After 3 years living in the city, I appreciate any transportation above the ground. It's nice to see trees and houses through the windows, far better than the dark tunnels that threaten to take the Subway down to hell. Last year, coming up from the A train, I was sometimes surprised to find myself still in New York. So the commute home on the Long Island Railroad is mostly pleasant. Tonight it was interesting: a chance encounter on the train, blustery wind, a plea for attention. He wore a baseball cap and dirty sweats....Read below for my not quite a J.Peterman experience.
It's cold here now. It rained all day. They said we have a 'Noreaster' blowing in. Having grown up in Florida, any storm without an eye fails to impress me. But it made it most unpleasant to walk in the almost freezing rain. So I was glad when the train arrived and I could get out of the weather. I settled down and tried to arrange my fabulous eggplant colored coat to encourage dryness. I didn't feel like reading. I decided to watch the rain fall.
My zen daze got interrupted by some drunken shouts coming from the back of the car. Sounded like the angry yells of a homeless schizophrenic. I thought, 'This ain't no MTA $2 train! My ticket cost $10 so I don't know what kind of homeless person could afford this train.' A few minutes passed and then I heard the tell-tale shuffling and muttering. 'Huh. So there's a homeless man on the train. Smart place to be on a wet day like this.' I remembered when I got stranded in London in late September a few years ago. Having no money for a hostel, I bought a roundtrip bus ticket to Oxford just so I could have a warm place to sit. I couldn't begrudge someone else looking for warmth.
The shuffling grew louder and as he passed so did the urine-must-alcohol au de street smell. He wore baggy sweatpants falling off his waist and a dingy flannel overshirt. He must have been going to the bathroom. I returned to my window. Some minutes later I hear, "Miss did I pass by you?" The man stood on the stairs leading up to the platform level and asked me that strange question. "What?" He repeated himself and then I understood, he was lost. "Yes you did." He nodded and looked at me. I turned away again.
"Manhuhbubbaba?" "Manhubaba?" He was still talking to me? I squinted at him and tried to figure out what his question meant. Oh, am I going to Manhattan, yes. Then he asked me what I did there, what did I do. I told him I teach. He smiled and said "4th grade?" "No. College." "sh---!" He shook his head and then sat down on the stairs in front of me.
What is it about a young woman alone on public transportation that invites the vagabond and inebriate to talk to her? I knew that curse well growing up and riding the trains in Miami. It's been awhile since I've had such an encounter up here. Well, there but for the grace of God go I... really. He was middle aged. With blond hair and glazed blue eyes and a rough lumpy face. He wasn't skinny so he didn't really look homeless.
Then he began. "I've been in Hampton Bays. Two days. Trying to get into rehab. On the stinking drink. That damn vodka! My old lady, I have a good old lady, yes I do. She got fed up. She told me she was fed up. So I came out here. Two days. I stink now." Then he yelled to someone in the middle of the car "Hey is my stuff over there?" Response in good ol Brooklyn accent: "Do I know you? I'm supposed to watch your stuff now?" "Yes! Is my stuff over there, scumbag?" "I don't know."
Then he turned to me and grumbled about the scumbag. Then yelled again, "You're a scumbag! I'm over here talking to the young lady." "Don't bother her." "Hey! Don't be jel! I'm the one talking to the young lady. Chill." He went on some more about the two days and the drink and these scumbags with a gold spoon in their mouths. "We made a lot of money back in the day. At least I did. But we didn't know. We're so smart we got stuck on stupid didn't we? The world is a bad place." I nodded. "Those two days, Hamptons, that one guy he wanted a fight. I can fight. I used to box. But I hit him there, his tooth bit me." He raised his fist to show me a fresh scratch on one of his knuckles. About this time a man walked up the aisle towards the stairs. The drunk man leaned to the side and told the other to go around him. He said, "No. You get up so I can go." "Go around." "I'm not going around, get up." Surprisingly, he stood to let him pass. "I'm just talking to the young lady, we're chit chatting."
The other middle aged man stopped at the top of the stairs to look down at the drunkman and myself. He gave me a sympathetic look. I gave him an amused smile. He looked like a dad. A working man kind of dad that would beat someone down if necessary. He was letting me know that he wouldn't let drunk man hurt me. He stayed up there the rest of the ride keeping an eye on us. And listening. Drunk man started his monologue again. It felt like listening to someone in a sad play. He told me he was 49. He couldn't believe it because he didn't expect to live that long. He lived hard. He and his buddy. "I buried my buddy this summer. He was my best buddy. We were through thick and thin. Thick and thin! We did time together. We were upstate and at Attica. When we got back we met in the cemetary to party out. He told me he'd bury me. But I said No, I'm going to bury you. And that's the way it was too. He bought a bag of dope and that killed him." His face grew red and he looked away from me as he talked.
"Man it tore me up. Losing him. Tore me up. I can't even look at you now. See? Tore me up bad. I cried for 8 days, I did. We were thick and thin." Then his theme shifted as he turned back to look at me again. He examined my face with a look of surprise--and his glassy eyes were searching mine. At this point I felt a bit uncomfortable. I didn't want to encourage him with rapt attention, but I didn't want to insult him either by ignoring him. Drunk or not he was still a human. So I looked at him as he talked to me but I glanced away often. Making only brief eye contact. The conductor came by and told him not to block the path or bother the lady. He didn't take my ticket. Then he disappeared. I imagine he didn't go far and stayed within listening distance.
"Now what I need is to find a good woman. Man, if I had a woman. I would never drink again. I'd give it up sure thing. I make a good living, operate cranes and heavy machinery. I'd take care of her. If I had a woman. I'd even cook dinner for her. Cook chicken and pork chops. I'd do the cooking, I would! I'd be so good to her." Uh-oh, I could see where he was headed now. I almost told him I'm a vegetarian after he described his luscious meat dishes in more detail. But I bit my tongue. Maybe he didn't mean me. "Give me your number." What? Just like that eh? I said 'No' and shook my head without apology or reservation. He said, "Oh, you're too young, right? I'm too old." I said "yes." There was no reason to tell him that the urine on his clothes was reason enough, not his age.
Then he repeated some of the stuff about being 49. There are still some old hippies left. He's one of them. How did he get that old? He showed me his cut again. He pointed to my skirt and said,"beautiful. That green. That's beautiful." "Thank you." Then he gave me his pedigree. "I'm swedish. Nordic. Swedish. Not Irish. And not that Po-lack. I come from good people. That there, (pointing at my skirt again) that's my grandmother. You look strong, like a strong boned woman." "Yes. I am." "Yeah, I can tell." Then he stood and walked back to his seat. Was this the end?
No. He returned with his grocery bag. He showed it to me. Told me he picked apples from Long Island in there. Red and yellow. Don't they look good? I nodded and he sat down again. As he sat he cursed someone in the middle of the car and grumbled about yuppies. "They don't know tough love. I come from tough love. The world is tough. You look like tough love. Yeah. You're tough love. You would whip me into shape. You'd straighten me right up. That's what I need." I didn't tell him that he was mistaken, that I can't even straighten myself up. But I did frown at him apparently. Because then he said, "You know how I can tell? Your frown. I can see it there. (He pointed to his chin.) I can see your frown there. You're tough. Give me your number."
I said no. Our train neared the next stop. A young skinny man now stood above us with the dad-man, watching. The dad man told young guy "He told me to go around him." They snickered. As the train stopped, drunk man stood and asked if my name was Diana. I said No. The dadman yelled down to him, "Come on man. You're here." Drunk man held his hand out to me. He asked if my name was Karen. I looked at his hand. I couldn't do it. Paying the man some attention was one thing--touching him and who knows where his hand has been? Oh no. Quite another thing. I shook my headat him. The Dadman called down more forcefully. "She doesn't want to shake your hand! Leave the lady alone. Come on! Get out of here." Drunk man turned silently and went up the stairs.
I felt a little bad for the hand thing. But really, where has his hand been? I was grateful to the dadman. The conductor came by again after they left. He asked me if I was ok, how bad was it? Did he need to get the police? I shook my head. Then he smiled and moved on. Without clicking my ticket. This was the first time ever in two months of riding this train that no one asked for my ticket. Hmm. Should I say something? He passed me twice. Maybe he thought I deserved a free ride for keeping the rowdy drunk man placated.
Before the train goes underground towards Manhattan, the Empire State Building is visible. It peeks up behind all the box buildings in Queens. Tonight it looked beautiful. The lights were on and the last of the dusk sun, glowing through the rain clouds silhoutted the tower. I was almost home.