New Yorkers have rules for subway riding. Some are for efficiency—let passengers exit before boarding. Other rules are for privacy and safety. Thus, don’t make more than fleeting eye contact with other passengers and then only  as an “excuse me” after bumping into someone. Similarly, no engagement with ranters on the train, whether they are preaching what they think is a gospel truth or telling us about the presence of alien beings or the dangers of fluoridated water. When performers seek to collect money, don’t ask them about their lives, where they got their dance or musical training, or how much money they make—they are in a hurry to get to the next car. Riders, of course, can give money to the beggars, but should seek no other engagement with them. (I am beginning to worry about inflation. In the past panhandlers would seek any loose change passengers might have, but yesterday one asked for dollar bills, suggesting quarters were not enough.)

          Only certain conversations between passengers are proper. It is all right to ask travel directions. Is this the 4 train, for example, or does this train stop at Spring Street? Someone will almost always give the correct information. However, all personal questions and comments are to be eschewed between passengers not known to each other. You don’t ask where another passenger is going or what they do or where they live. You don’t comment on someone else’s clothes even if their dress looks as if it is meant to elicit remarks.

          All those rules, of course, do get broken occasionally even by nice (i.e., non-crazy New Yorkers), such as the time I was asked whether I could calculate the circumference of a heptagon by a seatmate who was on her way to buy antique wood for a frame. I have broken the rules myself a few times. Once I asked a young man holding a basketball about his ability and learned he played professionally in Israel. Another time I played rock, paper, scissors with a high school student as we hung onto a subway pole.

          Perhaps the most frequent question I have asked or been asked on the subway has been, “Is that a good book?” referring, of course, to the material someone is reading. I have not been or seen anyone offended by this query, which is often asked as an effort at self-aggrandizement. It is akin in some circles to a wag of the middle figure in front of a closed left eye—a signal of membership in a group. This not a secret society, but the book question announces that I, too, am in that select group that reads books. The answers are usually mundane: Yeah, it’s good. I am not far enough into it to know yet. It was highly recommended to me, but so far it’s only so-so.

After the answer the inquirer usually responds with something such as: I read [name of different book] by that author and have wondered about the one you are reading. People have recommended that book, but so far I haven’t gotten to it. I am looking for a new author. This brief interchange is almost always the entire conversation, and we readers quickly go back to our books.

          It was not surprising, then, as I headed uptown at noon the other day, that the man seated across the car from me asked, “Is that a good book?” He was about sixty with a shock of thick hair on a big head. He was dressed simply—not in business or fashionable attire, but he did not look like a homeless person. His left hand held a sheaf of papers bound together but it did not have a cover as if it had been a pamphlet. From my vantage point six or eight feet away, I could not tell what the material was, but it did not appear to be in English. He had an accent, but he was perfectly understandable. There was no indication from his speech that he was under the influence of drink or drugs.

          I answered his book question simply, “I am enjoying it.” Then came my first warning for he asked, “What is it about?” Normally we book questioners have spotted the cover and know something about the book or the author and that has prompted our original question. But perhaps he was captured by the catchy title of the book. I replied, “It is about a baseball catcher who was a spy during World War II.” I glanced down at my book hoping to end this conversation. He probed, “For who?” I said, “America” and turned a page even though I had not read it as my signal to be left alone.

          Silence for the briefest of moments, and then, “Books are wonderful. They can take you to other worlds.” Now I definitely wanted out of this conversation. No subway book lover would say this to another book lover. I remained silent. He: “I read a lot when I was in prison.” This confirmed that I should find a way to get out of this conversation, not because the guy had been in jail, but because this was not a subway-book-lover discussion. On the other hand, my long-ago career as a public defender makes me a sucker about talking to those who are usually shunned, those who have been imprisoned. He continued that he read history book after history book while locked up. I couldn’t resist; I acted foolishly for a sensible subway rider and asked how long he had been in jail. “Twenty-two days,” the bigheaded man said with a smile. I had trouble not laughing, but I was convinced that this was not the time for jocularity or asking whether he was a speed reader.

Instead, to avoid saying something more about jail, I asked where he was from originally. He told me Ukraine but also mentioned Poland. He said his last name, which I did not get, but it sounded as if it was Polish. I gathered he was Ukrainian of Polish descent. He launched into a short geopolitical discussion and said that Ukraine was really part of Russia and Ukraine needed Russia for protection. He said that the countries were close culturally, with similar ethnicities, music, literature. “The countries share an alphabet.” I have listened to many crazies on the subways and streets of New York as well as at work, but, I thought, this guy, if crazy, is not typical; pointing out a common heritage from a shared alphabet had an intelligence not encountered with most ranters.

Silence for a few moments, and I hoped that the conversation was over, but then he said, “I am getting off at 110th Street.” I tried to hold my face and body steady to not betray that that was my planned exit, although I immediately started thinking about getting off at another stop instead. I was not sure why he announced his destination, but then he said that he had time to tell a joke. I had concluded that he was not totally crazy, but I was not so confident of my psychological skills that I wanted to risk making him angry by telling him to shut up. But I quickly regretted not taking that chance when the joke started loud enough for most people on the car to hear, “A Christian, an Arab, and a Jew were in the desert.” The punchline was, “It was the Jew!” indicating the inherent rapaciousness of Jewish people. This was not a joke that I would have wanted to hear anywhere, much less in New York, much less in a subway car. And to make things worse, it was not funny.

Concluded on Feb.9

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