Most weekday mornings on the subway are the same: struggle to squeeze my way into the subway car on the express train; once that’s managed, struggle to find space for my book; once that’s accomplished, struggle to avoid looking at my watch because I no longer have any control over the fact that, despite my best efforts, I still will be only just on time to work. And of course, maintain my bubble of it’s-morning-and-I’m-going-to-work-so-I’m-not-planning-on-talking-to-anyone blues.
One day, I got on the train expecting nothing different, unaware of the delight that awaited me. Per usual, I stood, attempting to delay the posterior-numbness of eight hours seated in a cheap office chair that would greet me upon my arrival at work. I was reading a book of reflective essays on literature by Michael Chabon (for funsies), and on some level I must have been aware of a voice speaking louder than I’m accustomed to hearing in the mornings. The volume of the voice resulted not from anger, desperation, or insanity, as one might expect; this voice was, surprisingly, animated by geniality.
Of course, I was only tangentially aware of this woman’s voice, so determined was I to finish the essay I was reading.
At the Jay Street-MetroTech stop, the train cleared out a bit, which is always a welcome relief. Commuters cleared the aisles and even some of the seats. I glanced up to see an empty seat and a woman beckoning, “Have a seat!” Well, how could I refuse?
I sat and continued reading…a few lines. I was tempted to feel annoyed by this woman and her loud voice, now amplified by the fact that she was sitting right next to me and distracting me from the words on the page. But then I began to listen in, and any observer would have noticed the corners of my mouth twitching into a smile, one that clearly resulted from a source other than the open book in my hands. Yes, I thought, THIS is what I moved to New York to encounter.
Because of the degree of familiarity in this woman’s voice, I assumed that the man to whom she was speaking was a good friend. Turns out, he was not. This is what I tuned in to:
“Where do you go to church? What faith are you?” Oh, no, I thought. I hope this doesn’t turn into live-action TV evangelism of the alienating sort.
“Baptist? Baptist is not a faith; let me tell you about faith.” She proceeded to quote Hebrews 11, though I’m not sure which version. It surely wasn’t ESV, so she’s clearly not a good PCA-er. Ha. Let’s go with… “‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ So, you know, it’s not about religion, it’s about faith. You have faith that you're going to make it to work, but you don't know. Something could happen to you on the train or on the street. You don’t know....faith is spiritual, see? We are spiritual beings that occupy a body.”
She went on for a minute or two, then asked, “What do you do for a living?”
“[Something generic.] What do you do?”
“I inspire people to be the best they can be.” Clearly. She turned to the man. “You have a wonderful spirit. You’re young but you’re old. You smile with your face; your face smiles.”
The man soon exited the train, possibly gratefully.
Two seconds later, I felt her shift, the sound of her 90s-era windbreaker-material coat swishing to adjust her shoulders in my direction. “Whatcha readin’?”
I turned my book toward her to show her the cover.
“Is that for school?”
I immediately felt myself get offended. I know I look young, but you just assume that I’m a student? Why can’t I just read for pleasure? People do that. Then I realized this defensive posture was ridiculous and ungenerous.
“No, just reading for myself.”
“What do you do? What’s your degree in? English?”
Well, that’s a little scary.
Well, that’s a little scary.
“Ooh, girl. You’re going to help me. Get my number. I’m going to school because I want to open a school. I have my Associate’s now in business, but I’m going to get my Master’s and my Ph.D. In Liberal Arts.”
Umm….How do I say this? Better pose the impossibility of this plan as a question: “Can you do that? Get a Ph.D. in liberal arts? From my experience, it’s a bit more specialized than that.”
“Oh. See, girl, this is why you can help me. Maybe I’ll get my Ph.D. in English like you.”
“Didn’t you say you wanted to open a school? Why don’t you get a degree in Education?”
“That’s so specific. I want to be more general.”
Umm… “Well, actually, graduate degrees in English are pretty limiting and specialized.”
“Really? What do you study?”
“Ooh. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed. But you call me; I’ll help you write your thesis. Get my number.”
So I gave her my book, in which she wrote her name, her email address (Hotmail), her number, her Facebook info.
“What’s your name?”
Her face brightened. She clasped her hands joyously, and I imagined her too-long acrylic nails clicking together. “That’s my goddaughter’s name! It fits a beautiful person with such a good smile. Such a beautiful name.”
“I’ll tell my mom. But…do you know what it means?”
“It’s in the bible.”
“Right, so think about the story…” We proceeded to spend a couple minutes rehashing the story of Jacob, Rachel (the beautiful girl he wanted to marry), and Leah (the homely girl with “weak eyes” whom he was tricked into marrying, who popped out seven kids).
“So what do you think Leah means in Hebrew?”
“Something like ‘steadfast,’ ‘enduring,’ or ‘faithful.’ She gave birth to all those children.”
“Weary. It means weary.”
“Oh! Well, she gave birth to all those children…No, that’s not a good name for you. I’m gonna give you a new name. Ashley.”
What?! “That’s about 50% of the girls in my generation.”
“I got it. Lovely. I’m gonna call you Lovely. See? Because it’s got a V in it for my name Valerie. Lovely because you got a lovely sense about you.”
Eventually I had to get off and go work. As I departed, she urged me to contact her. “Call, email, facebook!” The doors opened, and even before my foot stepped onto the 34th Street platform, I heard her acquire a new target:
“You have a beautiful spirit...”