Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Almost-Empty Subway Car

The last time we flew out of JFK, we hailed a cab because it was 11F and neither of us had gloves on. In the event of me relenting and saying yes to getting a cab, it is usually my husband, patient, focused, and earnest who can step out of the crosswalk, and summon a cab when he doesn’t even want one.  This time, I was the one who saw it, coming from an unexpected direction. It’s a minor triumph when you need one. I threw up an arm and squealed, my hair flying and my bag falling off its wheels.

The sense of victory was short-lived. I was so carsick on the way there that I had to chant to myself and employ advanced breathing techniques: techniques so advanced I don’t even know what they were. I repeated, “I am nauseous. This is temporary. I am cold. This is temporary. I can smell exhaust. This is temporary. That shrill screech hurts my ears. This is temporary,” and so on, listing all of the discomforts, all the way there.

All yellow cab drivers are some kind of terrible, and many are worse than any you’ve ridden with before, lurching forward and slamming on the brakes as if that is the point of driving. The rooftop sign on the cab groaned and rattled like it was breaking and was about to fly off, and if it had I would have been disappointed because nothing would have gotten me to open my eyes. Nothing short of arriving and being dumped in the through lane of the airport terminal, shivering and squinting in the pale light.

This is the very next time, and we take the E all the way to JFK. We have the same suitcases, but this time we have gloves, so we wheel our bags to the subway.  The early morning wait on the platform always feels too long, and the first train that shows up is inevitably the A when you want the E. There are guys standing on the bumpy yellow safety strip at the platform edge, peering down the tunnel in anticipation of the right train. My husband waits as tidily as he packed, with his bags neatly stacked, his arms folded. He seems calm, but he checks his watch again and, tapping the watch with his other hand, gave me a significant look. I fuss with the telescoping handle of my aging bag, which never unlocks as promptly as I think it should and sometimes collapses on me, unexpectedly.

The E finally shows up and the car that opens its doors in front of us is empty except for one person, a woman with a lot of blankets, sleeping on the end bench, her things spilling out into a nest of greasy, ominous fabric. My husband takes a single step towards the empty car and I call out, “Uh huh!” and lunge for the next car, where we are the last on and miss the chance to sit.

If you do not know why you must never pick the almost-empty subway car, I will tell you that it is often because of a smell.

Before the next stop I see a spot mid-car, and we prepare to claim it. There would be a couple of seats more if there weren’t so many sleepers and manspreaders on this train, but they are stationed, one at each pole, like decorative statues in the commuter’s temple. Or gargoyles, with knapsacks. The rhythmic thu-thunk of the train wheels keeps the time of the imperceptible dance of the standing commuter. We move to the open seats as the train stops and the song is interrupted.

There’s an old, bearded guy with a shiny, bald head. He has two paper bags with him, on the seat. I make a gesture about sitting there, and he clutches the bags weakly, making a non-attempt to lift or move them to make room. I sit anyway, and he lets out the creepiest creepy chuckle. It’s for my benefit. My husband sits on my other side, and he and I communicate with blinks and leans. The shiny, bald bearded guy is having a grand time explaining in his own language that he’ll be fixing something, and I’m doing my level best to look anywhere but at him.

By the next stop there is a spot closer to where we stood when we got on. Our departure means the shiny, bald, bearded, chuckling guy now has room to eat, so he opens his foil dish of rice and cracks the top of a can of Budweiser. No one looks at him now. In the hierarchy of subway bad behavior, eating and drinking, though below smelling terrible, are way, way worse than manspreading or snoozing. There are many New Yorkers who will confront a stranger over this, interrupting the silent prayer of the commuter’s temple to speak their mind about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

I won’t look at the shiny, bald, bearded, eating and drinking guy because I don’t want him chuckling at me again.

To get to JFK on the E, you ride almost to the end, where you pick up the AirTrain. Just before we get off, we see the bearded guy earnestly brushing the sticky grains of rice off the seat and onto the floor. There they will be stepped on and ground into a gray mass that will be shortly unrecognizable, and yet still isn’t as bad as what you might encounter on an almost-empty car. 

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