If you live in New York City these days and you don’t have a car or enough balls to bike everywhere, you have probably noticed that the subway system would have gone to Hell in a Handbasket but for the fact that’s it’s delayed because of train traffic and will be moving shortly.
So when the R train stopped at Canal st. and the announcer told us that service on that train was terminated and we had to wait for the next Brooklyn bound R train, I was, to use a phrase coined earlier this evening by my friend at Writers and Cooks, “disappointed but not surprised.”
I’ve only waited for the R train at Canal st. one other time in my life, about a year and half ago. While I was waiting, one of my gold earrings fell out, and a stranger saw, picked it up and came over to bring it to me. I was completely bowled over. I must have thanked her about 40 times and talked about for hours. So even though I haven’t waited on that platform since then, I’ve often thought about it fondly.
Since I had already cursed out the MTA in the morning for being slow and in the afternoon for dumping me at a different incorrect location, I figured I should try to dwell on the happy memory of getting my earring back (while blocking out the fact that I lost it again last month at some guy’s apartment…let me be the first to tell you that the power of positive thinking/selective memory is amazing!)
Then, I noticed a calm, elegant looking woman in a floor length suede coat and understated by creative handmade wool hat. She carried a shopping bag containing what looked like posters decoratively wrapped in bright red. Something about her made me think: this woman has an orderly yet fantastic life filled with shopping, and she is going to have an amazing and perfect Christmas. I wanted to be her, to have her packages, her age, her wisdom, and her almost fortress-like aura of safety.
Then I moved on to looking at all the guys on the platform and lamenting that not a single one of them was attractive. I didn’t think about her again until she suddenly exploded out of her mild stance and lunged towards me. “Miss! Excuse me,” her words were clear and sharp, but repressed. “I’m supposed to go Union st.” She paused, hoping she would not have to finish her thought, then plowed on. “My children told me this train would get me back to Brooklyn. They said…” she took a deep breath, as though she might have the power to change history with her words. “They said take the L to 14th st. Then at 14th get the R line to Brooklyn, and to get off at Union. I got on the R and it ended here.” Her eyes dug into me, demanding but desperate.
“Oh!” I tried to conceal my amused empathy and explained, “that R train stopped because of a change in service. But we’re just waiting here for the next one.” She still looked nervous, and muted with disbelief. “I’m going to Union. You’ll get off with me. The next train will be here soon.”
“Oh, Thank you! I’ll have to tell my children someone helped me…”
Of course I was completely lying. The next train never comes soon, even though every time I’m leaving the house 15 minutes late, I tell myself it will. Several minutes later, she observed, shakily but smiling, “It’s amazing how I seem to think that if I keep looking for the train, it will come.”
“Ah, that’s the New York Magical Thinking!” I assured her. “We think, ‘If I just search hard enough down the tunnel, I’ll find the train.'”
“You know,” she told me, gaining confidence. “The MTA is planning major cuts. They’re cutting all weekend service! I read it in the Journal.”
“Yeah, I don’t think they’re cutting all weekend service.” I wanted to let her down gently. “Then again, I read it the Post, so it was more like, ‘oooh, the N train is having an affair with Q train and that’s that why it can only run every ten minutes.” She and the man next to me laughed.
He chimed in, “this is the first time in my life I’ve ever looked down a tunnel for a train! Usually I just figure it will eventually come, but this is really annoying.” And then, just to prove that if you complain enough about the Subway, it does eventually listen to you, the R arrived.
“Here we go!” I told the woman. She held eye contact with me, making sure we boarded the same car.
“I can’t wait to tell my children that some nice young lady their age helped me!” Her speech was effusive but breathy, as though she didn’t quite believe it was true. ” I’m definitely going to tell them!”
“You don’t look old enough to have kids my age,” I enthused, because that is what you are supposed to say to all woman who have any children at all in the Wrinkle-Cream and Home Botox Century.
“My daughter’s 28!” She sounded more proud than flattered. “And…she’s having a baby!!!”
“Congratulations!” We were entering that awkward moment when you get on the train with someone you’ve been talking to and you don’t want to make it weird by continuing the conversation on the train because you will both be trapped. We drifted apart and I had leaned against the door and she had taken a seat when someone ran onto the train, yelling.
“Did someone drop an iPhone?” She waved it in the air. “I found an iPhone on the platform!” Everyone patted their pockets and the girl was about to put the phone back on the platform when another girl yelled, “oh my god!”
A quick tapped of the screen confirmed the phone’s identity, and I turned to my ward/travel partner/grandma-to-be.”Stuff like this doesn’t usually happy in New York.” Of course, I remembered guiltily, that wasn’t true. In fact, at this very station, someone had returned my gold earring. I hung my head, wishing I had defamed our perfectly loving city, at Christmas-time no less! I pulled out my book.
A few stops later I got my own seat, but as I was getting settled I noticed my friend racing off the train at Rector st. still in Manhattan. “No!” I croaked tentatively, wondering if maybe she’d just changed her mind about going to Brooklyn.
She spun around, saw me and slumped with relief. “There you are! I thought you got…” she peered at a figure out the window. “Ugh..my god. Everyone wears black in this city!”
I resisted the slew of snarky jokes I wanted to make as she reclaimed her seat. “We’re in Manhattan still. We’ll be in Brooklyn soon.” She nodded vigorously, looking unconvinced. “I’ll tell you when we get there,” I continued. “And I promise I will not get off the train without you.” She attempted a smile, but after my impassioned speech, there was nothing to do but pretend that we didn’t notice each other.
I returned to essays by Zadie Smith, and she tried to make a call on her cell phone. But every time we got to a new stop, we would make eye contact, and I would mouth how many stops we had left. I felt like a mother in a playground, trying to pretend she’s not part of the picture but watching every swing, step and stumble with magnetic concentration. I was startled by how protective I was of this complete stranger, and by the innocence and surrender required for her to put all her faith in me. Plus, I was relieved that it’s not just crazy people who decide to blindly trust me.
Finally, I was able to say, “We’re next!” and we got off the train together.
“Do you know where you’re going when you get out?” I had gotten her this far, and there was no way I wanted to see her engulfed in a snow drift or in the Gowanus Canal before she reached her destination.
“It’s the Holiday Inn. Right here! I’m ok. And I’m definitely going to tell my kids…a nice young lady helped me…We’re here for Christmas visiting my daughter because she’s having a baby!”
“When is she due?” I asked, for once thinking more about her answer than the fact that I was obviously failing at life because I didn’t have a baby or a dog or even a dish set.
“A month! So she couldn’t come home for Christmas. That’s why we’re here. My husband is visiting his son and so I was with her today and that’s where I’m coming from and why I’m the train…” She stopped to breathe. “I hope you have a Merry Christmas!”
We were silent again until we emerged from the stairs and faced the drifts of snow. “It’s so beautiful,” she gushed in a wondering exhale that I thought must have been due in part to her triumph over the R train.
“I know!” As we left the bar in Union Square, I’d been saying the same thing to my friends, who I think were too worried that I’d actually try to make a snow angel on University Place to agree. But it was very beautiful, and still very white. “So turn here and then make a left. That’s the Holiday Inn.”
“Thank you!” She was girlish, probably the only Mom in Park Slope without a severely anal attitude problem. “I really hope you have such a Merry Christmas! And–” suddenly her face was warmed by the same expression of nurturing pity I must have worn for our whole trip. “I hope you get to see your family!”
Obviously she doesn’t know about my dating history, or she wouldn’t have been so worried.