My friend Andrea and I were at a downtown café talking about the subways. To wit, every time there’s news of a shooting on the subway, Andrea’s mother, not a New Yorker, calls her.
“You’re not going on the subway, are you?” says her frightened mother.
Andrea assures her that, yes, she will be going on the subway. Andrea has tried to explain to her family — all of whom do not live in New York — the subway is how we all travel and that bad incidents were rare. “I mean,” Andrea said, “what is she thinking? That the day after a shooting there’ll be another shooting?”
Occasionally we do see semi-crazy people on the trains. Some of them are endearing, some irritating. None I’ve seen over a lifetime of riding the trains has emitted waves of danger. (To be sure, I didn’t cozy up to the guy wearing a thick white scarf…which turned out to be a live python.)
I’d taken the subway to get downtown to see Andrea. As I left her to go back to the subway, she said, dryly, “Have an unremarkable trip.”
I got on the train at 14th Street and got a seat. Following me was a very small woman who sat opposite me. Now here’s the thing about being an aware, but not paranoid, New Yorker: right away I thought there was something odd about her. No, not dangerous. Just…strange.
There was nothing particular about her which I could identify as off. She was wearing a respectable sweater, a skirt, sandals with socks — well that might be a bit odd but all sorts of people in the city get their feet into sandals on the first hot day and don’t take them off until the snows come.
I thought her a tiny, old lady, even though I couldn’t see anything about her to pin down her age. She was wearing, as we all do in the subway, a mask over her mouth and nose, and a soft, black rimmed hat pulled so far down over her upper face, between the mask and the hat I couldn’t see her face or her eyes at all.
So that was a bit, I dunno, secretive.
Then, even before the doors closed, she put her fingers into her ears. Sometimes people do that. Sometimes subway brakes can shriek and, I guess, some people worry that the sound might make them deaf.
So, okay. Even if nothing was screechy or even loud. The conductor’s voice over the loudspeaker was at a pleasant pitch.
For the entire trip she sat there with her fingers pressed into her ears, like a child who was refusing to listen. I wondered if she were pressing on earbuds to hear music or something, but no. No earbuds. And no noise from the subway, either. The train was quiet enough for two riders to have a conversation in ordinary speaking voices.
72nd Street, my stop, was her stop, too. She rose, fingers still in her ears and, unlike the rest of us, didn’t grab a pole to steady herself as the train slowed and stopped. She wobbled, fingers in her ears, but did not fall over.
She removed her fingers to walk out the door but once she was on the platform, back into her ears went her fingers. She headed right and, since I headed left, I lost sight of her.
Perhaps I should have followed her to see whether she ever removed her fingers. But I was not that curious.