I know my friend Cheyenne will probably throw up when/if she reads this. So, Cheyenne, it might be best to look away.
I always enjoy looking at people on the subway. I don’t know, people are interesting. And sometimes I can start up a good conversation with a perfect stranger and walk off the subway feeling refreshed and positive about mankind.
Today, hopping on the subway at my usual stop and then transferring at Grand Central to the train that takes me to Queens, I happened to sit across from a man who, just moments before, was standing on the platform next to me. He looked like a professional, respectable, educated fellow, mid-forties; he wore a blue fleece with SF (presumably San Francisco) over a button-down shirt and slacks. I didn’t take much note of him when he walked on the train, nor did my gaze settle on him for the first few minutes of the ride out to Queens. It wasn’t until I saw, out of the corner of my eye, his pinky finger in his mouth. At first I just chalked it up to a man with a finger in his mouth, but soon realized his finger wasn’t coming out. Perhaps, as I politely passed glances in his direction, he was picking out a stubborn popcorn kernel from between his teeth. It appeared he’d hooked his pinky around his molar and seemed to be fudging with his finger quite a bit, all the while immersed in his Kindle (that electronic book sold on Amazon.com). Within seconds, I breathed a sigh of relief seeing him withdraw his pinky, but quickly inhaled with confusion as I watched him suck on it, and then put reinsert it into the other side of his mouth, hooking around his other molar. Had this man somehow gotten food stuck in both sets of molars on both sides of his mouth? Not impossible, I thought, but very improbable.
In the same manner that he withdrew his finger from the right side of his mouth, he withdrew the pinky from the left. And then he quickly reinserted—AGAIN, yes I know that again is redundant—into his mouth again, on the right. From Grand Central to my stop in Queens, a solid 12 minutes, the man red and sucked on his pinky. But it wasn’t just that: he was chewing on his pinky. And it wasn’t a mere nibble, it was a full-on Open-Mouth-Insert-Entire-Finger-Gnaw. Then Switch Sides. He continued reading and chewing, sucking, reading, and chewing. Even though more passengers boarded the train, even though he was eventually squished in between two giant people, he continued chewing his finger.
And then it moved on from his pinky fingers to his INDEX. The man stuck his whole index finger into the side of his mouth and chewed it. And when he had chewed it for a few seconds on one side, he switched to the other. And, (now this is the gross part) in between chews, he scratched his head, wiped his nose, wiped his finger on his jacket, and recommenced the chewing. (Cheyenne, I know you are gagging. And trust me, so was I.)
I wanted to ask him if he realized what he was doing. I wanted to ask him if he understood how unhygienic it was to chew his fingers on a subway, fingers that clearly had been other places on his body let alone other places on the subway. I wanted to interrupt his reading and have him stop the chewing because my stomach was beginning to clench with disgust. But I didn’t. Instead I watched his face as he read and he reminded me of a nervous little boy. He must have been reading something really good or interesting, or perhaps he had reached part of the book that was scary because when he chewed his index fingers, his face squinched up like he was reading an awful part of the plot. I could see, quite clearly, he was a nervous man. And the last thing I wanted to do was make him more nervous, or more insecure.
I wonder what this man’s job is, where he lives, who his friends are. I wonder if he’s always been this way: chewing his finger while he reads. I wonder if he is aware of this habit, if he’s ever tried to stop it. I wonder what kind of comfort it brings him, where along the span of his life he learned that this was a comforting feeling.
I was glad to leave the train this afternoon, not simply because it was crowded, but because being that close to someone’s visible subconscious was too uncomfortable.