Last week, it happened twice.
On Wednesday afternoon, I joined the masses of people who tune out the city by plugging their ears with headphones and boarded the uptown 1 train towards Columbia. At 96th street, I was listening to Ellie Goulding and through her thin, haunting voice heard the conductor make a strangled announcement, which I did not bother to decipher. The conductors (or “train operators?”) are always making strangled announcements in impatient voices thick with indifference. They hate their jobs. So they don’t bother to enunciate.
A young woman carrying a Columbia book bag stood and exited the train. This should have been my visual cue. After a few seconds, several other people got off. Still nothing registered. Ellie Goulding continued to croon that “anything could happen” and I was suddenly swarmed by a rowdy throng of black middle school children of varying height. They came jostling aboard in their unzipped black puffy North Face jackets (several sizes too big to last more than one winter), bulging backpacks and scuffed sneakers and boots. A little boy grinned sheepishly at me and I saw that he held a green rubber spider on a string. A young girl a half head taller than he, with colored braces, purple glasses and braids smiled at me and I smiled back. The train lurched ahead. We both reached for the same steel pole. I watched as the little boy began to swing the spider, aiming to land it on another girl’s shoulder. Her friend, seeing the trick, nudged her, but the girl caught on. She could see the boy’s reflection in the window.
“You know I’m watching you, right Shawn?” she said, giving him the “don’t bullshit me look” she learned from her mother.
“Doh,” he said, and sulkily withdrew the spider but did not put it in his pocket. He waited for another opportunity and, sensing he was being watched, looked at me. He seemed slightly embarrassed and I for some reason felt embarrassed too, as though I had ruined his fun.
I shook my head with a wry smile, neither in admonishment nor collusion. I remembered myself at that age – climbing trees, hollering in the pool with cousins, shrieking in the schoolyard with friends, and of course, being told to shut up and behave by various teachers. I had played a few dirty tricks myself – made a few kids cry, using mostly words, I suppose – but never on the subway going towards Harlem. Always in the bi-homogenous (mostly white with a sprinkling of Asian) setting of my southern Californian hometown. I thought back to the the black kids I’d known growing up. There were just two, neither of whom I was friends with. They seemed very different from those the children that stood around me now. The black girls were much taller than the boys, making the whole group seem a hodgepodge of disparate ages, but their ages seemed to range from 5th to 8th grade. The younger children stood to one side, talking with grave seriousness about some classmate’s trespass (“She better not say anything or else I’m gonna be so mad), while the taller, older kids laughed and shoved and shrieked. Perhaps they were in a choir or some other school group that culled its members from every grade level. What was clear was they were very comfortable with each other and, it seemed, with the city in which they lived and learned. More comfortable than I, anyhow, at least in these northern boroughs.
I glanced at my watch. 4:05 PM. I had five minutes to get to my 4:10 class. That was fine, just three stops left, a short walk into campus and two flights of stairs. Besides, the professor was of the easygoing sort and was sometimes late himself.
The train rumbled past the next stop. I didn’t notice. I glanced at m phone. What to listen to next? “Anything Could Happen” was finished, but anything could happen and just as I thought this saw 110th St. flash by between the iron beams that border the express track. This I noticed but registered slowly. The express track? Yes. As the answer came 116th Columbia University flickered by, like an old film and I realized the next stop would be 137th St. Just two stops past Columbia but a whole fifteen minutes more, at least, to get there. I sighed. I would not make it to class on time.
A few evenings later I boarded the A train from Chinatown uptown towards home. It was a local train, my friend said, it will stop in your neighborhood. I glanced quickly at the service change poster and absorbed nothing. I criticized the layout – those posters are hard to decipher. With the exception of weekday work hours, the whole system is still, even after three months here, a mystery to me. Local trains become express trains and vice versa. Certain trains, like certain people, don’t work weekends and disappear altogether so that you could essentially wait the entire day before it dawns on you that the train isn’t coming. Certain stations close or only offer shuttle service at certain times. It is exhausting. I learned to pay attention to the conductor’s announcements, at least when the hours are very late or when the destination is not a popular stop, but that Friday I heard no announcement and settled into the seat, convinced I would be home in less than twenty minutes. This was not to be. The train flew past my stop and hurtled northward, stopping finally at 125th St,. The same train also went express downtown, which meant I had to walk across two avenues to take the local one downtown. This is how I found myself walking through Manhattanville at 11:30PM, which is not so late but much later than I’d like it to be when walking alone through Manhattanville.
Perhaps sensing my discomfort from across the country, my parents called me just as I passed a homeless man standing in front of Dunkin’ Donuts.
“Miss, you’re gooooorgeous,” he called, reasserting what I already knew, that all homeless men find me gorgeous, “You wanna buy me something sweet?”
I said hello to my mother and shook my head at him. I quickened my pace, reminding myself that homeless men don’t have money for knives or guns.
“Who was that?” my mother said, “Are you out with friends?”
“I was, now I’m uh, walking to the subway in a not so great neighborhood.”
“Why did you hang out there?”
“I didn’t. I just took the wrong train and ended up here. Now I have to walk a few blocks to the right train and go back towards my apartment.”
They were in the car on their way to a friend’s house. My mother has now made it a habit to call while they’re driving somewhere as she can put me on speakerphone so my father can hear and not have to repeat everything.
“Tell her to be careful,” my father said, even though I could hear him perfectly fine, “Tell her to stay away from those shitty neighborhoods.”
“It’s actually really close to school,” I said, “I just…” I passed another homeless man, this one quietly sleeping alongside a lock and key shop. And another one outside McDonald’s. He too, asked me to buy him dinner.
“Is someone talking to you?”
“The homeless people always talk to you. Unless they’re sleeping.”
“Oh that’s terrible,” my mother said, then never forgetting her bleeding heart tendencies, “But it must be so cold for them.”
“You’re lucky to have a warm, clean apartment to go home to.”
I thought it was odd that my mother was telling me this now. But then I passed yet another slumbering homeless man and did feel very lucky. Homeless people make me feel weird. And so does my mother, sometimes.
My father snorted loudly, “Get on home! Take a cab if you have to. Does the train take a long time to come?”
“No more cabs,” I said, “And I’m almost there anyway.”
I arrived at the stairs and did not feel like panting and talking at the same time. I bid my parents goodbye. I’ll be home in no time from here, I assured them.
“Are you sure you’re at the right station?”
At the top of the stairs there were more stairs. I prayed the train wouldn’t arrive before I got to the top because I was tired and didn’t feel like running up the stairs. Finally, I found myself standing on the downtown platform.
The detour hadn’t been a huge problem. I was tired, but I didn’t really have any place to be. The social aspect of the night was behind me. All that was left was going home.