Signs were beginning to creep in that fall might be approaching New York City. People were wearing jeans and sweaters, there was a nice breeze, and the temperature was cool 60 degrees,but not today. It was 90 and humid. A day filled with all the pre-thunderstorm mugginess. However, this miserable weather wasn’t killing my positivity, because I was going to work in Times Square. Not only did I have fun at my restaurant job, but it also had air conditioning I could hide in for eight hours. I couldn’t wait!
Oh boy, was I wrong.
When I arrived at work things were all going well. I was in uniform, away from the heat and ready for a shift of cleaning tables. After about an hour of working my job like normal my manager came up to me. He informed me that they needed someone to go outside and bring customers in. This is a job normally done by a specific person designated by the schedule. Apparently this day someone wasn’t designated, so it was me. The normally designated person gets a higher salary for being outside on the streets. I wasn’t going to be getting this higher salary I was going to stay on the same wages. I was also put in charge of running mine and my co-workers’ dinner breaks, meaning mine would be last. Things were looking bad.
I was outside talking to the foreigners that typically occupy the streets of Times Square when I got called to go two blocks down the road and pick up beer from another restaurant for ours. Turns out I went all the way there and forgot the equipment to carry the beer. And when I finally got the equipment and the beer I didn’t know how to get into the restaurant, for I wasn’t aloud to go in through the lobby with all the customers. You don’t realize how hard it is to stand on the streets of Times Square with cases of beer, until you’re out there doing it. EVERYONE feels the need to stop and pester you about free samples.
Anyways, after a long day of being abused by managers, sweating in the heat, bombarded by tourists and not getting paid the correct salary it was time to go home at the glorious time of 1:00AM. Waiting for the subway is always a whole process. This process involves walking to the station without getting hit on, going through the turnstiles without getting mugged, finding a place to wait for the train without being creeped on and finally waiting for the train in the heat. Because it was past, 11pm the trains were running slower than normal and the construction that was happening on the tracks wasn’t speeding anything up. I waited for the train in the heat and humidity and creepiness for an hour.
Waiting for that train was a time of serious contemplation. I realized I hate this city, I hate this subway, I hate working hard for no money, I hate it all. I just stood there and wanted to cry, but wouldn’t dare utter a sound for it would only attract all of the creeps I’ve been working hard to avoid. Finally after waiting, sweating and holding back tears the train came speeding down the track to the station. I peered in the windows and saw that the trains were crowded. Meaning the chances of getting a seat were slim.
When I got onto the train I saw a man about my age with his feet up on the seat across from him. His eyes were closed, his headphones were blasting in his ears and he looked like he had a day that was similar to mine. It was the look of hopelessness. The look that said, “I’m so tired, so hot, and so over it all that I’m hopeless on this subway train.” He must have sensed that another hopeless spirit had just entered the train. He slowly opened his eyes and offered me the seat.
It was a gesture that felt like it had changed my whole night. I was feeling so much better. Finally I was sitting, I was in air conditioning, I was on my way home and there was someone sitting to the right of me who seemed to be in exactly the same place I was.
We rode like that for a few stops. Then we got the famous spot where the train operator would announce that we were either riding express or local. Express would get me home to my harlem apartment in about 15 minutes, local would be significantly longer. He and I both opened our eyes and turned down our headphones to hear this fatal announcement. The crackling voice came over the speakers and announced that we would be traveling express. We both smiled and turned to see the other’s reaction. It was kind of funny. Brief eye contact and a smile and then back to the land of headphones.
As we rode express to the far uptown area of Manhattan, I found myself imagining his arm around me and my head on his chest. It wasn’t that he was extremely good looking and I wasn’t imagining a crazy night in bed. It was a simple head on the shoulder and an arm around another. Seeking the comfort of another human being that knew how bad my night just was. And I felt in my mind that he was searching for the same thing. It was just the New York, “I have my headphones in don’t bother me” attitude that was keeping it tucked away. We both didn’t want to risk leaving the comfort of the calming music to find comfort in a stranger. But even without speaking we knew the other was there feeling the same way and that was enough.
Two express stops later, I was at my stop. As I rose to leave, I could see his acute sadness. It was the disappointment that we never spoke, never exchanged names or stories, never found that comfort in the stranger. I thought in the brief moment that it takes to walk from my seat to the train doors and exit that maybe I was making this all up in my head. He was just some guy who offered a seat and was heading home. He wasn’t seeking the comfort in my being like I was searching for comfort in his. I was getting so sad. To think the whole magical experience was something I had created. There is no such thing as New York City romance and magic. Harshly reminded of the reality of New York, that no one cares.
Having exited the train, left on a subway platform on the verge of tears, again I turned to look at him one last time. He was sitting upright in his seat now and looking right back at me. As the train doors closed and pulled away all I could muster to do was wave. He waved back and we both knew that was a magical kind of moment. The romance of New York City wasn’t dead.
I’ll probably never see him again. Which in a way is sad because he was a comfort to me in a time when I wanted to scream. But I’m happy because that’s exactly what I needed. I didn’t need anyone to take me out for drinks, or dinner or introduce me to his family. All I needed was a being to sympathize with for a moment. He did just that for me and all without saying one word to me. And that was enough.