Thursday, November 8, 2007

The saddest thing I've seen in a long time.

Yesterday evening I found myself tired, work-weary, achey-heeled and on the one train descending the island of Manhattan on the 1 train after a rather trying day at work. My commute is just a bit too short to get any serious reading or napping done, but just a bit too long to be totally consumed by what's on my iPod. Needless to say, the black nothingness streaming past the window (or even worse, in the case of track work, trickling past the window) provides little distraction. (I miss the elevated trains of Chicago; great voyeurism there.) As a consequence, I am often drawn to watching my various fellow riders. I'm not going to argue that New Yorkers are naturally more interesting than the people anywhere else, but with 8.5 million people crammed into the roughly 300 square miles that make the five boroughs, sheer numbers dictate that one may run into a particularly beautiful, crazy, or foul smelling person at any time.

Unfortunately, last night failed to prove interesting. An overweight, middle-aged white woman reading John Grisham. Guy in a suit, overcoat, and cashmere scarf that alone must cost more than my entire ensemble. Twenty something latino man in baggy pants with an affable smile. And directly across from me an utterly unremarkable white woman in her twenties. Dressed nondescriptly in conventional contemporary garb so unremarkable I can't even remember it well enough to describe. She was pretty, but in a patently average way. So average that the only feature to stick out in my mind was her eyes: not earth-shattering, but larger than normal. Opened with a doe-like look of innocence and worry. She looked like she might be more quickly to tears than most, but equally more embarrassed by her tears than most who cry easily. They darted around the car, her eyes, not suspiciously, but curiously. There was nervousness about her, but it was not paranoia. It was the sort of nervousness that is rooted wholly in self-consciousness.

She carried an essence that was evocative of every shy girl you knew in high school. You know the girl of whom I speak. She sat next to you in a class or two. She was friendly, you knew she was smart. She always had an extra pencil when you forgot yours, she chuckled earnestly (if self-consciously) at jokes, but she didn't say much. Maybe one day you accidentally discovered something fascinating about her (like she was an aficionado of Wordsworth, she was an amateur calligrapher, she played the piccolo beautifully) but just as likely you never found out anything about her. She was the generic, nice, shy girl about whom no one really knew anything except her two closest friends. That was the air this woman on the train projected. All this analysis, of course, is hind sight.

She got on the train at 72nd St. and I had already pretty much lost interest in her as we pulled into 66th. I thumbed a page in my book, but was too tired to really read, so I turned up the Bob Dylan on my iPod and glared at my reflection in the window across the train, making faces at my reflection as I often do, naively believing this egomaniacal activity to be subtle enough to escape the attention of my fellow riders. I'm sure it doesn't, but it's a lie with which I am comfortable living.

As the train lurched out of the Columbus Circle station, I straightened up inventoried the ephemera on my person to ensure I had everything for my disembarkation at 50th St. Just as I confirmed the presence of my coffee cup, I looked up to see this unremarkable young woman fumble through her bag, in the universal behavior of every commuter everywhere who is bored and needs reading material or other distraction. She pulled out a dark green Barnes and Noble shopping bag, and hesitated before reaching in. This may be the glorious vision of hindsight as opposed to the myopia of present-tense being, but my memory assures me that at this very moment before she reached into the bag, I sensed a sadness about her. I was eager to see the book, as I judge people harshly on their train reading materials (and often have been known to carry out whole 30 second love affairs in my brain with women who read books and magazines of which I approve).

As she slipped the book out, I could immediately by layout and color scheme tell it was one of those insipid "...for Dummies!" books. Immediately, judgment was rapidly setting in my brain. I kept looking still, however, for I wanted to know about what she was a dummy, and therefore seeking personal enhancement. I had steeled myself for the inevitable eye roll, because I had assumed this woman was going to read up on how a "dummy" such as herself might learn more about wine or HTML or fly fishing or knitting or Canada. As opposed to an eye roll, however, my eyes were almost (literally!) brought to tears when I saw this: "Breast Cancer for Dummies."

As I stood up to exit the train I felt sort of punched in the stomach. I'm not an insensitive person, mind you, but in any densely packed city you learn to blind yourself to the sadness of others for the sake of convenience. However, the poignancy of this moment filled me with emotion and sucked the air out of my chest for a moment. I semi-audibly gasped "Oh God!" twice as I exited the train.

Immediately, my mind went flurrying about with tragic fantasies of the process that led up the purchase of this book. This young woman wide-eyed in a cloth hospital gown on an examination gown in a sterile white room as an infuriatingly professional and emotionless doctor discussed her diagnosis. Or, the night previous, sitting on her couch in sweat pants with her legs curled up underneath her, her half-read novel splayed on the coffee table next to a cup of chamomile tea with her cell phone to her ear while her mom told her the "bad news." OR EVEN nude to the waist in a light pink towel staring into the steamed mirror in her apartment feeling with her right arm elevated above her head, left hand gently squeezing her right breast and wondering if that lump she feels is a symptom of her hypochondria or if it is a sign that her body is betraying her. I fantasize about any of these scenarios leading to this young woman screwing up all her courage; deciding that knowledge is the best weapon. I imagine her nervously peering through the health section at the Barnes and Noble, feeling embarrassed for buying a "For Dummies!" book in the first place, and much less about something with the gravitational pull of cancer. Of paying for it with cash so at least she'll be semi-anonymous to the cashier while she buys this book that she feels silly even buying. I imagine her riding the train home, sitting across from me, and feeling the radiating warmth of this book through her bag. The temptation to pull it out and read it. The struggle of will to keep from pulling it out in public, because the topic is embarrassing. Because the book is embarrassing. Because she doesn't want people like me judging her or feeling sorry for her or wondering about her because she's basically a private person and would really not have anyone know or inconvenienced or even interested in her and her relation to this hungry disease. And eventually, the desire to read more about what she most fears is too much. She cannot wait until she gets home and this train is slow and she's nervous and sort of bored because the train is always boring and what the fuck, it's New York City, who cares who sees you reading a book about breast cancer? Who cares? No one will say anything as a subway car or street corner is actually the most private place in the world, anyway, she rationalizes. No one opens up to those around them on the subway. It's even less likely if they seem in trouble, because it's just best to keep moving and go about your business because you don't have the time or the emotional energy to get yourself even for a second mired in someone else's shit. Hell, its more private than her living room where she can hear her roommate alternately fucking or fighting with her on-again off-again boyfriend. And moreover, the temptation to read is just SO strong. Obviously this cancer is consuming most of her thoughts, if not her body yet or her mother's or friend's or aunts or whomever's, it's got her mind and her emotions in its grasp, so why NOT JUST READ THE FUCKING BOOK ON THE TRAIN? No one will even notice, anyway...

All this ran through my head as I went through the turnstile, before I even hit the street level.