The weather last Saturday night – does anyone remember back that far anymore? – was at once insulting and gorgeous. To celebrate the first day of spring and the first day of her menstrual cycle at the same time, Mother Nature chilled the sidewalk just above freezing and twisted the precipitation knob to “hostile, unrelenting spray.” As I made my way to the subway, I chose Joy Division’s Permanent on my iPod because I have a great weakness for the dramatic, and the weather was art directed perfectly for a dramatic evening; it just needed the right soundtrack.
I’ve been making an effort to travel late at night by subway more often. It is a symbolic gesture in my largely failing plan to become fiscally responsible, particularly on evenings when I won’t have to pay for an extra 45 minutes of waiting and MTA travel the next day for lack of sleep. It’s also very quiet on the subway platforms at the hours between midnight and six a.m. (and this was one of those hours) so I had extra time to think…to think about how horrible it was waiting for a subway when I could have been home, on my couch, chasing an oil tanker with a speeding motorcycle and a flame thrower.
When a suitable train finally did arrive, it was about half-empty (which is, ironically, the optimist’s take on subway car occupancy) and I settled into one of those rare two-seaters that face the exits instead of facing the ends of the car. Because of the hand-hold on my left side and a wall on my right, it already felt like a tight fit just by myself. So, when we reached the next stop and a giant of a man decided to ignore the bounty of open seats and squeeze in alongside me instead, it seemed to me an odd choice.
His hands were filthy and tremendous – each one nearly the size of the CRACK’D magazine I was reading. Every time he shifted in his seat, which was constantly, his quilted down jacket sighed great dusty clouds of stale smoke from down-market brand cigarettes. I couldn’t see his face, since he had a sweatshirt hood pulled over his head and its sides acted as blinders, but it wasn’t long before I did the mathematics and realized his size, nervousness, mystery, and smells added up to only one thing: HE WAS SUPER-CRAZY.
In all my years living here I’ve been in the approximate company of many, many crazy people. However, I think this was the closest I’d ever actually been to one – at least to my knowledge. Think about it: how close do you usually let yourself get to insane, twitchy giants? Sometimes I’ll see a commuter reading his paper or correcting students’ papers, seated right next to a sleeping, creeping homeless guy and I’ll think, Now there is a commuter deeply entrenched in his own denial. I realize they’re sitting next to madness out of necessity, but it’s strange how they always pretend everything is cool – “What? Oh ha ha. No, I was not aware that there was a mean seated next to me, good sir. And what’s that you say? He is shouting to everyone on the train that he is under attack by invisible draculas and the only way to defeat them is to expose his scrotum through his zipper? Well, I’ll be. You could have fooled me! What a colorful city. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
I, however, had a choice. There were plenty of other seats available. If I were to move seats out of discomfort, I could just choose one of them. And, of course, if I wanted to change seats out of pure cowardice – something I’ve done many times – I could just pretend to get off at the next stop and then slip low into the car directly behind this one.
But here’s where a funny thing happened. I decided I wanted to ride it out, just to see what would happen. His face was inches from mine, his hands even closer. At one point, one of his hands loomed extremely large in my peripheral vision and I could see all the areas an orange stick might lend assistance. He was mumbling and fiddling and while I didn’t ignore it, I certainly recorded it. I actually remember thinking – and this will, again, sound very dramatic I’m sure – it would be interesting to know how it felt to be so close to being crazy.