Sad-Eyed Lady of the Train
Ask anybody living in New York City that rides the trains of the subway. Even in the most quiet lull of a smooth ride, something unexpected can occur at any moment. I have heard stories ranging from horrid to hilarious, heartbreaking to joyous, and everything in between. Often times when the mundane is met with the unforeseen, one remembers how the routines of life are nothing but a mere illusion, and no matter how hard one tries to create a bubble, a bubble can be so easily popped. Perhaps one day a book will be in order describing the rides of the multitudes. Maybe I will be the one to write it. Or it could be that child riding the train right now somewhere in this metropolis, her or his eyes round and shiny like marbles, their worldview inexplicably changed forever. A moment branded in their memories, and in that small moment they grow.
Much of us living in the city spend so much time on the trains that it becomes an essential part of our lives, for better or worse. Recently for many, the rides have become akin to some bizarre ring of hell. So when those quiet encounters arrive which seem to redeem all hellish commutes, reducing them to a footnote in the annals of each riders personal public transportation history, one is possibly fooled into believing in the mercy of events in which the sunnier side of humanity shines through the grim overcast darkening the landscape. So, with this story, I bring to you an encounter which some will feel to be merely refreshing in the midst of much drudgery, while others will see through to another layer, and find the grace of simple humanity while riding the train from Manhattan to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn.
But first, before the quiet power of that moment is told, I must preface it with events from my life preceding July 21, 2017. Eleven days before that day, on July 10th, I began a new job at Strategic Financial Solutions. It was a sales job with a salary and was my first full-time job in a corporate setting. If anyone knows anything about me, they would know that this is a little outside of my personality. The job, of which I am no longer employed, made the dullest chore seem like an EDM party in comparison. For ten hours a day, Monday through Friday, I had to sit in a tiny cubicle on a headset and call 300 people and try to convince them why they should stop making their credit card payments and pay us instead. Out of those 300 phone calls, about 10 answered the phone. Out of those 10, 5 told me to “fuck off,” 4 said “maybe,” and 1 signed up because they had no other option outside of bankruptcy. That was a good day. But going into July 10th, I had no idea what the job would entail. It was my first day of training and besides the job I had something much more important on my mind. My wife was due any minute with our second child. After 9 months of pregnancy, Lennox was finally arriving! Four hours into my first day of training I got the phone call. She was in labor. Immediately, I jumped up and made my way to the train. Destination: Brooklyn Birthing Center.
Before Lennox was born, Boni and I were both working part-time to raise Amara. I taught English as a Second Language four mornings per week for the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island. Boni still worked as a flex-worker for CH2M-Hill in Lower Manhattan. Grandma Kim filled in the gap. As a team we made it work. Money was tight, but it was an adventure. Then, around the time of Amara’s first birthday, we conceived Lennox. Before we knew about the pregnancy, he already had his name. This is the nature of paradoxical, planned surprises. We were delighted. But the logistics changed. As 2016 became 2017, then winter turned to spring, we took a trip to Italy. On that trip, perhaps as we were on one of our many train rides around Tuscany, we came to a conclusion: Boni would make the sacrifice and be a stay at home mom. And I would seek full-time employment. Let the chips fall where they may.
And let's not fool ourselves, money is important. No one can deny that. Those who don’t think it is, usually have someone else paying their bills, whether it is mom, sugar daddy, or Uncle Sam. It doesn’t mean I love money. I find it to be an imperfect system, like all human systems, but with two kids and a full-time job, I will have to settle for the single, unemployed to fight that battle to change it to something more utopian. In the meantime, gotta punch the clock. So, with a guaranteed salary and the possibility of commission, I took the sales job. Not that I had other suitors. It seemed my “unique” skill set was lacking in good, old-fashioned corporate experience. So, on July 10th, I cinched my tie and put on my jacket, and stepped out of Grand Central Station on my way to the first morning on the job. One of the things I remembered was that at 9am it was already 90 degrees. It was going to be a helluva day.
The moments I was underground, were moments of pure anxiety. Once the train came up from underground, the intensity heightened with each lunging second toward the next stop on the F train. As the train hurdled through Brooklyn, my shirt was sticking to my back and I kept wiping my brow but some drops escaped and stung my eyes. But none of those details mattered. I was awaiting second-by-second updates as told by my mom (she was visiting and on Amara duty). Where are you? We are in the taxi. How’s Boni? She is fine. Where’s Amara? She is here. I felt helpless. Away in the big city at a job I didn’t give a shit about, a piece of me felt I should be there, holding her hand.
The train dropped me off at Kings Highway and I ran the next mile in my new, shiny brown shoes with my tie swept over my shoulder. By the time I made it to the Brooklyn Birthing Center, I probably looked like I had gone through labor. I was out of breath, my feet were killing me, and I just needed to collapse, not to mention a cold shower. I entered the lobby expecting to meet a scene of equal dramatic flair. Instead, I was met with Grandma Colleen reading a book to Amara and Boni reading a magazine. It appeared I was rushing only to wait, and there was no place I would rather have been.
As the afternoon dissolved to evening, Grandma Colleen took Amara home and the contractions intensified. We had our own private room in the Center which resembled a hotel room. The lighting was low and there were no other women giving birth that night. We had the place to ourselves. It was much different than Lenox Hill Hospital where Amara was born. At Lenox Hill, they really pushed the drugs and the epidural, and nurses and doctors were coming in every two minutes while Boni was chained to her hospital bed with tubes and wires. At the Birthing Center we only had a midwife who seldom intruded. Boni was able to do yoga, stretch on a birthing ball, and take baths. Soon, Linda, one of the more experienced midwives, performed an old-school vaginal scraping technique. Then the contractions came full blast. Four fierce hours later, Lennox arrived and the umbilical cord was cut. Not long after we were at home with a new child before Grandma and Amara even woke up. The experience at the Brooklyn Birthing Center was incredible and transcendent. I would recommend it to anyone willing to step outside the status quo of modern medicine. The midwives were bastions of tranquility and experience. They put the soul back into labor.
One short day later I was back at work to complete my two weeks of training. When Amara was born, I was working at the great Cafe D’Alsace on the Upper East Side. Gabriel, the General Manager, allowed me one month off. At Strategic Financial Solutions, I had to come back immediately. Not because I was forced by management. But because we needed the money. With Amara I was able to nurture her from the first day and spend those sleepy first weeks holding her in my arms. With Lennox, we spoke much of the day through FaceTime, whenever I could steal a moment to see his face. When I arrived home at 9pm, he was already sleeping.
On the last day of training, the corporation through the graduating class a happy hour at some midtown bar overlooking Penn Station. I drank quick and talked fast. I wanted to get all of my cordialities out of the way and go home to my family. It was an exciting night like only Manhattan can deliver. The summer heat was trapped in between buildings and people were looking to let loose. Ten years ago I would have made the most of my night. Heck, maybe even 10 months ago. But the sheen had rubbed off the surface of Manhattan, and all I could see was the dust on the concrete. I left the party and jumped on the train.
Station after station passed and my mind was thinking about how much in life can change in just a few years. Then I thought about my little man and how in the first two weeks of his life I had spent such little time with him. Then I began to imagine the innumerable months ahead. How I would be getting home at 9pm every night and during that time he would grow and grow. Would the weekends be enough to teach him A-E-I-O-U like I did Amara? OR to teach him his colors? Suddenly, I began to cry. At first it was a drop or two. Then a downpour came. I had been holding in all of these emotions for those past two weeks and one crack in the wall caused the whole foundation to come down. Such is the power of water.
I had been so deep in my own tears, I didn’t even realize an old woman sat next to me. She put her hand tenderly on my knee to get my attention. I looked up and saw sad, tired eyes. But the wrinkles at the corner of her mouth drew lines of mirth and laughter.
“Why are you crying?” she asked.
I told her how I was feeling. About the sacrifice I felt I was making with this job I didn’t like. About how I am afraid I won’t have the same relationship with Lennox as I do with Amara. About daddy not being able to be with his family to protect them while I am at work. About how people spend so much of their lives just working to pay rent. It all just poured out of me to this stranger, this sad-eyed lady of the train who I had never met. She looked at me as if I was a child (and I must have been in her eyes). But then she smiled and said, “this is what we do. I have worked the same job for 35 years. I am tired every single day. To take care of your family and make sure they have the things they need to survive this is what you have to do. I didn’t have a husband around. I wish I could have told my children that their father was at work to take care us. You are doing the right thing. So what you are going to do is stop crying. Go home. And enjoy every second you have with your kids. Then on Monday you will wake up and go to work.”
Then the train stopped at 71st street. She got off and I still have never seen her again. Though I don’t work at Strategic anymore, I am still working full-time at a job I love much more. But it still isn’t always easy. Yet, I remember this woman’s words and I can still see her face. In the midst of miserable commutes on a daily basis, I even remember that conversation and foolishly think a beautiful moment like that can redeem the otherwise hellish conditions brought to you by the MTA.