The Almost-Empty Subway Car

The last time we flew out of JFK, we hailed a cab because it was 11F and neither of us had gloves on. In the event of me relenting and saying yes to getting a cab, it is usually my husband, patient, focused, and earnest who can step out of the crosswalk, and summon a cab when he doesn’t even want one.  This time, I was the one who saw it, coming from an unexpected direction. It’s a minor triumph when you need one. I threw up an arm and squealed, my hair flying and my bag falling off its wheels.
The sense of victory was short-lived. I was so carsick on the way there that I had to chant to myself and employ advanced breathing techniques: techniques so advanced I don’t even know what they were. I repeated, “I am nauseous. This is temporary. I am cold. This is temporary. I can smell exhaust. This is temporary. That shrill screech hurts my ears. This is temporary,” and so on, listing all of the discomforts, all the way there.
All yellow cab drivers are some kind of terrible, and many are worse than any you’ve ridden with before, lurching forward and slamming on the brakes as if that is the point of driving. The rooftop sign on the cab groaned and rattled like it was breaking and was about to fly off, and if it had I would have been disappointed because nothing would have gotten me to open my eyes. Nothing short of arriving and being dumped in the through lane of the airport terminal, shivering and squinting in the pale light.
This is the very next time, and we take the E all the way to JFK. We have the same suitcases, but this time we have gloves, so we wheel our bags to the subway.  The early morning wait on the platform always feels too long, and the first train that shows up is inevitably the A when you want the E. There are guys standing on the bumpy yellow safety strip at the platform edge, peering down the tunnel in anticipation of the right train. My husband waits as tidily as he packed, with his bags neatly stacked, his arms folded. He seems calm, but he checks his watch again and, tapping the watch with his other hand, gave me a significant look. I fuss with the telescoping handle of my aging bag, which never unlocks as promptly as I think it should and sometimes collapses on me, unexpectedly.
The E finally shows up and the car that opens its doors in front of us is empty except for one person, a woman with a lot of blankets, sleeping on the end bench, her things spilling out into a nest of greasy, ominous fabric. My husband takes a single step towards the empty car and I call out, “Uh huh!” and lunge for the next car, where we are the last on and miss the chance to sit.
If you do not know why you must never pick the almost-empty subway car, I will tell you that it is often because of a smell.
Before the next stop I see a spot mid-car, and we prepare to claim it. There would be a couple of seats more if there weren’t so many sleepers and manspreaders on this train, but they are stationed, one at each pole, like decorative statues in the commuter’s temple. Or gargoyles, with knapsacks. The rhythmic thu-thunk of the train wheels keeps the time of the imperceptible dance of the standing commuter. We move to the open seats as the train stops and the song is interrupted.
Manspreading
There’s an old, bearded guy with a shiny, bald head. He has two paper bags with him, on the seat. I make a gesture about sitting there, and he clutches the bags weakly, making a non-attempt to lift or move them to make room. I sit anyway, and he lets out the creepiest creepy chuckle. It’s for my benefit. My husband sits on my other side, and he and I communicate with blinks and leans. The shiny, bald bearded guy is having a grand time explaining in his own language that he’ll be fixing something, and I’m doing my level best to look anywhere but at him.
By the next stop there is a spot closer to where we stood when we got on. Our departure means the shiny, bald, bearded, chuckling guy now has room to eat, so he opens his foil dish of rice and cracks the top of a can of Budweiser. No one looks at him now. In the hierarchy of subway bad behavior, eating and drinking, though below smelling terrible, are way, way worse than manspreading or snoozing. There are many New Yorkers who will confront a stranger over this, interrupting the silent prayer of the commuter’s temple to speak their mind about what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
I won’t look at the shiny, bald, bearded, eating and drinking guy because I don’t want him chuckling at me again.

To get to JFK on the E, you ride almost to the end, where you pick up the AirTrain. Just before we get off, we see the bearded guy earnestly brushing the sticky grains of rice off the seat and onto the floor. There they will be stepped on and ground into a gray mass that will be shortly unrecognizable, and yet still isn’t as bad as what you might encounter on an almost-empty car. 

What Sun-Faded Signs Don’t Say

They stood together, angled to enclose me like a pair of blonde parentheses. “We feel like we know how great you’re doing because we see you on Facebook,” said one.
“I look at all your pictures,” said the other.
I wanted to tell them the verb people use for that is “creeping,” as in, “I creep on all your pictures.” I didn’t. I wanted to tell the other one that what people see on Facebook is only the good stuff. Facebook is for graduations, job promotions, new babies, softball tournaments. Facebook is not for rehab, dropping out of school, cancer scares, incompetent bosses. It’s like a roster of all the delicious desserts you’ve gotten to eat, and none of the disappointing frozen dinners.
By way of being honest with old friends, I said, “My constant presence on social media is a reflection of my loneliness and isolation.”
This elicited light laughter. It wasn’t unsympathetic laughter. It was appreciative, and only a little uncomfortable.

My husband and I had come a long way, back from New York, for the wedding of a mutual friend. Since we moved from Seattle, our friend had bought a farm, moved her business there, and rescued a bunch of animals. Now she was getting married, having planned a big wedding, marrying her best friend of a number of years. It was a circus-themed affair, and because of who it was, we weren’t scared away by a circus-themed wedding. Maybe somewhat hesitant, but we were going anyway.
Getting to Vashon Island had included a ferry ride from West Seattle. Our morning had been gobbled up settling a monetary crisis for another friend, but we had thought we had enough time to park, walk on the ferry and be met by the shuttle bus. The Washington State Ferry system is a glorious relic of the days when government was big and had an important role in getting people and goods from place to place. People voted for that, and paid for it with their taxes. The white and green-trimmed ferries are huge, with several decks for cars and trucks and other decks for passengers. There is never enough parking at the smaller, neighborhood ferry terminals, but we followed the lead of other cars parked on the street. Though the neat, small clapboard houses near Fauntleroy Dock look just like the rest of West Seattle, the streets are painted with special striping, and the street signs erupt with multiple placards of all sizes and colors, facing the street in erratic angles. The signs we could see and read described the many times that parking was not allowed, during the week, overnight, but we felt we’d found legal parking for the day.

After a short wait in the small terminal, we bought two $5.20 tickets and walked on. We climbed the stairs to the front of the ferry to spend our short crossing as we knew we had always loved to: in the wind and sun.  It was so much as it had always been, engines thrumming, waves slapping, gulls circling that we had not so much a sense of nostalgia but one of stasis, that Seattle was unchanged and unchanging.
The gloss on our feeling of expertise dulled when we walked off the ferry and saw no shuttles anywhere. We wandered around for a bit, and the Bacon Provider called for a cab. Vashon Island isn’t really the kind of a place with cabs per se. There was just a guy you could call, his name was on the Internet, and he’d send someone to get you. Our driver refused to charge us the agreed-upon $25 fare, accepting only $15, but taking the $20 offered her anyway.
So we were late to the wedding, though we didn’t feel late, but we missed the ceremony in the mossy, wooded grove of giant Douglas firs where the beloved old dog was buried, and missed the entrance of the bride on horseback. So be it. We were greeted first by one old friend, and then another. People were happy to see us, asked after the kids. It was easy and pleasant.

The farm is wooded and lush, presided over by tall firs and carpeted in moss and ferns. There is a trim house and neat barn and the circus-themed decorations were joyous rather than jarring. There were too many people to catch up with and not enough time. I spoke to the pair of blondes, toured the property with another friend. Someone mentioned a small nugget of real gossip, but then explained to me, in a whisper, “Another time, over a beer.” It was as close as I came to a real conversation, and it ended as soon as it started.

After the trapeze act finished, the dancing began with a samba dancer wearing a tiny costume consisting of three green sequins working the room. Then, the whole barn crowd from our Seattle years reassembled outside for a group photo. After the photo, one of the blondes confronted me again, this time with the question, “So do you miss Seattle?”
Looking away I said, “Almost every day.”
“What do you miss the most?” she pressed.
I did not answer her.
Later, when we got off the ferry, our rental car was still there, but it had a parking ticket on it. Apparently one of the illegible, sun-faded signs said, “No Parking Weekends or Holidays.” The ticket was $47. We saw it and both laughed: cheap parking by New York City standards.