June 13th, 2008
7 pm, work’s over, the subway platform’s stinking, boiling & rattling with jackhammers, a train arrives, it’s full and clearly seatless, I let it pass, another comes, haggard curds of humanity ooze out, I slip in fast and gratefully sink into seat, I settle in, air conditioning washes me, & I exhale.
And inevitably it’s happened: I find myself directly facing or seated beside some reeking, twitch-gripped, leering, sweating, muttering man or woman (usually man) on my hourlong subway ride home. Sometimes I get up and move, sometimes I don’t. If I don’t, it’s because I’m kept rooted by inertia, pride, masochism, exhaustion, or an abiding hope that the squirmy gremlin that’s unsettling me to the spine is just some normal schmuck who’s suffering from indigestion and/or my own warped & mottled outlook on fellow humans.
Would it help to survey faces before I take my seat? No — the sly dogs, they surprise me. They muster just enough poise & discipline to look like average, work-day-defeated middle-aged sighing subway-serfs like me — until the doors close, at which point the facade’s gone and they triumphantly collapse into the truth of their nail-biting, eye-darting, crack-jittery, randomly-cackling writhey selves.
I remember a 20-something to my left, staring at his filthy nails, picking them with clicking noises, looking at everyone around him intently, otherwise dressed neatly & normal-seeming; occasionally, in the midst of his disturbing spasms (fits that suggested some kind of allover-body itch), rubbing his shoulder into mine, and soon doing so deliberately, in what seemed like almost sexually physical appeal.
I remember a humid, damp-browed crone sitting next to me at the Port Authority 1 stop, cocooned in a black puffy nylon coat in the middle of spring, immediately setting her witch gaze on me as I sat and read the paper, saying, over and over again in what would’ve been a rich & sensuous slavic accent had the circumstances been different, shaking her head for dramatic effect: “It’s no good, NO GOOD what you do to yourself.” Stare, pause, headshake, repeat.
And I remember an old, bearded homeless man who would sporadically stamp his foot HARD on the floor, an enormous black & bulging garbage bag held protectively at his side like some alien, orificeless, insensate beast-pet. He’d utter something gnomic, vaguely threatening, stare out the window, and then petrify, remaining absolutely still. Time would pass. Hope would arise in our hearts, tentatively. Until FUCKING SLAM the next thunderous heel crashed down, more violent muttering, splintering conversation into dead shards. That loveliness lasted from 59th to 125th.
Oh, and lest I forget one vital detail, it was obvious to all seated nearby that gorgonzola-stuffed mackerel-carcasses were jammed deeeeeeeeep in the pockets of his sweatpants.
But where is my compassion? Where is my empathy? Here are people trapped in dire straits, whether streetlocked, disabled, mentally-disrupted, emotionally-taken-apart. They mean me no harm. They are suffering more than I am, ever will perhaps, ever could. And yet here I am, privileged & whining about having to occasionally endure them. What the hell is wrong with me? They deserve a handout, or some compassion, not a wordy web-post.
I used to excoriate myself in just such a way for my recoil, disgust, irritation. I used to really lay into myself for failures of understanding around these kinds of encounters. But gradually I started accepting and owning my responses, and realizing that empathy doesn’t preclude frustration. New York, after all, poses pretty serious social challenges to some of us: we’re thrust into each other cheek & jowl, from dawn to dusk, wedged & pressed & forced to accept the kind of proximity that doesn’t come second nature to us introverts and/or transplants (I’m from the south). Most of the country (for better or worse) lives at a remove from others: sprawl is the rule, not the exception. New York, on the other hand, for all its splendor & beauty & opportunity, is a goddamned fetid warren of flesh, and you can’t get away from that aspect of it if you live, work & love here. You’re going to run smack into it, in all its vast array, in all its bewildering catalogue of souls.
So, given what we have to face, is it so wrong to have our reactions? What’s more New York than being blunt about what thrills us, annoys us, delights us, disgusts? All this compress of skin & face is burden, and if it ease it at all to allow ourselves mutter & groan about that compression’s occasional extremities — someone deranged, lecherous, menacing, reeking, explosive, insulting, insinuating, deranged, invasive; whether rich or poor, black or white, male or female, young or old — then why the fuck not? We can & should have our understanding, compassion, awareness of everyone’s circumstance — AND we can be gagging, fuming & ready to switch cars the next time a gorgonzola-pants lumbers near and starts stomping imaginary roaches.
C. Way/ SnailCrow.com © 2008