Got a Happy Story is a community gathering every Monday night where we share stories large and small that have put a smile on our face. It is a time to acknowledge the joy and wonder we experience. The Happy Story diary exists as a way to anchor the community in hope and comfort while we do the hard work of taking back our country. Everyone and all sorts of stories and pictures are welcome. May we find joy and strength here.
I was born with what someone once called a glass ear. I hear like a dog: every sound, no matter how faint or distant. Loud sounds are upsetting and exhausting to me. So I never found the New York City subways a pleasant place to be. In fact, in my thirties I stopped riding them altogether. I took buses everywhere -- which took forever, but were relatively quiet.
But before I surrendered to the vagaries of my glass ear, I had three wonderful experiences on the subways of New York. For some reason, they came to mind when Eddie C asked me to fill in tonight.
WARNING: Strong language ensues.
A Musical Interlude With Strangers
My SO and I used to go ice skating at Sky Rink a couple of times a week. The subway ride from my place was just about fifteen minutes at off-peak times.
One afternoon we got into a car with only two men seated together in the middle. My SO and I sat down at the end of the car, and the doors closed. No sooner did the train start moving than one of them started whistling the overture from The Marriage of Figaro. His companion, never looking at him, joined in with the appropriate accompaniment.
Never conferring, never looking either at each other or the two strangers, my SO and I picked up the other orchestra parts, whistling along with them.
Through four stops, we performed the entire overture, all in perfect pitch and harmony. No one ever looked at anyone else.
As we finished the piece, the train arrived at the 50th Street station, where the two men got up and exited the car. They never looked at us, or acknowledged our combined glorious musical accomplishment. The doors closed, and my SO and I looked at each other and collapsed in laughter.
Just a magical confluence of four random people on a subway train who knew Mozart's music well enough to split the parts and carry each of them.
Just another ride on the subways.
Where Have You Been and Where Are You Now?
One of the last times I rode the subway (though this incident tempted me to keep doing it), I got on at my stop for a forty-minute ride downtown to work. As usual at rush hour, there were no seats left, so I leaned against the doors. No sooner had I settled back against them than an angry man came in through the connecting door between cars, well into a hoarse-voiced tirade that seemed as though it had been going on for quite some time.
To say this gentleman was perturbed is to say Joe McCarthy was an idle gossip. He was so angry, I expected him to burst into flames at any moment. What with the racket of the train against the rails, I only caught the occasional phrase from him.
"...those goddamn motherfuckers..."
Clearly, the man had a gripe. A gripe he would cease bellowing about whenever the train stopped at a station.
At the next stop, two impeccably dressed young African American men got on. As soon as the train jerked into motion, the angry man -- also African American -- started raving again. The two young men exchanged looks and approached him deferentially. One leaned toward him in a casual but self-possessed way. "Hey, brother..." he said gently, trying to coax the older man into calming down. "Why don't you --?" And that was as far as he got.
"I ain't your motherfucking brother, goddammit! Get the hell out of my face!!"
The other young man tried a slightly stronger tone. "Now, there's no need for shouti--"
"I'll shout about whatever I want to shout about!! You don't know what I'm talking about. Hell, you won't know for a damn long time, boy!"
"I know you didn't just call me b--" started the second young man.
The older gent got to his feet and shouted at them, pointing his finger, but I couldn't catch any of it, as we were by then squealing through the familiar din that signaled the curving approach to 42nd Street.
The two young men, having given it their best shot, shrugged and moved off toward the exit.
And my madman, for whom -- for reasons I can't explain -- I was developing a deep affection and compassion, continued his complaints until the train stopped at 42nd.
There a blond, world-weary, middle-aged woman got on and sat in the seat that backed the old man's. She sank into it in relief and closed her eyes, either having just worked a long hard night, or being not quite awake and on her way to another long hard day. I knew she was quite unprepared for what would inevitably ensue, and figured her to join the steady exodus of riders from the car.
I was so wrong.
The train jolted forward again, and my furious friend started his jeremiad again, at top volume. Still, I could only catch bits of it, but I gathered he'd been denied some care or compensation he felt was due him, and was raging against the machine of Social Services. The shrinks call what he was doing -- publicly and to no one in particular venting his spleen -- "decompensating." Decompensating or not, he clearly had a valid complaint.
I watched and waited for the tired blond to shift herself from her comfortable soon-to-be slumber and vacate the premises. But the moment the litany of injustices restarted, she turned her head over her shoulder and shouted to him, in a voice even more hoarse and abrasive than his, "Willya shut up, buddy?"
I know I involuntarily ducked my head forward in a "holy cow" gesture which she caught out of the corner of her eye. She quickly swung her gaze to me and nodded toward the old man as if enlisting me to add my consternation to hers. I gave her as meaningful a look as I could, and very deliberately shook my head, trying to indicate that she should not engage. For all my good intentions in silently trying to warn her, I got only a scornful look in reply.
Meanwhile, the old man wasn't taking any guff from her. He turned and hollered back to her that he had every right to say whatever he pleased. She countered he didn't if it disrupted everyone's ride. His counterpoint was that he could roar and beat his chest anywhere he wanted. To which she shouted "Then get in another car!" He began to answer angrily, but she overrode him, shouting even louder, "Get in another car!!"
He went from craning his neck back towards her to turning his whole body sideways in the seat and uttered words that have resonated in my mind for decades now, as I try to sort it through: a report of his present location? an astral point of view? an existential dilemma?
He mustered all his rage and frustration and screamed back at her...
"I AM IN ANOTHER CAR!!!!"
A SINGLE LETTER COSMICALLY SHIFTS THE MESSAGE
There are all kinds of wonderful graffiti in unexpected places around New York. A friend once told me of some in the men's room at City College: a blue dot was painted just above the urinal, with a blue line leading upward. The line continued all the way up the wall, and then onto the ceiling, traversing it halfway to the opposite wall, so that your eye followed it upward and then above you. Where the line ended was the simple message: "Schmuck: you're pissing on the wall."
My mother once read a delicious series of comments, each in distinctly different handwriting, on the wall of a ladies' room stall at, of all places, the NY Institute of Mental Health. The comments read:
The Bayou Tapestry eats paisley pairs.
So does the Unicorn Tapestry.
You mean like y'all have down in N'Orleans?
Don't you mean Bayeaux?
So how's by you?
But the best single graffito I ever saw was a subtle amendment to the strongly written "Slaughter is a bad motherfucker."
Someone with a great eye for wordplay had come along and marked a slash through the S in slaughter. The comment now said all that ever need be said about life:
Laughter is a bad motherfucker.
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