July has come, and brought with it heat. And not just any heat, no! The thick, tangible kind that hangs heavy in the air, pushing down on your shoulders. The kind that turns the most bubbly, optimistic person into a pessimistic fiend, willing to cut you for that half-empty glass of water. Maybe that’s a little dramatic, but you get my drift. It’s hot, and people are irritable.
The Subway’s Underground is even worse, where the temperature is magnified and trapped, with no hope of escape, and no sign of cool fresh air. At some stations, it feels like you’re in a breadbox that’s locked in a closed-up car on a hot Alabama summer day. So, when the trains don’t run as they should, people really start to lose the plot.
I was riding on a train today, on the way back home from a brunch in Manhattan with a friend I’d found out was in town only a few hours prior. The cool air in the air-conditionined carriage felt like magic on my sweat-covered skin, and I was lost in a book. The train squealed up to a particular stop, and a robotic man’s voice came on and said, “This is the last stop. Everybody get the heck off!” Or something to that extent.
Passengers huffed, and sighed, and swore, and went on, as they reluctantly and hostilely exited the train. One man, who others seemed to be avoiding, seemed angry, but even more hurt than angry, really. It was like he took the messed-up train schedule personally. He had genuine pain in his voice, “Man! Come on, man! This is the second train I’ve had to get off of! This sucks!”
He looked around for camaraderie, but people steered clear of eye contact. Maybe it was the daunting tattoos covering the majority of his caramel canvas, or maybe it was the wild look in his eyes, or maybe it was just the sad city culture of avoiding interaction at all cost. Whatever it was, he got no validation; validation that he seemingly needed so desperately. He shook his head and continued talking about how much it “sucked”. I didn’t feel as strongly as he did, but then again, I wasn’t in the inception of train exits that he found himself in. This was only my first. He was in two deep.
I made eye contact, and gave an empathetic head nod. Thrilled, but still angry, he said, “This sucks! This is the second train I’ve had to get off of!” I agreed that it sucked. He seemed satisfied with that. And strangely, he thanked me. He then stood quietly and waited for the next train.
About five or ten minutes passed before our savior train pulled up. My buddy gave me another glance of “we’re in this together” before we both entered two different doors of the same full carriage. It was packed. I stood by the door, but noticed the man had scored a seat. I actually prefer standing on shorter rides, and this ride fit the bill.
I looked up when I heard the man say, “Ay!” There was an empty seat next to him, and he waved and gestured to inform, I thought, the girl standing in front of me that she could take the seat. She thought the same, but responded in disgust, as if the man was hitting on her. She clicked her teeth rudely, rolled her eyes, pulled her “vintage” button-up blouse (that she probably bought at a “thrift store” in Greenwich Village for a trillion dollars) tighter over her breasts that no one was looking at, and huffed, “No!”
The man pulled back with the, “Girl, PLEASE!” look, and said, “I’m not talking to you! I’m talking to my friend…behind you!” Her face turned several shades of red. I struggled to hold back a chuckle, still not realizing that I was said friend. The man waved me over and patted the seat. I looked around, and then back at him, who was looking at me. That’s when I realized I was the “friend”.
I went over and sat down beside my friend. He shook his head at the audacity of the girl, following it up by asking me what I was reading. “James Baldwin,” I said. He nodded his head in warm approval, “That’s good, man! Real good!” I told him I enjoy it, then returned to my reading. He stared blankly out the window, and the train rode through the dark tunnel.
By the time we screeched to a halt at the next stop, I was again sucked into the world of John Grimes. I barely even noticed we had stopped. And then, the most sweet and human thing happened. The man, my new friend, lovingly patted me on the leg. It was the gentle, tender pat a father would give his son. He said, “A’ight, man! Have a good day!” He looked me deep in the eyes and smiled. I told him to do the same.
It’s amazing how the man’s breech of my personal space affected me. I wouldn’t say I go around wishing to be patted on the leg by complete strangers, but his touch was kind, caring, and sympathetic to “our” unspoken human condition. It brought warmth to my soul, and not the kind of warmth induced by the summer heat; the type of warmth you get from holding a cooing newborn. There was more behind it than a mere pat on the leg; a history, an understanding, a true sense that we are in this together.
Just two dudes, connecting on a deep human level over the “suckiness” of the unruly trains, with nothing more to give than some kind words, a pat, a smile, and strong eye contact, and nothing more desired. It was beautiful. It was real. It felt right. And It was a nice reminder that we are indeed in this together.