The View from the Subway

White Guys Can So Jump.

April 1, 1999

On a cold, gray day I took a midafternoon subway from home (Park Slope in Brooklyn) to the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

For the duration of the forty-minute ride I was surrounded by a whooping band of negative stereotypes — minority kids just released from school (but giving few signs of ever having been in one).  They seemed to be engaged in a contest to see who could say “fuck” the most often.  They wore goofy clothes and had goofy haircuts.  They had gold studs and rings in their ears, noses, eyebrows, lips, tongues, and no doubt elsewhere.  They spoke a version of English that is almost unintelligible to a majority of Americans.  It all played against in-your-face rap “music” that shot out around the edges of their headsets.  They seemed to be operating under a rule that says, “If society marginalizes you, do everything possible to increase your alienation.”  They carried around enough anger to support a war.

I grew up in segregated Southeast Texas.  The annual fair had a “Nigger Day.”   The Peoples Theater had a “nigger balcony.”  I cried for joy when Rev. King stood up by the Washington Monument and enchanted the world with his dream of an integrated America.  Sorry, Dr. King, we changed some laws, but from inside the F Train, integration looks to be still just a dream.

On the return trip, the train couldn’t leave the 68th St. station because of a down-line switching problem.  As it sat with doors open, waiting for the problem to be fixed, people kept pushing into the cars.  And pushing and pushing.  Finally, I couldn’t take it any more, and I worked my way from the car up onto the street like the ball squirting out of a rugby scrum.  So far as I could see, no one else left the train.  For New Yorkers, they seemed oddly passive and willing to be abused.

My plan was to walk down Lexington Avenue and get on the F or the N/R train at some point beyond the site of the breakdown.  In New York, just walking down the street is sometimes a challenge.  The sidewalk was jammed with Hunter College students who seemed as unschooled, selfish, and badly suited for responsible adulthood as were the kids on the subway.  They took up the whole sidewalk, walked against lights holding up traffic, and were generally an impediment to civil order.  They were a hairsbreadth from being a mob.

Throughout the afternoon I kept thinking that there was a time not so long ago when adults made the rules and young people were expected to follow them.  Maybe I invented that world.  So what.  That’s the one we should be living in.  Nowadays, on a New York street the impression is that the kids have taken over.  Generally speaking, little matters beyond immediate gratification of their own desires.  Then they turn twenty-something and become drug dealers and investment bankers riding around in Beamers and sporting Rolexes.  Ugly.

It was high rush hour by the time I got on an N train back to Brooklyn.  I managed to find a seat, though, and I dived immediately into a Robert B. Parker novel.  Spencer and Hawk hadn’t even gotten their dukes up, before a loud voice at the far end of the car began singing to the tune of O Tannenbaum, “Oh blessed be, oh blessed be, the matriar-ar-chy-y.”  This was followed by tuneless, Rex Harrison kind of speaking/singing.  “I have a little knife right here.  I could start right now castrating some of these bastards.  Cut off some cocks and balls right here.  Fucking bastards.  I have a knife.”

People gave the singer sidelong glances — nobody turned their heads, or looked at her directly — one doesn’t do that on subways.  A consensus was arrived at quickly; she was all talk.  Just another ordinary, medium height, thirty-something white woman in a sweatshirt and jeans who was pissed off at men.  And insane.  Now, even a halfway creepy person can empty a subway car the first time it stops.  I’ve seen it.  But this poor woman didn’t move out a single person.  So not only was she crazy, she had to go through life feeling like a failure.  It wasn’t fair.

I had the sense that I might be the only person on the car who thought she was at all noteworthy.  I tried to get the guy in the seat next to me to talk about the situation — you know, just a little fellow-feeling among us normal folks.  He much preferred the physics book he was reading.  Probably studying up on how to build a bomb or something.

Somewhere along the way, the castratory maniac got off, and my attention turned to a little boy (around six years old, I guess) who had earlier fallen into my lap when the train started abruptly.  He and an older kid (brother?) and a woman (mother?) were Russian.  I think.  The little boy said “sorry,” to me, but he talked Russian with the woman.  When the person in the window seat by me got off, the little boy took it and immediately fell asleep, showing off in repose long, long blond eyelashes.  All three of them were pretty, and they were wholesome looking as well.

Actually, Mom was quite a dish — leggy, slender, and full-breasted.  She stood sort of behind me and out of my range of vision, but I knew she was there.  She kept leaning over me to fuss with the sleepy kid.  Every time she did, she poked me on top of the head with her boobs.  No wonder the Moscow subway is so well thought of.

After a while — actually, a fairly long while — I offered her my seat so she could tend to the boy more easily, but they had come to their stop.  As they made their way up the stairwell of the dank and smelly station, they looked typically middle-class American.

When I got off at my stop on 9th Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, it was dark, and I’d had enough of the urban experience for one day.  A little to one side and behind me I caught a peripheral view of a large black man hurrying toward me.  He said something, and I disproved the notion that white guys can’t jump.

In due course, I recovered and gave this man — who it turned out was wearing a pinstriped suit and carrying a briefcase — the directions he’d asked for, and spent the walk home wondering if he’d seen how startled I had been, and if he had, whether he might be correct in concluding that I was a dumb honkie if not worse, or whether feeling — sometimes — threatened and alone and confused and pushed to the wall is natural and understandable in this city, even though one shouldn’t give in to such feelings, and by no means should one start believing that stereotypes are anything more than partly true, of course, and — well — you get the idea.

I love this city.  I hate this city.  I hope I never get used to it.




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