Sunday, June 8, 2008

The moral choices of new york no. 2 (3/7/08)

I should really say the moral choice of riding the trains, because there are so many moments that make you uncomfortable inside in that way you can't name but which ultimately feel like you either should have done something you didn't or feel like you deserved more than you got. I've had these most poignantly of late in two circumstances. First, I'm coming back from grocery shopping--if you read these you know this story: i'm weighed down with saddlebags coming from union square ready to fall down on the four train--and there are no seats. Standing is fine as long as you don't have shit, especially lots of shit on a crowded train that you have to shift constantly to let people on and off. So it's mounting, my frustration and impatience to get off and get the whole experience over with--anyone who tries to take the moral high ground about not owning a car, about living in a city without one, has some convenient amnesia, I think--and finally I get lucky: a bunch of folks get off and even my slow as snail sludge trail drying in the sun ass can lumber all my junk into a seat.

Then I look up. Or, rather, I look across from looking down to make sure I have everything situation. There, inches from my vision, I mean fucking inches, like her outie bellybutton could tickle my eyelashes inches, is a belly. A pregnant belly. I look sort of half-titled at the woman--a girl, really, at least that's how she looked to me--and she won't look at me. Pretends to be checking out the route line and its lights, like she don't know where she's going. Then I see she won't look at me because she's nervous, scared--the train starts filling up and she starts tapping her left foot real fast.

On every subway car there's a sign above some seats that identify them as priority places for disabled or the elderly or whatever, and that you have to give them up in the even that one of those folks needs a seat. But there's an unwritten, unspoken, but very pressingly felt rule on every ride, part of the etiquette of public transportation, or rather a code of conduct I should say, about who gets a seat first, anywhere, and who gets it last (males are not high on the list, especially perfectly healthy ones under the age of fifty. In fact, they're at the bottom, or near it, behind teenagers). A pregnant woman is just behind an amputee just released from the hospital who happens also to be confined to an oxygen tent. I know that, everyone around me knows that, it's not that hard--you feel this to be true before you know it, without anybody telling you. Sometimes it's a matter of courtesy, a holdover gallant act: here you are ma'am, let me offer you my seat since there are none available and I would rather as a chivalric man sacrifice my seat than see you stand. That sort of thing. OTher times it's obvious obligation, like deepwired, embedded, Darwinian survival of the species type stuff: when the mom and the stroller and two other kids show up, you make room, even if it means squashing your leeks.

I didn't feel guilty or ashamed at first. I was too tired for any of that processing. I was actually confused because I thought this woman was avoiding me because she wanted to kill me, because she was angry at me. But she wasn't. She was just scared, and worried about getting squashed. Just as the switch went on, though, and I began shuffling myself in a way to switch places with her, somehow, on this packed train, we hit the next stop, Fulton St., a bunch of people emptied out, and she plopped down.

Right next to me. So I sat there in silent judgment of myself, the object of my sin sitting right next to me. It never helps if you're of different races, or, in this case, the worst possible combination: a white man and a pregnant black woman. So history basically just cockslapped me. I still can't forget it. I couldn't sit there without feeling anxious and I couldn't leave, either. Like I had to in some way pay.

You know, it's funny. I had another one to tell you all, and it was something that happened at a later time, that balanced the scales. It was something I good I did, a time I got it right ont he train to wipe out the time I got it wrong (and usually I do get it right, despite being a slow-ass learner). But now I can't remember. All I can remember is the other day, when this Haitian family--I think Haitian, they were speaking french with a carib accent and they were dark, dark, dark chocolate--with all this luggage was sitting across from me on my way home Sunday night from Penn Station (i had a lot less luggage). And I remember how a woman came on and just let it go, simple: I lost my job, I'm homeless, I have two children and I'm pregnant. Can you help? Then she said it in Spanish. I remember the short guy with the moustache that looked lonely by the door perked up right away when she did that. And the little girl in the Haitian family, in pigtails and making private jokes to herself, little amusements only she could understand because the world of grownups was too grim and sour, she sat listening to the woman and when she came around the girl went to give her the bottle of Hawaiian punch the girl had not finished, but her parents hissed her back and stuffed the bottle into the girl's little fanny pack looking thing. I remember it was pink and nylon and insulated-padded, and bright yellow on the inside.

Anyway, so she's sitting there ashamed and her parents are yapping back and forth in French, trying to figure out which stop to get off at, but not asking anybody either (the Father guy spoke English, I later found out), and the Father guy starts staring across his seat past two heads to what is obviously a lesbian couple, one sitting with her legs spread and the other standing between them holding on the bar above. They're both laughing and smiling and generally giddy and giggly with that young in love look in their eyes. They get off at the next stop and whisper to each other and sneak glances back through the train window at the man, who's on to other things.

Then, at the next stop, mayhem. They all three, Father, Mother, and girl, head to the door, but kind of slowly, and with no organization of their luggage. There's a single gynormous suitcase left behind, directly across from me, and next thing it's timmmmmmm-ber, falling on me. So I push it back up, but now I can't ignore it. I look from the luggage, to the family that's obscured at the door, and the automated announcer is calling the next stop and "Stand Clear of the Closing Doors," and the bell for the doors closing rings, and I can hear the awful chathunk, chunk, ja-junk, of doors being held. The black dude next to me is grabbing the suitcase with no expression on his face--everyone else in the near vicinity of the suitcase is white--and carrying it to the guy, I think. All I can do is listen as he disappears behind a group of people. In a flash I hear

"You getting off?"
This time faster, impatient: "You getting off here?"
"Oh. No," and then I see the Father guy reemerge and take the suitcase from the other guy's hand. "I'm getting off at the next stop."

So sometimes it's better not to act, but damn if it don't feel the other way around. And damn if I can forget what I should've done and remember when I did.

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