Over four million people ride the New York City subway system every day. Train doors heaving open, sighing shut, hustling bodies either spewing forth onto platforms or jamming intimately into sweating train cars, it always seems a simultaneous impossibility and inevitability that you will run into someone you know. With such masses, all faces seem anonymous, a sea of strangers. With such masses, statistically, it is very plausible that you will bump into an old friend, a former colleague, that girl from your chemistry lab sophomore year. Riding the same lines each day to and fro, your body attuning to the rhythmic sways and jumps of those particular train cars, yawning and straining and lumbering like some primordial earthen beasts, fellow passengers stay distant, but grow familiar. Become soothing characters. About once a week, as I enter the platform at Penn Station, heading back to my neighborhood after a long day in the office, I nearly collide with an older black man, hair awry and tinted with streaks of silver, listening to a Walkman, quaint, and gesticulating wildly. He claps his hands, stomps his sneakers hard, slap, slap, slap against rock pavement. His presence, for now, a soft remainder of the power of our relationship with our interior selves, our relevance of a firm grasp on reality, and of those mostly reliable, until they are not, circadian rhythms of life.
One evening, pressed between a man in a classic charcoal suit and some youth, cap backwards, music loud, I thought I recognized a woman in the middle of the car. Her hair had a memorable wild curl, soft yet assuredly frustratingly unruly, and her eyes were equally memorable round dark moons. I was nearly certain she was my geometry teacher from freshman year of high school. When I was fourteen years old, dreadfully uncomfortable in my new ecosystem, an all-girls private school predominantly populated with the daughters of local wealthy alphas, she was in her early twenties, and seemed to glide effortlessly along to the off-beat of her proverbial drum. While not the most provocatively progressive environment, the school was religiously-independent and liberal, renowned for a robust history of academic rigor; she had staunch Christian principles, which, among a frenzy of pulsing adolescent girls, are not the most popular of beliefs. Fostering a real intimate sense of community, our teachers were very open with us, the traditional pedagogical power structure more nebulous. All together again was a permeating mantraShe spoke freely about waiting until marriage, about not drinking, two tenets that seemed alien for throngs of girls anxious for someone to touch them, who stole liquor regularly and cavalierly from their parents. She was fiercely passionate about mathematics, athletics, volunteering as our junior varsity basketball coach that year. Lean and lanky, alabaster skin with that crop of curls, those dark eyes, she always struck me as fresh; she wore no make up, dressed simply, unlike us students, in a sort of uniform of her own choosing. That type of wiry that quivers with potential energy, like a string, pulled taut. Refreshingly, her disclosure about her own personal views, while leaning towards soft encouragement, were far from preaching or pedantic. Reassuring us; she would listen, her door was open.
Every other day of the week in the rotation schedule, geometry was my first period class. I was one of three freshman students, having already taken the requisite algebra courses at my public middle school. During my year-long tenure at the school, before abandoning the endeavor and returning to my equally academically strong, public high school, I made a few allies, but no true friends. Unlike many of my peers, I often choose to arrive to homeroom early, rather than congregate and giggle in the hallways. I was certainly diligent and studious, but not so fastidious that I craved those precious moments for catching up on schoolwork, rather, I took solace in those brief moments of, generally, welcome silence. One morning, a few days following September 11, eyes down, mind muddled, I pushed open the door to the classroom, without looking. She was leading a small prayer vigil, holding hands with a few students and another teacher, heads bowed in respect. Disrupted, as I hesitated after barging in, muscling the door, she looked up, quiet, eyes dark and looming and immeasurably sad.
I may have mumbled some excuse or apology, before ducking quickly out, heading either to one of the numerous outdoor patio spaces, or perhaps the sterile and beautiful cafeteria. Mortified, and confused, unsure of my own thoughts and feelings of the events of recent weeks, I never formally apologized for interrupting, something I continue to regret to this day. Superficially, such a minor event. Opening a door, finding a room not empty but occupied. I am sure it was the gravity of the times, those tenuous weeks of uneasiness, of fear, of suspicion, of mistrust. The interior world of adolescence was already one of great tumult; the exterior sociopolitical climate seemed to only heighten these feelings of complete unease. After my freshman year, I left the private school, returned to the larger, grittier halls of the more familiar public school. While still in high school, that brief stint in another stratum seemed like a blotch, some odd and unreal experience, not quite so dark as a nightmare, but tinted with a similar anxiety. With some more years and more wisdom, I recognize the experience for what it was: a challenge, but a brilliant opportunity, and one that afforded me an education with some of the greatest and most impassioned teachers I have ever known.
On that subway train, I stared, barely bordering on polite, trying to confirm, to be certain. I spent most of that ride home wondering; what was she reading? Why had she moved to this city? Does she still teach? Does she still pray? Is she still waiting, for love, for lust, for that primal urge so many of us lunge after, that affirmation of our biology, of our physicality? Quite possibly, the woman was simply a stranger, in a sea of strangers, her wild curls of hair a catalyst for reflection.
(image taken from The Gothamist)