Main | Thursday, November 04, 2004

The Silent Shuttle

It was nearly midnight when I boarded the 'S' train shuttle under Times Square. The train was already waiting when I arrived at its platform, doors wide open, and not a passenger in sight.

I walked up to the first car and stepped in, marveling for a moment at my first time being the only person in a subway car. Normally, the 'S' shuttle is packed, full of tourists and office workers zipping back and forth between Grand Central and Times Square, under 42nd Street.

Over the next few minutes a few other stragglers boarded the train, although nobody entered my car. I began to play a silly mental game, trying to will approaching passengers into selecting any car but mine. I wanted to have a subway ride all by myself.

Just as the doors were closing, three black women entered my car, down at the far end. The sistahs were LARGE, tall and wide, and all sporting big, complicated hair-do's, with beads, ribbons and some multi-colored strands woven throughout. The kind of hair style that my co-worker Devasha calls 'Outer-Borough Weave.' I think parts of their hair might not have actually been hair, in fact. Think Patti Labelle, late 80's, 'New Attitude.'

Two of the women walked down the length of the car, and seated themselves directly across from me. Slightly odd, because the car was empty other than me. The third woman briefly seated herself at the far end, then sprang up to follow the first two down towards me. However, rather than sitting with her friends, she chose the seat across from them, directly next to me, her purse and jacket brushing me slightly when she sat down.

I had only a moment to ponder this gross breach of public seating etiquette (you know, seat yourself as equidistant from your fellow passengers as the number of riders will allow), because immediately I sensed a thick tension between the three women, and I was intrigued.

As the train lurched out of the station, the two women across from us glared at the one next to me. Occasionally, the two of them would share a glance between themselves, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. The woman next to me ignored them, staring blankly straight ahead. She didn't scan the car as riders normally do, reading the ads or checking out the other passengers (which would have just been me or her friends of course.)

As I am wont to do, I began mentally drafting the backstory to this cold war. Were they feuding over a man? Did the one next to me betray the other two in some way that only women could understand? Maybe they were related and arguing over child care or an elderly relative?

We bounced along in utter silence. A silence heavy with accusing looks and defensive body language. A silence broken only by the cell phone of the woman next to me. It called and called to her, in the voice of Usher, 'Yeah....Yeah....Yeah', but she ignored Usher, keeping her hands folded tightly in her lap.

The ride to Grand Central is a short one, and after less than two minutes of this staring contest, the train ground to a stop. The driver inexpertly allowed the train to make a final sharp jolt, causing my seatmate to bounce heavily into me. I smiled at her and made that 'woo' face that strangers share sometimes in those situations. She smiled back at me, and pulled herself to her feet, using the overhead bar.

As the doors opened, she turned to me and said, 'Now, YOU have a great night, ya hear?' With that, she stepped out, never having spoken to or looked at the other two women, since she had seated herself next to me.

Being the well-trained Southern gentleman that I am, I paused at the door to allow the other two women to detrain ahead of me. The two of them gathered themselves for a moment, a deliberate act calculated to allow the other woman to move farther away from them. I smiled at them faintly as I waited for them to pass through the door. They stopped in the door frame and looked at me conspiratorily.

One of them extended a finger with a huge decorated nail and pointed at the first woman, who was now walking towards the exit stairs.

"You see her right there?"

"Um...yeah," I replied.

The second woman splayed her fingers and make a couple of jabbing motions up at her enormous hair.

"Well....she need to have her knots re-tied."

With that, the two of them burst into high-pitched laughing, holding on to each other for support. The first woman stiffened at the laughter, but didn't look back. She reached for the bannister and began the climb up into Grand Central.

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