8 10 2008

Today I decided to walk from school to Grand Central today because it was so beautiful. Crisp air, bright blue afternoon sky…no need to be crammed and sweating in a subway car. Each time I’ve walked to Grand Central I’ve taken a different avenue or have zigzagged my way uptown. I like to get a feel for each avenue, see how they’re different, see what’s around me. Today I took Lexington Avenue and I’m glad I did. Besides how narrow it was, compared to other avenues, it was beautiful. Old buildings, more residential on the stretch I walked than other avenues…

But the main reason I was so happy to be on Lexington was because, as I was stopped at a corner waiting for traffic to pass, I heard a little voice call out, “Ms. Coggio?” Had I heard the voice say, “Gina?” I probably wouldn’t have turned around because no one knows me by my first name in New York City outside of the school. But because my ears are so trained to small voices calling me by my last name, I turned around immediately and there in front of me was one of my students. She was getting out of a cab with her mother right where I was, and after a few surprised seconds, they invited me up to their building’s roof! 

It was the first rooftop I’ve been on in my life in New York, and I couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful vista or two more lovely people to be up there with. The building has a view of the East River, where I’m told the 4th of July fireworks explode before their eyes, and, better yet, the Empire State Building basically leans over them. We were so close I could almost see into the building’s offices. I exaggerate of course, but the view was really beautiful. Being up so high in the late afternoon, watching the shadows grow long and deep purple across the city while Queens remained golden in the distance brought such calm to my day that had been agitated by some work stress. It was so nice to be up there with my student and her mom; the conversation flowed so easily, and I learned more about their family. I left the roof feeling patient and forgiving.

Much needed qualities, it turned out, because as soon as I did get into the subway at Grand Central, I witnessed some embarrassing behavior (more embarrassing than the woman I saw squatting against the side of the building urinating in broad daylight on my walk over to Lexington Ave) from passengers in the subway: privileged, self-righteous, impatient behavior that made me cringe. A man had held the subway door waiting for his teenage daughter (or neice?) to run in behind him. Three different people spread through the subway immediately clammored at the man to stop holding the door—-a wait that was certainly no longer than five or six seconds. “Jesus Christ!” one man directly opposite the man holding the door. “What the f***?!” He went on swearing to his friend about how inconsiderate the man had been, dropping a few more vulgarities throughout the rest of his (rather loud) complaint session. Another woman seated across from me moaned with an older lady about how “this is exactly how the trains get held up!” And there were a few more whispers throughout the train. All I could think was, for those few seconds of waiting, we had probably made a big difference in that daughter or neice’s day. How nice is it when people hold doors for us? Any kind of door? I wanted to shake my head in shame at the reaction of the complainers on the subway, but I just shot them teacher stares. Had they caught my eye, they would have felt the ice, I’m sure. 

Now I’m back at home with a purring Otis and some string cheese. My neighbors are shouting again and I’m about to watch some television. Today from my perspective was pretty good.


Bad habits.

26 09 2008

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.

On the train.

20 07 2008

“I don’t know how y’all do this everyday,” he tells me. “It’s just crazy! We got lost on our way over here, train took us all the way out to Queens! To the end of Queens!” 

I’ve just gotten on the train at Grand Central, heading downtown to SoHo to find a store I love and a bookstore I love even more. Not long after the doors close, I hear two thick as molasses Southern accents and know in an instant they’re not from around these parts. It’s hard for me not to overhear their conversation—-they’re trying to figure out if Canal Street is a stop on this line—-because I’m crammed up into their armpits. It’s a busy train. The two men lean forward to see whether or not Canal is a stop, and it’s then I decide to offer them certainty.

“It is,” I say quietly. But they don’t hear me and continue poking their heads around me to see the map. “It is,” I say louder and only then do they see me. 

“Well, we’re tryin’a get down to Little Italy and Chinatown, then on over to the World Trade Center site. We’ve only got four hours ’cause we’re in’a army and we gotta get on back.”

I ask them if it’s their first time in the city and they nod their heads affirmatively, a little wide-eyed at the ordeal of trying to take on New York City in four hours. Having gotten lost once already, to the end of Queens, they’d had quite a day. And with this heat I’m sure they were eager to get back into an air conditioned car and head out of the city

“I don’t know how y’all do this everyday!” The older, shorter soldier from the Georgia hills, smiled wide and remarked at “our” ability to take these trains. “We driiiive ever’where we wanna go,” he said. I didn’t have the heart to break it to him that I wasn’t really allowed to get grouped into the “y’all” yet, seeing as I’ve only been in the city for three weeks. Instead I smiled and told him I liked being here a lot. 

“You know,” the older soldier reflected, “For the most part, everyone here has been real nice. It wasn’t like we thought it was gonna be.” And while I smiled with encouragement at that idea, I didn’t have a second heart to tell him that just two days prior on the train a woman—-a fairly high class one at that—-brought a train car to absolute silence when she screamed at a man who’d pushed her onto the subway. And by “push” I mean probably a light shove because I was standing directly behind them and didn’t witness a single thing that would warrant more than a “Hey, man” in response. This woman went on a rampage yelling at the man, “HEY! THAT HURT! HOW DARE YOU PUSH ME! THAT HURT! YOU ASSHOLE! GOD!!” and she continued yelling half-way down the length of the car (all of us still silenced by her sudden anger, and watching her as we might a side show at a carnival), “NO WONDER NO ONE WANTS TO COME TO THIS COUNTRY! NO WONDER NO ONE WANTS TO VISIT AMERICA!”  Never before had I seen such a small encounter, one that could have been quelled by a simple “Oops, I’m so sorry,” so quickly become a matter of international proportions. I had the heart, but not the balls, to thank the woman because up until right then, I hadn’t encountered the stereotype of the angry, middle-aged, New York City professional woman, and I could finally check that off the list of Things To See. I’m not saying she was wrong to say something to the Pusher, but come on, lady. Have a little class. It was an embarrassing moment for women everywhere because you know the Pusher’s going to go back home and talk to his buddies and say something else about women in New York. And now I’m a woman in New York, and this kind of thing matters. I just think it’s a good idea to be nice to people, to say Please, Thank You, and I’m Sorry. I think it’s a shame New Yorkers have the stereotype of being cold and nothing made me happier than hearing that soldier say it wasn’t what he was expecting.