Tuesday, March 20, 2012


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.

The norm.

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.
“I’m Baptist.”
“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.
“Yes, English.”
“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...”

Monday, March 12, 2012

You Know You're in New York When...

Going to the bathroom makes you feel like an idiot.

Seriously, with your fancy bathroom layout, I can't tell what's going on.  Is this a unisex bathroom?  I know a lot of places are, but it would be nice to know; otherwise, I fear that I've accidentally walked into the men's room and anxiously prepare for an awkward encounter.  Sometimes it's not even a "room" but an area...this does not seem conducive to conducting private business.  How does the water turn on?  Is it automatic?  Is that a hand dryer or should I look for towels?  Wait, is that a window behind me in the stall?  Are we sure that it's just there for looks and not an actual window?  I can't be sure.

Once, I even had someone lead me to "the only stall with a door."  Really?!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Confession: Graffiti Can Be Beautiful

Within one square block in Clinton Hill:

I'm not sure these two actually classify as graffiti; they're probably more commissioned mural art.  But I still like to see it on the street.

My Vicarious Musical Life

“Just on my way to see my friend play at Carnegie Hall.  No big.”

So reads my Facebook status from February 13. My friend Clif Brown, a classical guitarist whom I’ve known since our high school youth group days, accompanied Jung Hwa Park, a soprano, at a benefit concert in Weill Recital Hall. 

I’m no musician myself, nor do I know as much about music as I wish I did, but my exposure to choirs and musical friends has taught me a little, and my appreciation for classical music has grown phenomenally in the past few years.  Jung Hwa sang some beautiful classical pieces in German (my favorite), Italian, French, and Korean.  Since I’m unaccustomed to listening to these pieces and completely unfamiliar with the languages, I paid attention only to the emotion conveyed by the performer and the music, glancing occasionally down at the printed translations.  She also sang a few songs in English, including a bit from West Side Story.  She was, obviously, Maria, and a Frenchman sang (and, yes, acted) the part of Tony.  Her accent was quite pronounced in the English, but she was too adorable really for me to care.  Her encore of “How Great Thou Art,” though not in English, particularly moved me.

I enjoyed seeing and hearing Clif play as well.  I’ve not had much exposure to him as a professional musician, though he moved to New York to get his Master’s in performance at the Manhattan School of Music, currently teaches guitar, and plans to pursue a doctorate.  My memories of Clif and a guitar primarily consist of leading us in worship on Wednesday nights and playing an acoustic “Gin and Juice” with the fellas afterwards.  I’m delighted and honored to see him advance professionally, though. 

So many of my friends are incredibly talented, especially musically, and I am blessed to be in a position to support them and witness their success.  That’s right, my vicarious life is so much more impressive than yours.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Subway Soundtrack

The sounds of the subway offer a fascinating study into New York.

Just by listening, a commuter can determine the time of day.  In the early or weekend morning and very late at night, each car is usually quite silent, the sound of the metal-on-metal of the tracks, the screeching of the brakes, the ding of the doors combining into a surprisingly soothing tune, an urban lullaby for those tired enough.  During the morning rush hour, even though the train is at capacity with work-bound travelers, everyone must be either struggling to wake up or upset about the impending workday, for they are still quiet.  The sounds that punctuate the morning commute are the sounds of cheap headphones turned up too loud (to a volume that creates concern for the listener’s future auditory capabilities) and blaring BeyoncĂ©, the desperate “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me!” as someone shoves to get off, and the annoyed conductor’s “Please stand clear of the closing doors so we can go!”  At midday, the sounds of conversation begin to filter through each car more pronouncedly, and in the evening…wait, was that laughter?  Remarkable.

Of course, at any time of day, crazy condemning and cursing people can show up to cause an unwelcome ruckus…that is pointedly ignored.

But then there are the performers.  The subway buskers.  I love the variety above all. The 34th Street Stop in Herald Square, my workday destination, is actually a great stop because there's an area where a pretty decent music act usually sets up: a jazz band, a crooner, a violinist. In any given week, I can be treated to a mariachi band, an impromptu hip-hop duel, or a solo girl guitarist who tries unsuccessfully (and painfully) to resurrect Mariah Carey’s glory days of the ‘90s. I’m still waiting for the day when a group of people consisting of a pot-smoking ex-professor, his transvestite boyfriend, an ex-rock star and his stripper lover, a lesbian performance artist and her lawyer girlfriend, and a filmmaker start weaving in and out of the poles singing about restaurants and Santa Fe.

One Sunday, on my way to the Manhattan-bound A-train at Nostrand and Fulton, at about 8:30 in the morning, I turned the corner and heard the sounds of Cyndi Lauper emanating loudly from an off-key 40-something man four blocks away.  “If you call, I will catch you, I’ll be waiting…time after time.”  But by far, my favorite so far has been on the platform of that subway stop.  I found a spot between two pillars that was free of other commuters (that Isolation M.O.) and opened my book to wait for the train.  But I only got a few sentences in.  Drifting slowly into my awareness was the classic, feel-good sound of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.” Strolling down the platform were four men, probably in their 50s, singing a capella harmonies.  Musically, they weren’t incredible, but I could sense such…pleasure.  They weren’t dressed alike and actually looked like they had been headed to the office or to a leisurely family event (or, in some cases, hopefully to the laundromat) when all of a sudden, they caught each other’s eyes, recognized the shared desire to harmonize, and spontaneously burst into song.  They weren’t pandering for tips, though I would have gladly provided one, they just sounded like they loved to sing.  That’s what they sounded like: delight.

It’s something I recognize.  Although I have no great gift for singing, I absolutely love to do it. I desperately miss being in choir, not only for my friends there and that community but for the pleasure and honor of worshipping in that way.  And I miss my car, the one place where I could sing with abandon.  My car sessions were intense, I’ll tell you – full of Broadway fantasies, soulful expressions, and not a few accompanying dance moves.  The walls are too thin in my apartment to justify singing with any real volume or dedication (although I love to sing, I never said I was all that confident in it…).  I miss my pitiful guitar-playing, the hours I would spend striking the few chords I knew just to sing to something. 

I now look forward to mornings at the A stop platform, for it brings me joy to hear those men enjoying singing. Perhaps it’s only my own wishful longing to sing that I project onto them, but I don’t think so.  All I know is that I’ve never heard the songs of The Temptations sound so good.