Talking to strangers

I’ve pretty much discovered that all of my judgement is dead. Especially on the subway.

Do you make your money selling art beneath the subway amidst the fumes of your incense and other questionable substances? Cool.

Play Marvin Gaye tunes via saxophone on the subway? Swell. (It’s even better when I step onto the platform after a long day and you try to seduce me, and only me, with the smooth sultry tones of “Let’s Get it On.” I smiled when that happened, because I thought it was entertaining.)

Do you swing from the poles of the subway to hip hop music while your buddy plays hype man and the car flies at x miles an hour? Good for you! You probably have great abs, and you can probably ride the subway anywhere with no hands. I haven’t accomplished that yet, which makes your lawsuit-waiting-to-happen behavior that much more exciting. At least it was the first time.

Do you dress up completely in drag? Pft, that’s been done since Shakespeare. You do you boo. You can work those heels better than I can, anyway.

Do you approach a random girl at the park, asking her if you two have plans that night as the booze drips from your breath and she clearly isn’t interested? Whatever. She’s not fazed. (Although I still want that car you promised me. There were witnesses in Washington Square Park who heard you promise it to me, too, so don’t try to back out.)

My point is, you have to start looking through things because if you don’t, you’ll get depressed or just feel way too many things. Sometimes I worry I’ve lost some of my soul a little bit.

But then I realize I haven’t, because the thing is, I appreciate them all. Not only do I appreciate them, but I embrace them. I talk to them. I humor them (see: the strawberry shortcake incident from my last post in the McDonald’s restroom). I assess the situation before I respond, of course, but usually those people who randomly approach other people (especially in public spaces) are just looking for someone to talk to.

Everybody I meet here has something to offer to my writing. I met a policeman on the subway home after work one evening some weeks back. A few minutes earlier he’d offered a woman his seat and she’d said no. After she had gotten off and I sat down next to him, he asked me out of the blue if I’d thought the woman he’d offered his seat to had been pregnant. I hadn’t even noticed and I wasn’t sure was asking. Then he said that he felt bad because perhaps she hadn’t been pregnant. Perhaps, instead, she’d just had a large stomach.

I’m sure that’s a problem that occurs more often than not.

The subway is one of my favorite places to observe people. I’m pretty sure not a day has gone by that I’ve been on it and someone hasn’t told a sob story.

I’ve heard it all, and I’ve been meaning to keep a list of what I’ve heard. That sounds pretty privileged of me, doesn’t it? Seriously, though, the stories are creative.

Talent-wise, I’ve heard it too. Bongos on the subway. Guitar on the subway. Harmonica on the subway. But then…

Just when I thought I wouldn’t be truly impressed until someone lugged a harp onto the subway and played a mashup of a Beatles and Tupac tune, three old black men got on the A train on my way to work yesterday morning and changed my mind.

I don’t normally take the A train, but I had gone to Greenwich Village to take care of some housekeeping things for school and it was the quickest way to work. (I’d been “chewed out” by security 1 trying to get into the building for my class without an ID on Monday, so I wanted to be prepared for my second day of class, which was later that evening.)

When these three men got on, I immediately thought, “Here we go again.” I was reminded of a older man who’d gotten on a train I’d been on earlier in the week. He’d gotten on the subway and even before the doors could close behind him he let out an agonizing moan. It took me a few seconds to realize that moan was the intro to his attempt at singing “My Girl” by The Temptations. He was clearly drunk, and not only did he flail around a wine bottle bag from indifferent passenger to indifferent passenger, but the wine bottle bag had an actual picture of a wine bottle on it.

It wasn’t helping his cause.

So when these three men got on I kind of sighed and half wondered what they were going to do, half turned away. I could tell they were different, though, the minute they started joking around with a Hispanic woman in a completely sober, friendly manner. Then a few seconds later they started singing “Under the Boardwalk” in good old doo-wop fashion and my heart instantly melted. I took out an earbud and felt so genuinely happy.

They were amazing. I wanted to record them on my phone but I didn’t want to be That Girl so I just smiled at them and gave them some change. My eyes stayed on them even after they’d moseyed on to the other end of the train and started singing “This Magic Moment.”2  Listening to their voices reminded me a bit of listening to my grandfather, who has always had a beautiful singing voice.

After they’d left our part of the train I was still smiling. I’m pretty sure the other young people on the train, who paid them no mind, thought I was insane. But I can’t explain how much those old men made my day.

The Hispanic woman with whom the main singer had joked when they first got on turned to her friend and said, “Now, they don’t make music like that anymore. That was good music,” she said earnestly, pointing a finger at no one in particular. I silently agreed.

So there’s them. And then there’s Tucker.

I met Tucker Wednesday night. There’s this wonderful thing called 99 cent pizza in the city where it’s  literally $1.00 for a slice of pizza. I’d gone there before my class and decided that I was too hungry to wait till I got home to eat again, so I figured I’d get pizza before taking the train home.

The downside of 99c pizza places (or at least this particular location) is that there’s no indoor place to eat. So you have to stand outside and eat.

At 6:30 that’s not really a weird thing, but at 10:45 pm the odd people in Greenwich Village come out.

Think Chapel Hill crowd at 2:30am, minus the buffer of drunk college students.

I decided to risk it anyway, so I took my cheese pizza and stood outside, even though I was fully aware that there was this guy with long blonde hair sitting on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette and bothering another nearby group that had just left. I figured I’d scarf it down and be on my merry way.

Before I could swallow my first bite of cheesy goodness, though, the guy had turned his attention to me. “How you doin’, pretty girl? You’re pretty, you know that? Don’t ever let anyone tell you different.”

I smiled politely, not really sure what to say to that. It was an Oprah-like remark to make, so coming from him it felt borderline creepy, so I just said thank you and kept eating.

He continued talking, and I considered ignoring him at first until I realized it was a Wednesday night and I was eating pizza alone on a busy sidewalk. It would be nice to have someone to talk to.

So when he introduced himself, I introduced myself (by nickname, of course), and we talked.

After a few minutes I found out that he was from Boston, had lived in California, had friends in Connecticut, was trying to get to Montana, and had been arrested in Brooklyn the night before (for something that hadn’t been his fault, of course).

Yet I still munched on and humored him, despite the funny looks I got from passerby. I even shook his hand (I knew I had hand sanitizer in my bag, so it was all good). Sure, he hinted at “hanging out” another time–whatever that meant–but I got the sense he acted that way with pretty much anybody who happened to be eating pizza outside of the pizza shop. It didn’t mean anything. And when I left, I wished him a good night, the best of luck and went to catch my train.

Of course, when I left him (somewhat abruptly, because after a few minutes I’d had my fill of humoring him), I’d gone the wrong way. So to avoid awkwardly passing him again I had to take this insane ten-minute long diverted route, because that’s how I am. But it was an interesting interaction nonetheless.

1 “Chewed out” =  Being reprimanded by a security guard’s voice who had that “I’ll let you get away with it for now but the next time I won’t” tone. Either way, I needed to get my student ID.
2More Drifters love.


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