Trains go everywhere except the stop I need. Up one stop too far, then back down on the other side one stop too far. I believe the map shows trains should stop but they roar past the stop I want, and the five minutes of shaking, rocketing train ride indicates it’s too long to walk, especially in the heat. I consult the app and realize our glorious phone apps are never as useful as they purport to be and are as well-coded as the shareware junk I remember from twenty years ago. The paper map a friend mailed to me remains at home, draped over the couch as a key to the city’s idealized geography. I remember being unable to figure out which Green Line train to take when I was in Boston, at college, now more than twenty years ago. Today’s route is green too.
Heat makes the stations smaller, the dark rail channel even more attractive: head spinning I lean over to see a rat and the gravity keeps on going. A Sunday crush of people seems antithetical but people are everywhere: clogging stairwells, standing in groups in front of clogged stairwells, rushing past with bags and the New York hallmark wire folding rolly carts. Small children cry as they always do, pulled along by their pudgy arms by beat-down adults with thousand-yard stares. A few days here and this subset of the world is still overwhelming, uncharitable, marginally comprehensible.
The woman is shorter but not short, thin and tan with blond hair. She is consulting with someone whose English is iffy enough I doubt the right knowledge is being shared. She has a small map from the hotel folded enough so the seams show white paper fuzz, her possible savior outlining the colored paths with a finger.
But I want to get off at 51st.
No, no, is four. Here is. Here.
I am already closer; there is nowhere to be but closer. I’ve got the same problem. Gone back and forth between Grand Central and 59th a couple times.
The bonding happens, no different than in an airport, in an Interstate rest stop, on the shoulder by the broken down bus. She’s happy there’s someone else with her who wants to help–why else would he step forward? It becomes communal now. Together the chances of success are doubled. My gosh, how embarrassing. I haven’t gotten lost yet.
We confer with her map and my app and agree we’re riding the wrong trains, but there’s no way to get to the train that will make the stop we want, despite what the maps seem to show. People press and weave around us and the air smells of creosote and baked electricity. I can feel the smell entering my sweat-drenched clothes, adhering to my skin.
Well, we can try it again. She thinks this is as good an idea as any. She laughs. She’s my age, probably. Like me, she’s not upset either. You go to New York for these kinds of diversions.
She’s from Houston, she says while we wait for the wrong train to come again. She grew up in the big Eastern cities–Connecticut, I think–but followed her Texan husband down to Cancer Alley’s full-frontal insults of humidity and fetid air. She has two daughters who have known nothing else and are full members of the Church of Texas and its tenets: Texas is the center of the universe and to leave Texas is incomprehensible. She’s wanted to come back but her husband didn’t, and her children took up the Church of Texas. She doesn’t seem to have any regrets, or at least her body language and voice don’t betray any to a stranger on a train. She’s back now because her 13-year-old daughter has been in the city for the past week for a dance camp (ballet, I think). The kid was allowed to go without parental detail, but freedom from the constant drumbeat of the Church of Texas opened her eyes to a world far bigger than Texan ego. The kid has been posting Facebook pictures of her and friends by New York sights and the mother has succumbed to helicopter parent syndrome.
I try to find out exactly what the problem is. Has the kid called for help? Had any sobby phone calls? Been in trouble? No to all. The woman says something very telling about parents and suburbia with her body language and reactions far more than what she says. It’s her tone. She saw the kid’s Facebook pictures and got on a plane right away. Her eyes get a little wide and her voice drops: oh, no, that’s going to stop.
I press her more. What exactly is the problem? The woman reports that her daughter is supposed to be chaperoned continually, but her daughter is apparently sneaking out with local girls to see and do things. I express my failure to understand. It doesn’t sound like she sent her kid off to reform school–the camp isn’t a lockdown. The mother imagines her daughter getting in trouble, which seems to involve vague threats of unsavory people with the usual sexual overtones. It’s a story identical to another woman I went out with briefly: one lapse in monitoring her late teenage daughter would instantaneously lead to pregnancy and heroin addiction. I don’t understand this fear. The kid is out having a good time in the city, and local girls at a ballet retreat don’t sound like they’re recruiting for a sex slavery ring. Her mother has the problem I see all the time.
I make a few observations along these lines: it sounds innocuous, she’s out exploring, she comes back early in the evenings and nobody’s reporting any problems. The woman rebuffs these, nicely, without you don’t have kids and don’t understand rationalization. This mom doesn’t seem determined to put the kid on a plane and send her to Bible-thump church every day, but she has the common distortion of how dangerous the world is. The woman believes what she’s seen on TV.
We get off at 59th, having missed the intervening stop again, and spin in place reading signs. We wander a mezzanine and she asks a quintessential local: bedraggled, carrying a pack and a rolly cart, face long with sweat pooling in his small eyes and running off his beard.
You want the six.
Yes! Where is that?
He points, meaning he shrugs a bag-laden arm slightly and stares at a post. People disappear behind it and I realize he’s staring through it. We shift a few feet and see a narrow escalator up to the 6 platform.
Oh! Thank you! The Texan in her comes out, the giddy, happy politeness born out of naivete. It is charming.
The man holds still and stares at her with the special fatigue lifetime residents reserve for tourists. He says: Unh.
We round the corner and join the crush up the narrow escalator. She’s relieved. It’s like it was all those years ago, but it’s like it’s more. She is split between her own thrill, the thrill of the chase, how close to snatching her kid. I say something–I don’t remember what, but meant to emphasize her thrill and pleasure versus her daughter’s imaginary peril. Without recrimination or harshness, she wouldn’t have it. Her daughter was in trouble, or was headed there. We talk a little more about Texas–the pride religion, the football, the heat, how ever she ended up there–and her train comes first. I tell her I hope she keeps having a great time here. She smiles, thanks me; she’s pretty. She waves, the doors close and another one of the city’s million stories bangs and lurches into speed.
Milling through the teeming thousands at Times Square, I wonder how many overwhelmed Plains mothers and fathers are desperate to keep their children from running off into the waiting maws of iniquity and terror. Only half the kids have their parent’s glassy fearful eyes. That’s hopeful.
The next week I’m on the same train, which I can locate and ride without incident. Opposite me is an older woman, blond in modest designer clothes which I notice only after I see the theatre program in her hands. It’s from the festival my friend is a part of and the ostensible reason for my being here. I cross the train to do some promoting, which I find difficult and uncomfortable but this feels like an easy sale. She’s classic New York: kind and affable in that loud and obvious way with the smooth and slightly jumbled pride Texans would like to have. I get the sense she’s got more than a little money, probably enough to live in one of the upscale Park Avenue brownstones rolling by above us, the suited doorman greeting her by name, not saying anything about the facelift. In the fifteen minutes we share, the talk runs from theatre from how Guliani turned the city around to how it’s so green to ride the subway.
You know, everybody I’ve met has been really friendly. Not the New York City stereotype everybody thinks.
Unfriendly?! Who says that? You hear this? She says this to a grey suited man across from me, who my friend is plying with our own theatre program. He says people say New Yorkers aren’t friendly!
Ahh, whadda they know.
That’s what I said! New Yorkers not friendly! Isn’t this friendly? She waves her hands between all of us in big East Coast motions, like a deaf person shouting. Whaddre they talking about?
Some people don’t think the city is safe.
Safe! You hear this? The grey suited guy rolls his eyes. I say something about graffiti, squeegee guys rushing out to clean windshields at stoplights. Oh that was years ago. Guliani cleaned all that up. Even the honking! (At most intersections are now slightly-faded signs declaring DON’T HONK! $350 FINE.) You’re safer here than just about anywhere else. Everyone looks in on everyone else, everybody has their eyes open.
The media have spent a lot of air talking about 9/11 and how it changed the city, made it more coherent, kinder. I don’t repeat this. It’s a touchy subject. The woman gathers my friend and I and walks with us, up the stairs, around the corner, all the way to 79th Street to point us in the right direction. It’s such a gorgeous city. You want 79th–it’s the best walk. Just down there. Have a great time. She tells us her name and share friendly space because I’m never sure about closing the gap with a hug.
I don’t remember her name, or the name of the Houston expatriate. What’s unforgettable is the difference in fear: the one propelled by it, the other rejecting it. It’s a big city and there’s room for both approaches, but the Houston mom seemed determined to have something to fear, and the Park Avenue native seemed to have given it up like a bad habit. How much fear is acculturation? Something we are taught and then never see?
I imagine the Houston woman finding her daughter and yelling and screaming and a sullen flight home. Then I imagine the Houston woman finding her daughter and, assured nothing bad has happened, telling her hotel she’ll be staying a while. I imagine her and her daughter in Times Square, where there are simple chairs placed right in the center of it all, and you can sit and let it swirl around you. Houston did not have eyes glazed with fear. What would she see, if she and her daughter sat in those chairs? Time could stop while all the colors rained down. In the tumult she can realize she is safe and consider what that means.