Seen on the R Train

As the train screeched to a halt at the 46th Street station she looked out the window and smiled at me. That was disconcerting enough. Then the doors opened, and I stepped inside and found a seat. When I glanced over she was still looking at me, a wide, goofy grin plastered on her face. I scrambled for explanations. It is a testament to the uniformity and doggedness with which New Yorkers avoid eye contact on the train that I could not chalk this up to simple friendliness. Did I know her, I wondered? She didn’t look familiar. We were roughly the same age, early thirties. She was dressed in stylish office clothes and a black waistcoat. She had sort of Italian features, tan skin and very dark eyes, almost black, which I had never before encountered anywhere outside a novel. Her dark hair had been dyed blonde, but without first bleaching it, so it hung down now in dense, bronze ringlets just past her shoulders. She grinned again. Was this a flirtation? After more than five years of marriage I wasn’t sure I recognized the signs anymore. And New York is not a city where passing strangers often address each other, unless it’s to ask directions or hand one another a flyer. Unusual as it was, the idea that this woman might be flirting was not totally out of the question. The ages matched up, we were both dressed nicely, and it was early morning on a sparsely populated subway car, a setting where one might feel comfortable letting their guard down. Furtively, I lifted my eyes from the book I was reading and shifted my gaze in her direction. The woman looked back at me, then turned to look across the aisle at a middle-aged guy in an IBEW Local No. 3 sweatshirt and wrinkled ball cap. She smiled crookedly. Then she stared and grinned at the old woman standing by the door waiting to get out at the next stop. Then she turned around in her seat and craned her neck to stare at the Chinese guy who refills the NY Daily News paper boxes every morning, her eyes bulging from her head, and I realized that she was completely nuts.

At 59th and Lexington the car emptied out, as it does every morning, leaving only a couple dozen of us to continue the trek downtown. As the handful of people who board the train at this juncture got on, I heard the woman loudly warning them, in a thick Staten Island accent, to be careful where they sat. On the seat next to her, which had been occupied moments ago by her purse, there was now a puddle of mysterious brown liquid. The train pulled away, making the liquid swirl around in a vaguely circular motion, never quite gathering enough momentum to overflow its banks and spill onto the floor. The woman stared off into the middle-distance, grinning vacantly, clutching her purse on her lap. After a moment she blinked, as if startled awake, undid the clasp on her purse and reached inside. When she brought her hand out she was clutching a Starbucks coffee cup, its sides streaked brown and wet. Tiny drops of coffee collected along the bottom rim, falling to the floor when they grew too heavy.  “They don’t tell you these things when you get it,” she said to a young Latino guy in a yellow flannel, the only person other than me sitting within twenty feet of her. “Absolutely,” he said, in a way that suggested he was well aware she was nuts, but was nonetheless very cute and wearing black nylons. “Did you ever get up really early?” she said. “Y…yeah?” said the Latino guy, his brow furrowed. “WHAT?!” she screamed. He, apparently reassessing his prior calculations, remained silent and turned to stare off down the car.

Pulling into Times Square, the woman rose and made her way towards the doors, reminding me – with her frozen expression and rigid movements – of a mechanical cuckoo as the clock strikes noon. Halfway there she paused and took a packet of tissues from her coat pocket. Removing the plastic wrapper, she tossed the entire stack onto the puddle. “Fixed!” she said brightly, as the doors slid open. Stepping off the train, she made a beeline for the nearest trashcan and dropped her purse inside, contents and all, before climbing the stairs to the street, out of view. As the train pulled away, two men on the platform rushed towards the trashcan and grabbed a hold of the purse, pulling at it and snarling like two dogs fighting over a steak.



Photo Source: Apollo Kidz

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