by Jeanette K. Briggs
I was absorbed in my book when a leg came and sat next to me on the train. A person was attached to it, of course, but the only thing I noticed was the leg, since I had to squish over a bit in order not to touch it. My book was interesting, yet deep, and I struggled to concentrate as the train moved along, my eyes occasionally darting to the book held over the leg next to me. Eventually we came near my town, and the person the leg belonged to immediately noticed that I was gathering my things together. “Is this your stop?” he asked, graciously rising from his seat.
“Thank you, not quite yet,” I replied.
I became aware that he had thick, light-gray hair and crinkles around his eyes. He was tall and spoke in a distinguished way. “I see you got about as far in your book as I did in mine,” he said.
I laughed, since I was still on the same page I had started out on. It contained a diagram about structural engineering. Before I knew it, this stranger and I were discussing physics and the latest theory he had heard, propounded by a professor Greene. Before I left, he introduced himself as Peter and shook my hand.
Wow! I thought to myself, What stimulating people you can meet when you travel to the city! New Yorkers have a bad rap. I remembered the kind bus driver who had let my friend ride with insufficient fare and the handsome stranger who had helped me pick out a necklace. These things had happened on days when I was only visiting New York, but now that I was commuting every week, I vowed to remain open to friendly exchanges and never view someone as merely a leg encroaching on my space. I already enjoyed not having to drive. I also enjoyed the occasional live music and culinary variety at Grand Central Terminal. Commuting, it seemed, could be fun.
One evening I stopped to buy a bottle of juice at the station as I rushed to catch the train home. The vendor gave me a cup of ice along with the unchilled beverage. This presented a rather tricky problem: How was I to open the bottle with one hand while holding the cup in the other? There was only standing room left in the car, so I couldn’t put the cup on my lap. I decided to be bold and request help from a stranger standing nearby who was faced with the same difficulty: “I’ll hold your cup if you’ll hold mine,” I said.
“That’s a good one,” he replied.
Why did he say that? I wondered. Does he think I don’t really mean it? Or is he actually mistaking my remark for a pickup line? I stood with my back against an ad, awkwardly grasping the bottle and the plastic cup and trying to keep my pocketbook and tote straps from sliding down my shoulders. As the train began to move, I watched the slight, gray-suited stranger to see if he would offer to hold my cup after all or hand me his. That’s when I noticed something odd about his sport coat: The left sleeve was hanging limply down his side. I struggled with a feeling of disbelief as I realized that the man had only one arm! He must have thought I was making a joke about it. Before I could say anything in my defense, he walked down the aisle and out of my view.
I looked at the people around me, mortified, wondering who might have heard this exchange and whether they thought I was an insensitive teaser of a handicapped person. No one met my gaze. If something as startling as this can happen, no wonder commuters often avoid talking to each other, I thought. But I won’t let this odd occurrence make me shun interaction with others. I won’t put blinders on and travel in my own little world.
* * *
Then more uncomfortable things began to happen. A toll clerk barked indecipherable words at me when I asked for directions. Other men who sat next to me on the train didn’t read interesting books, like Peter; they read their newspapers and sometimes inconsiderately touched me with their elbows while doing so. The people at my new job didn’t get into lengthy conversations about anything, let alone physics, so I fought against a feeling of isolation the whole time I was in the city. That’s why my ears pricked up one day on the elevator when the small talk of two young men turned interesting.
“We’re going up,” the casually dressed white man said to the black man who stepped in.
“That’s OK: What goes up must come down,” the other responded. “That’s what Newton said, right?”
“I think so. Or maybe it was Galileo,” the first man replied as he stepped out onto his floor.
This is when I chimed in. “Actually, I don’t think either of them said that. In fact, one of Newton’s laws is that a thing in motion will stay in motion in the same direction. So if something is going up, it won’t come down if it can break away from Earth’s gravity. Let’s see, that would happen at about 25,000 miles an hour, wouldn’t it?”
The remaining man’s eyes had widened during my little lecture. Unlike Peter, who would at least have had an opinion about it, this guy was obviously completely unsure of the escape velocity pertaining to the Earth.
“Well, it sure beats discussing the weather,” my elevator mate said as he left. But I doubted his sincerity. He may, in fact, have been calculating the velocity of his own escape from the situation.
As time went on, I enjoyed my commute only on the days I ran into an old friend at the station. We would sit together, discussing our new lives and our old, and sometimes share gripes about fellow passengers. It was comforting traveling with someone who knew me in a context outside the trip, who knew what I was truly like, not just what I appeared to be during a brief moment of interaction. I would look for him in the morning, my attention drawn to any gangly guy coming up the platform steps. Some people would notice my gaze. I would make my face a blank wall to them, reserving my friendliness solely for my friend.
The very blinders I had vowed not to put on seemed to be showing up on my head. One morning, after I paid for my en route cappuccino, I heard a male voice say, “Are you quite finished now?” He sounded excessively polite, maybe sarcastic; I was too concerned with stuffing my change into my wallet to care much whom he was addressing. He was standing nearby, but my eyes looked past him and toward the counter where the cinnamon was. As I headed over there, the words “I hate you [expletive expletive] New York people!” struck my ears.
“What’s that all about?” I vaguely wondered. “Sounds like a crazy person is yelling at somebody.”
“Next time you cut in front, choose someone else!” rang out in the coffee shop.
It suddenly occurred to me that these angry comments had been aimed in my direction and came from the man who had stood beside me. “Wait! I’m not a New York person!” I wanted to exclaim. “I’m from the suburbs: I’m polite! If I cut you off, it’s because I was distracted.” A worker had been mopping the floor near the counter, and I had looked down. A pair of legs had backed away from the counter, and I had moved into their spot. What was wrong with that? But as I left the café, I wondered if I had become “one of them”: a self-absorbed city person, concentrating so hard on not spilling my own coffee and not forgetting my own change that I failed to comprehend others except as obstacles in my path. The angry man had been a pair of legs to me, then a voice; I never saw his face or even his coat. He, though, may have closely observed my appearance. I wondered if he would recognize me there in the future and cause another scene. What was I to do?
Where to get my morning coffee became a problem to be solved, whereas previously only my afternoon caffeine consumption had been an issue. This is because no one made coffee at my office. I had to hunt around for it on the street below. One afternoon I decided to walk into a little shop that had a bright yellow banner hanging vertically beside its glass door. Through the door appeared the colorful fruit-and-vegetable pictures on the side of the Fresh Samantha refrigerator. “Good afternoon, ladies,” the proprietor said. “What can I get you?”
I turned and saw that a thin, strawberry blonde woman had entered right upon my heels. “Do you know what you want?” she asked me, indicating that if I didn’t have my order in mind, she was certainly eager to give hers.
“I’ll have an iced chai,” I said, for a change of pace.
“And what can I get your friend?” he asked.
I looked over at the woman. Her face was expressionless as she placed her order. It didn’t seem to register with her that we had just been designated friends. She had come in for coffee, not small talk, and she paced the tiny wood floor as she waited for her drink. I didn’t respond either: To say, “She’s not my friend,” would sound antisocial, and almost an expression of my true feelings rather than a mere statement of fact: There was nothing friendly about her, and I was not drawn to her. Her bland eyes with pale eyelashes refused to settle on anything and seemed to only look inward. The proprietor handed her her coffee before he finished making my chai.
“Can I get you two anything else?” he asked, as he put ice cubes in my tea.
“No thanks,” I answered, for myself and seemingly for her.
“I’m leaving two dollars by the cash register,” the woman said, as she walked toward the door. He didn’t hear. She repeated her statement and left, obviously too busy to wait for any ringing up of numbers.
The proprietor came over with my tea, and I explained about the money on the counter. “Oh, I thought she was with you,” he said.
“No, she just came in behind me,” I replied, looking at the face of a man so determined to connect to people himself, he even fell into connecting strange people to each other. He was short, dark, and muscular, and the jazz on his sound system soothed me.
“I like your music,” I said.
“I like your hat,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied. “I got it at an arts festival.”
“Do you work around here?”
“Yes, down the street.”
“A company that does direct-mail advertising. I’m a proofreader.”
“I was going to say, you look like a writer.”
This gregarious man saw not only my hat but also straight into my heart. At heart, if not by profession, I was a writer. There was nothing I’d rather look like.
“Come back again,” he said, as I turned to leave.
“I will,” I answered. And, for the sake of my humanity, I knew I would.
BIO: Jeanette K. Briggs has always lived within commuting distance of New York City. In addition to proofreading and editing, she has done copywriting for an international design firm, and written essays that appeared in the New York Times and the Swedish Press. She recently fulfilled a long-held desire to become an art teacher, and plans to publish the children’s book she’s creating with her husband, a watercolor artist.