It’s a scorching and sticky summer day and I’m psyched because it’s 4:30 and I’m out of work early! I hot foot it down the escalator stairs of the Met Life Building, speed walk through Grand Central and am delighted to see the number four train pull into the station as I land on the bottom stair of the subway platform. If everything goes well, I’ll be home in time to take out my road bike and get in five or six good laps of Prospect Park.
There is limited seating, but I get lucky and find an open space. Immediately, I realize that I am across from two young black women. With them are a boy and a girl (around three and four years old) and a chubby, dirty baby boy in a stroller.
The women are loud and they discuss trivial matters at a pitch only AMC Theatre managers could appreciate. The little boy stands on the seat by the door as Woman number one repeatedly screams at him to “Sit down!” Inch-by-inch, the little boy lowers himself down into the seat—sort of. He gets into a low squat and we all know she is satisfied because she says, “That’s riiight!” Then it’s back to inanity at 120 decibels.
Suddenly, the boy and girl start to run up and down the train and it turns into a race. The turn-around point is a poll, which they hold onto as they spin around for the invisible finish line by the doors.
“Crystal siddown, Marcus, siddown! Crystal siddown, Marcus, siddown!” But the race and their laughter continue.
“Come on ya’ll!” screams Woman number one. “I’m sicka this shit! Do you want a beatin? Cause I’m the one for you if you do!” All racing stops. The children sit down and sulk as they swing their feet.
I am embarrassed to my core. Everyone is staring at the scene. Brief-cased men and women stretch to see. Hip Hop teenagers snicker among themselves. A Chinese man hawking cheap toys stops his “Two dolla-Two dolla” chant to take a look. No one knows what to do or say. A West Indian woman next to them is so disgusted that she can’t even look their way. A scowl ingrained on her face. Her back is stiff and upright and her nose arches defiantly in the air. I, too, don’t want to be associated with these women, these girls, but their skin is brown like my own and that makes me so angry I feel heat rising in my chest. I reach for my latest book, La Bella Figura, but it is no consolation.
Woman number two opens a can of cola, puts in a straw and offers a sip to the baby. He reaches out and drinks heartily. I cannot believe what my eyes are seeing.
“Oh look! Look at him drink! He thirsty, yo!”
“Yea. He thirsty and he like it. Hey, you want some of these baby?”
Peanut M&M’s are offered to the baby and he begins to suck on one. The women laugh and woman number two glances at me again. I go back to my book and angle my body away from them. I really want to change cars, but I don’t. My feet hurt and I need a seat. The baby starts to cough, sputter and cry. Woman number two takes him up out of the stroller and pats his back until he recovers.
“Take it easy,” she says. “Take it easy. After all, you’re only six months old.” Another look at me.
Men and woman all over the car continue to stare. I want it to stop, but the Theatre of the Absurd continues. The boy and girl stand on their seats to look out of the window and loudly comment on the trains going by. The women ignore them now. They are only interested in speaking of the trifle of their day: Men, money, clothes and hair. It’s a public three-ring circus everyone can see and hear.
I switch at Nevins and get on the two. At Grand Army Plaza I sprint up the stairs to my neighborhood, my refuge, until I’m out of breath. The sun is shining on Plaza Street and I am reminded that it is still, in fact, a beautiful, wonderful day. I don’t have to look back—at least not until tomorrow. It’s much too unpleasant, you know? I take a deep breath and move on. I’ve got my own world to live in and my own bike to ride.