped that out. There are more real-estate agents than buyers in Manhattan now. I am a concierge at the Iroquois Hotel. Nothing to be proud of.”
“Oh, that’s on 44th Street.”
“How did you know? You are the first person ever to know the place.”
“There are lots of fancy hotels there. So, do you go to the Russian Vodka Room?” I asked.
“No way. That’s where the Russian losers hang out. They all come from Brooklyn and lie about what they do.”
“How about Uncle Vanya’s?”
“And the Samovar?”
“Awful, just awful. That place is lost in time. They even have a white piano, and people weep when they sing World War II ditties.”
“You know, Baryshnikov owns the place, and the piano is his.”
“So? It might as well be at Brighton Beach, with all the misfits who want to feel they are still in Russia.”
“Where do you like to go?”
“I don’t like to go out. It’s enough that I have to spend so much time on this subway. What a nightmare.”
At that moment, a thin man in rags at the other end of the coach began wailing as though his entire family had just been wiped out. The more you listened to him, though, the more you realized that he was out of his mind. He was screaming and weeping, but also laughing softly in between his screams.
“I agree,” I said. “The A line is a total pain.”
Now she was preparing to get off. She wiggled in her seat and double-checked her leather purse, clicking it shut. Her fingers were amazingly long.
“Well, it was nice talking to you,” I said. “Maybe we could exchange e-mails?”
“I’ll see you on the A train.”
“Why do you say that?” I said, a little put off.
“Why would I not say that?”
“It’s a big city.”
“Not so big. We have already seen each other on the A train.”
“When? I don’t remember.”
“I used to be blond. It was a mistake to color my hair red. It looks silly.”
“It looks all right to me. I don’t remember you as a blonde, though.”
“You looked right at me one day.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t? Trust me. You looked right at me. If you think about it a little, you will remember.”
Boy, is she comfortable, I thought. An American would never so calmly observe such a fact. She would either accuse you of it, or ignore it, or be triumphant about it. But this woman seemed merely factual and casual about it. And I thought, Does that mean that I am more memorable-looking than her? I doubt that. Apparently she has a better memory than I do. But she is making up excuses for me. Why? Maybe she’s vain and can’t believe someone wouldn’t remember her. No, it doesn’t seem like it. It’s just a fact she remembers. It has little to do with me; she remembers when people pay attention to her.
“I don’t remember,” I said. “But I’ll think about it.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you.” She stood up and offered me her hand and even curtsied a little. The homeless man at the other end of the car howled louder.
Maybe I should stand up, I thought. But why should I? She does not want to exchange e-mails, and I am not into subtlety. Apparently not, if I ogled her. I did not remember ogling any pretty women on the A train. Overall, I tried not to pay attention to the damn crowds. I didn’t want to be a stupid letch. I was sure I had not seen her.
“Pleasure meeting you, too,” I said. “When did I see you before?”
“About six weeks ago. Goodbye.”
As soon as she left, I remembered. She was with a bearded man, and they talked about getting their real-estate licenses. She said it was a must, that real estate was the way to go; there was so much money in it. She was dressed in a black skirt, a little above the knee, and her hair was blond. Her full lips were vermilion, in stark contrast to her wan skin, and she had a graceful way of moving, like a former skater or ballerina. She seemed aware that I was looking at her. In fact, she looked back, but not brazenly, because she was also calm and seemed to communicate neither like nor dislike, irritation nor pleasure.
At one point, the man with the beard took her hand in his and clung to it. He hugged her, wrapping his arm completely around her. One of his fingers bore a broad gold ring. He was desperate to possess her, I could see, but he did not possess her. I knew then that she was aware of me. She should not have been aware of me while her boyfriend (I assumed he was a boyfriend, or perhaps even a fiancé) hugged her like that, with such fervor and happiness. But then I thought, No, she is not interested in me, nor in her boyfriend, for that matter. She is simply aware. And right then I thought what a misfortune it was that a conversation between me and her was totally impossible.
And now, miraculously, we had talked. She wasn’t too surprised that I did not remember her, though the certainty with which she said, “You looked right at me,” implied that I should have remembered. And now I did remember. I remembered how she’d walked onto the train, a little uncertainly, a little gingerly, like someone stepping onto ice. And when she modestly brought her knees together, as if to close herself in, it looked so elegant that I thought, She must be Russian. Americans don’t do things that consciously — or self-consciously. And then she cast a glance at me, held my gaze a moment. It was a conversation with no words spoken.
She had left the train now, but the door was still open. I could have rushed out to tell her that I remembered, but I didn’t need to. She’d already figured out that I would remember, and that we’d meet again.
Or maybe we won’t. Just the fact that my desire to have a conversation with her was fulfilled is enough. It does not need anything to follow it. It’s not much of a plot, but that’s fine; I don’t need plots. In a way, after 9-11, it’s nice not to have a plot, or big events; I’ve written so much about war and murder — and crime and sex, for that matter — that it’s a relief not to have any of that. The fleeting encounter was fine — finer, to be sure, than listening to that madman bellowing at the top of his lungs as though he were dying and his family were dead.
When the train reached my stop, the madman got off, too. I went home and opened the windows and heard him crying out in the street. His bellowing was so tiresome and wild that I could not concentrate on my Dos Passos book — a scene on a train in which a hobo struggles to sit up straight, fearing that he will cough to death if he lies down — so I closed the windows, even though this made the apartment too warm. What a loud, awful, obnoxious racket the man was making. Him I would remember; his cry I would recognize.