He and a thin, middle-aged Asian man in a polo shirt were looking to sit at the same time. Both would rest in seats near me when the choosing was done. I could see the decisions being made in the subtle shifting of their eyes. I, myself, had only chosen to sit on account of—earlier—choosing the wrong shoes. To wear, yes. But also to buy and to keep. They hurt my feet; I could feel the blister near my big toe, where I’ll grow a bunion in my old age, like my grandmother did.
The Asian man sat first, two seats from me, leaving the only space on the bench the one next to me. This seat, the other man took, the one whose name I learned shortly after his sitting and also immediately forgot, whether for it’s tribal-slash-ethnic complexities through which it forced my tongue, or my desired separation with the absurd experience that ensued—which, I’m unsure.
It started with an “O” sound.
O asked for the time. No reason not to oblige. He asked if the R train stopped at 9th Avenue. I didn’t know where the train stopped, but was excited about the newly acquired map I carried, so we looked. The R train didn’t stop there. Stopped at 4th Avenue and 9th Street deep in Brooklyn. O seemed fine with that and so, seeing that we were done here, I returned my posture to neutral. I folded my arms over my purse. Sipped my water bottle to chase away the subway stifle. I ended the conversation as I assumed was natural. Politely, of course. Following, of course, all unwritten rules of social interaction. And apart from the deafening drone of the city, enjoyed, of course, the silence between us. Until—
He came again with I’m sorry’s and By the way’s. First about my tattoo—what does it say? Do I know what verse refers to the phrase? And, by the way, am I a Christian? Will I listen to what he has to say—over email, by phone, can he have my number—some day?
The R train came then. No, I said in response, followed by audible ellipses. I’m not from here, I told him.
These cruxes, for me, are difficult crossroads in stranger-conversation. Telling nice people “no”. Folks who seem well-meaning and engaging, who aren’t trying to sell me something, it seems cruel. I feel cruel doing it.
O presses me for contact information and steps in after me onto the traincar.
I survey the car, it’s not full; I’ll be able to slide into a seat. There’s even room for me to walk the length of the car and sit away from O without too much trouble. This is the train that will take me to Wall Street to see my fiancée behind the bar at his fancy restaurant. The track can’t disappear under steel wheels fast enough. All my syllables take ten minutes. I grab a pole and look back at O.
Ma-a-a-aybe—not, I tell him. About the e-mail, I mean. I give not reason. Just let the words be all. He apologizes. Twice. It’s alright, I say. It was nice talking to you.
While I sit facing away from O, after walking the length of the car to find a solitary seat, I sip the last drops in my water bottle and wait for Rector. Not a minute passes—
Excuse me, miss, do I mind if he sits? He’s no good at clues or social conduct, but his mistakes are harmless to me. I acquiesce to more by-the-ways.
Lots of questions, no time for answers. He wants to ask, struggles to listen. Or doesn’t really want to hear. I can’t tell which.
I tell him about the community at Mozart and about teaching high school English. About singing tenor in the choir to Brooklyn Tabernacle arrangements. He likes that. About Tim Keller’s church here in New York and their songwriter’s union. He shares with me what he calls a song, some scratch on a journal page.
And then I ask on innocent ground if he lives around here. Maybe I’ll know the borough. I can look on my map and he can point a finger in the right direction. For this, I was unprepared. He gave no standard signs. Wore a hoodie from a group—maybe a concert or a club. Light blue. Every kind of unthreatening. His greatest crime was annoyance. No smells. No shopping bags. Not until the train creaked and ground to slower speeds at Rector Street, where I would leave, did I notice that he put his notebook into a plastic grocery bag. There were a bunch of books in there. A Bible, I saw, another journal, maybe. The bag was full. It was the only sign.
He’s from Brooklyn, he says first. He was from there some time ago, he then says, something of a correction from the first. He lives on the subways now, at which point the exclamation points take over all creases and crevices of my brain, making any form of logical thought totally impossible. I cannot respond; I’m reasonably sure I was not even in control of my facial responses at this time. He meant to tell me that I was, in fact, sitting in his home at this present time? Huh. I guess I couldn’t blame him for trailing me when I was trying to escape him, then.
I didn’t think of it then, about how complex the system, about how intricate the tunnels, how one swipe gains you access to a seemingly endless labyrinth of corners, crannies, paths, all layers and layers beneath a city of millions of scurrying feet. How, in winter, it’s quite brilliant in ways. There are trains that never stop running. Heating your home for free.
But, in response, in the moment, I was useless to engage, to respond. My stop was here. The doors were opening, I was standing up. I was reviewing our interaction, fooled into thinking he was—what?—like me? There must have been tiny signs to hint at the abnormality of our conversation. Why am I calling it a conversation when I tried to quit talking with him time after time? We weren’t conversing, he was bothering me. Regardless of my efforts at escapism, nothing had made me categorize him as homeless, until he said it without effort. A fluid confession and my reaction, on which everything may have rested. Maybe that’s just it. I should never have categorized him like I do, like we all do, too quickly, quarantining him to a sect I refuse to speak to or sit near. Maybe being bothered by O wasn’t my greatest problem.