The old lady had a look of merriment – not often seen in the subway.
She was talking to herself and talking to strangers around her, trying to create a bit of community on the F train, creeping its way toward the City, as we people from Queens call Manhattan.
I love my occasional rides into The City from near my old neighborhood – legal parking on Midland Parkway right in front of Trump’s old house, between 10 to 4, just right for lunch.
I particularly love these day trips for the interplay between the young and the old, the mixture of ethnicities. Queens. Benign and hopeful and so very American.
Never losing her smile, the old lady apologized, in Spanish, to the woman on her right for jostling her, thereby waking her from a quick nap.
She smiled at a man standing up and pointed to an empty seat next to me. He declined.
Then the old lady began to pay rapt attention to the woman on her left – a much younger woman of Asian ancestry, making up her face, no easy task on a train lurching noisily on mismatched rails.
The younger woman was applying makeup to her cheeks and then she began to touch up her eyebrows, an intricate maneuver requiring a surgeon’s touch.
The older lady followed every stroke as if she were watching an Olympic event – curling, maybe.
She had a rapt smile, perhaps being reminded of her younger self. Her smile was still beautiful.
The younger woman pretended not to notice. Upgraded, she put away her kit and stared straight ahead.
The older lady had two shopping bags on the floor and a bag on her lap. Her tights, under her topcoat, had a couple of holes.
She inspected a black man in a topcoat standing near me.
“Muy bonitos,” she said, pointing to his well-shined shoes.
Several times she made eye contact with me and I smiled back. She was making me happy with her merry but somewhat melancholy smile. She deserved a smile.
She pointed to her imaginary watch, the universal sign.
“Mediodia, menos unos minutes,” I said.
The young woman on her left got off at 63rd and Lexington. Another woman of Asian background took her place, also young, also pretty. The old lady said something to her in English. The young woman looked her in the eye and responded, sweetly. They chatted for a minute or two.
Then the older lady resumed her soft, sweet, bilingual monologue more or less to herself. In Spanish she said she liked to cook but could not afford it. She rubbed thumb and forefinger, indicating no money.
“Donde va hoy?” I asked her. “Wherever somebody will buy me a drink,” she said in Spanish, giggling. She made the universal sign of a glass being tipped to her lips.
I was getting off at Herald Square.
“Buen dia,” I said, getting a big smile.
I hope she’s all right.
* * *
Something nice often happens on my rides.
One day I saw an abuelita struggling upstairs with shopping bags at 179th St. “Pesadas,” I said. Heavy. And I lugged them to her bus stop for east Queens.
* * *
A year ago I saw a couple of young (white) innocents get on the E train at 23rd and Ely, from one of those expensive high rises looming up in Long Island City – two girls, maybe just out of college, probably staked by parents to an expensive new condo, one stop from the City.
One innocent, clearly an out-of-towner, had a large wallet or maybe an iPad sticking out of the back pocket of her designer jeans – three or four inches of value, exposed, for the swiping.
An older Chinese woman waved her index finger at the young woman, as if to say, “Put that thing in your bag.” The innocent smiled, clueless. The older Chinese woman persisted, as a granny would. The innocent’s friend got the point and the valuable was safely stowed. The granny smiled, grimly, and that was that.
* * *
A few months ago, I saw another elderly Chinese woman, also on the E train, pointing to a young African-American woman, standing up, holding an infant. The older lady was pointing to an empty seat. The young woman smiled and nodded to the door, to indicate she was getting off at the next stop.
One New Yorker taking care of another. You see that a lot. My friends from out there in America tell me that New Yorkers are always offering help with street maps or the maze of a huge subway station.
Then again, I remember salarymen and women offering me help – in English -- with the strange addresses of Tokyo. And people walking us a few blocks in Cairo or Mumbai. The old babushkas of Moscow making sure my wife got off at the right bus stop for the circus. It’s a city thing.
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.