subway

Writing the Subway

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The New York City Subway System can be a hotbed for the worst of humanity. Here are two stories that always come to mind:

I was making my way down a crowded stairway to get to the subway. Foot traffic was excruciatingly slow because a woman was struggling to carry her bulky stroller down the stairs. A man pushed past me, and I figured he was rushing to help the woman with her stroller, but instead he ran past her and yelled, “if you make me miss this subway, I’ll kill you and your f***ing baby.” To this day I wonder where he was going to warrant such hostility.

Another time,  a homeless man asked a guy for spare change. The guy didn’t have any cash so he kindly offered up his Chinese takeout. The homeless man took the food and threw it against the subway wall. Greasy, stir-fried rice flew everywhere. Then he pinned the man up against the wall and yelled in his face, “Do I look desperate to you?” I was picking rice out of my purse for weeks afterward.

Oh the stories I could tell.

I love NYC but I oftentimes consider moving far far away after every sweaty, dehumanizing, sardine can-like commute. But, as a writer, I cannot deny the invaluable observational opportunities it provides (wow say that 10 times fast).

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A few days ago I did a fun little writing exercise. I had a 90 minute commute ahead of me so I  took my journal and pen instead of a book. I picked a random stranger at each subway stop and wrote down as much about them as possible.  With over 25 stops I really got to hone my observational skills.  The subway ride flew by, and I was a better writer for it.

Here was my favorite observation:

A man sits across from me.  Slumped in his seat, his legs spread wide and his knees pointing toward the ceiling. He wears light jeans, ragged at the hem, a black knitted hat and a zipped up, navy blue parka. Three black plastic bags rest on the floor between his feet.

With sausage-like fingers he wrestles with a small, colorful, plastic wrapped object. He furrows his brow and sighs, bringing the wrapper to his mouth. He bites the corner off and spits it on the floor. His face glows and he smiles wide when he looks inside the newly opened package.

He dips his finger inside the package and pulls out a candy ring with a shiny red sucker. He places the ring on the very tip of his index finger, as far down as it will go. Licking his lips, he opens his mouth to reveal a glistening pink tongue. He takes the candy jewel in his mouth and closes his eyes for a long time.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed that bizarre little moment if I had my head buried in a book as I usually do. The next time you’re stuck doing something you really don’t like, see if there’s a way of turning it into a constructive exercise.

Masturbation on the subway

A satyr masturbating. Detail of side B of a Gr...

A satyr masturbating. Detail of side B of a Greek column krater showing two satyrs and a maenad in a Dionysiac scene. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night I ran into Masturbating Joe on the subway. That’s my nickname for him because I’ve seen this homeless guy masturbating on the subway three times now. He’s always on a crowded subway, and everyone seems to just let him do his business, as if it would be rude to interrupt him.

I can’t help but think back to my days of student teaching whenever I see Masturbating Joe.

On my very first day, in my very first class I had a student that I will call little Joe. I asked him a question and he proceeded to slide off his stool and began to rub against it. I walked over to him and repeated the question. He kept rubbing against the stool and wouldn’t look at me. “Joe, you need to look at me, I’m asking you a question.”

That’s when my mentor teacher pulled me aside. She explained that Joe had been sexually molested from the time he was a baby until he was five years old. When he gets scared he starts to masturbate because he was so sexually over-sensitized from an early age it’s the only thing that comforts him. After this abuse was discovered he was put into intense counseling, but after 4 years he still wasn’t getting any better.

During the rest of my time student teaching, I really grew to love Joe. He was sweet and sensitive, and eager for my attention. While he never stopped masturbating in class, it was much easier to ignore it.

I think about him often. He would be 14 now. It’s one thing for a nine year old to rub himself against a stool, but another thing for a 14 year old. I wonder if he was ever able to stop the habit. If not, I wonder if he’ll ever be able to have a normal life. Who would employ him? Who would date him? Will he become Masturbating Joe on the subway?

What happened to little Joe was so unfair. He was robbed of a normal life. Once I knew about his history, it was easy to look past his unusual behavior, but I wouldn’t do that for the grown man on the subway.

When does that switch happen? When does someone’s disorder go from being understandable to unacceptable? It’s not like the circumstances that caused the disorder change as someone gets older.

I’m not saying that we should all take a seat next to Masturbating Joe and hold his hand. But I do think that we need to have a little more sympathy for people who do things that disturb us. You never know what caused them to be that way.