LOOKING FOR BETTER ANGELS? TRY THE SUBWAY.

 

The man squeezing in among the standing riders on the packed subway was a tall, beefy African-American in work clothes. He carried a cloth bundle, Babybjorn style. It was slightly open at the top and seemed like it might have a dog down in its folds.

“What’ve you got in there?”

He pulled the opening a little wider, and a Yorkie pup popped his head out a little. But not for long; the noise and the crowd made burrowing down in the bundle preferable. It welcomed a little pat on the head though. Big man smiled proudly. From 86th, where he got on, to 116th, where Ann and I got off, was a ten-minute ride at most, so we talked fast and didn’t bother much with holding back like people usually do when they first meet. He had recently been to Fort Hood in Texas where his parents live, and that’s where he’d gotten the little dog. He was from North Carolina, but he’d lived in Texas too. We told him that we had moved to New York City in 1989 and had lived a lot of places off and on since and were enjoying – a lot – being back in New York for a visit. We agreed that the city is a wonder like no other.

On a Sunday morning, I sat down beside a young woman who was trying in the tight space of a crowded car to get into the New York Times.

“You finish the puzzle yet?”

“Not yet. And then I have another one.” She opened the paper to the once-a-year giant puzzle that covers two whole pages.

We agreed that working on the big one was done best with it laid flat on a table like the holiday jigsaw. Ann brought up crossword contests and how fast the champs are. And so on.

No matter how crowded buses and subways are, people offer us seats. All kinds of people; many we probably have nothing in common with. Maybe more differences than agreement, and some of the differences serious. Seemingly self-absorbed young women who are one with their smart phones. Tough-looking minority men. Tired looking people. Age and [mis]perceived infirmity seem to do away with common lines of separation.

Ann declines the offers politely. She’s not ready for anyone to view her as old or in need of physical assistance. I often accept. I want to encourage such civility, and it makes the donor feel good. Anyway, with all the walking and schlepping the city requires, my back welcomes the rest. I sit and say something not at all interesting about my spine and a conversation follows about chiropractic care, surgery, CBD, and then, depending on how long the ride, it veers off into twists and turns like an episode of The News from Lake Woebegone.

On a five-minute crosstown bus ride to the Metropolitan Museum, we watched a man board without the little paper ticket that is required. The multiple-ride plastic passes no longer work except on the subway. He was out of breath, so I guess he hadn’t wanted to take the time to buy one as it would have made him miss the bus. The driver had waved him on ticketless.

He took a seat beside us while saying something I didn’t catch about the driver’s generosity. We mentioned that the system was cumbersome, and it had changed while we’d been living in Texas the last couple of years.

“Where in Texas?”

With that we began a conversation of blue-ribbon quality and impressive length.

All three of us were on the way to a concert by Ute Lemper. It happened that our new acquaintance, Jonathan Cerucci by name, is manager of Ms. Lemper’s European tour, and a theatrical director, playwright, choreographer, and third-generation Italian whose grandparents had come through Ellis Island. He is on intimate terms with the cheese and sausage shops of the Lower East Side and he disapproves of the trend toward informality of dress at concerts and he admired my bow tie and bow ties in general. Jonathan learned equivalent amounts of stuff about us. The next day, he and I exchanged some emails and made plans for lunch or a drink.

To be sure, violent crime is on the rise in the city. So is ethnic conflict and unrestrained expression of animus. Homeless people beg in the shadow of multimillion-dollar apartments and sleep in church doorways. Bad manners are all too common.

But that’s not the whole story. It’s also a warm embrace of a place, if you give it a chance.