Snippets

The friend asked “Why?” when I told him that the spouse wanted to sell our second car. And I thought about how much mysterious excitement would be gone from the marriage if I knew and understood all the spouse’s whys.

“It is diverting to note how often people who offer good advice would benefit if you took it.” Old Saying.

The spouse and I got on the subway in midtown Manhattan on a Friday evening. Many people with suitcases got off while a few remained on the train. We assumed that they must be coming from an airport, but we did not know which one as we had never taken this route from an airport; all we knew was that this particular route could not have been straightforward. One of New York’s major failings is that it does not have efficient public transportation to its airports. A couple in their twenties, with suitcases, sat across from us on the train, and when I asked, they told me that they had arrived at JFK and gotten to a subway station. They said they managed that by following the crowd. From his accent, I correctly guessed that they had come from Ireland. He said that they were in NYC for four days, and according to her, “doing everything” was on her list. This included watching an Irish boxer at Madison Square Garden. The young man said that he was from County Cork, and she was from the “north.” He said that they had met at university in Dublin. When asked, he said that it was Trinity, and when I responded, “Oh, the fancy one,” he almost blushed. He told us that he had studied maths and she, almost inaudibly, said “theoretical physics.” There are many experiences and surprises on the subways. This was the first time I had met a young theoretical physicist.

“It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.” Oscar Wilde.

I am surprised that somebody has not already perfected this way to become rich: Find a way to make some women’s shoes so they are larger inside than on the outside.

In the wake of the leak of the Supreme Court’s draft abortion opinion, Clarence Thomas said that people must accept outcomes they don’t like. I wonder if he preaches this to his wife about the last election.

Consultants are those who are smart enough to tell you how to run your

organization but too smart to start one of their own.

This is true for me: The only ambition in life a paper napkin has is to get down off a diner’s lap and play on the floor.

When people say that they will do this or that tomorrow, ask them what they did yesterday.

It seems that often when a politician supports “family values,” he means that for other people but not for himself.

“The measure of people’s real character is what they would do if they knew they would never be found out.” Macaulay.

The Ukrainian Jokester (concluded)

The man with the accent who, to my regret, had just told an offensive joke on the subway to me, loudly announced at the joke’s conclusion that he had to take care of some personal business. He fished out of a fanny pack-sized satchel a dented plastic cup. He moved to the end of the car. I feared that he was going to urinate there, but, instead, he opened the subway door and stepped into the space between the cars as we lurched to our next stop. A considerate man, apparently, to do this out of sight and to use a cup.

My hope that he would take another seat and find a new conversant was dashed as he sat in the place he had vacated. I could not take my eyes off that plastic cup, which looked surprisingly dry, as he placed it back into the satchel while I wondered what that cup was nestling against.

Based on zero evidence that his comedic efforts were a success (no passenger had laughed or, strictly maintaining the no-eye-contact rule, had even looked in his direction), he launched into several more stories. Each time the punchline was, “It was the Jew!” After one of these inevitable endings, he said, “I must be Jewish. My grandfather was Jewish, but he converted to Catholicism.” Perhaps there was a story worth hearing there, but I was not about to try finding out.

We came into a stop that allowed a transfer from our local train to an express, and I got up to exit as did other passengers. “You’re leaving,” he said, and I nodded pointing at the subway sign. He looked a bit hurt, and for a brief, irrational moment I felt sorry that I was sneaking out on him. Even so, I hurried out the train door and scurried to get on the subway car directly in front of the one I had left.

 Now that I was separated from him, I did exit at my planned 110th Street station, but I was immediately pleased that as I stepped from the car I was behind a pillar on the platform, for I could easily hear “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” coming from my “friend” who, too, was on the platform. (He did not advance the song beyond this refrain, but his voice was pretty good.) I had a view of the exit turnstiles, but I did not see him go through them immediately. He had to be lingering on the platform, and if I headed for the street, he would see me. I waited. I still did not see him. I can’t tell you how foolish I felt hiding behind a narrow subway pillar that required me to suck in my gut to remain unseen. Finally, thanking all the Christian, Arab, and Jewish gods, I saw him go through the turnstile. I could not see the stairway to the street, so I waited some more. I inched forward, but with his back to me, he was still at the bottom of the steps that I had planned to take. I tried to calculate the likelihood of being spotted going up a different set of stairs that would have made a slightly longer trip to my destination. I eschewed the risk and waited further behind my protective pillar. I finally took baby steps forward again, and blessed day, I did not see him. I left the platform and ascended to the street, fearing he would be at the top, but although I did a 360, I did not spot him.

I hurried—a rather loose term for the way I now walk—up to Columbia University stopping for a few quick errands along the way. I was going to meet for the first time a student whom I was going to advise for his senior thesis. I had read his proposal. It was for the definitive biography of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall. My goal was to aid the student in narrowing his topic so he could complete it in the next year and not need five more years to graduate as his proposal would require. I knew that I was about to dash some dreams, but sometimes you have to break some eggs to make the omelet for the greater good. (Ok, I agree that this is a mixed metaphor and not a good one, but I can’t come up with anything better right now. I am listening if you have a suggestion.)

 

The meeting site provided a complication. Although I have taught a course at Columbia, and I am currently advising another senior on his thesis, I am not a regular member of the Columbia faculty and do not have a Columbia ID. In this land of Covid, Columbia now limits access to its buildings, and I can’t get in them. The student and I had worked out a solution. We would meet on the steps of Hamilton Hall (yes, that Hamilton of musical fame—a graduate of a precursor of Columbia) and then move into a wedding-sized tent set up on a lawn in front of the building, one of the many “temporary” erections now marring the Columbia campus. Enough heat is provided by portable heaters to make it reasonably comfortable inside.

 he student calls out my name as I approach Hamilton. We shake hands and head into the tent, which contains a dozen or more eight-person tables and find a place to talk. Doing my job, I ask some incredibly insightful questions that will advance the student’s thought processes exponentially. He is answering, and I am listening when I spot him. My pisser, Polish-Ukrainian, Jew-joking subway rider is walking on the far side of the tent. My eyes are glued to him hoping he does not spot me. He sits down at a table where there is one other man. Does he know this guy? Does he have some connection to Columbia? I am not about to ask him, but I realize that I have not been listening to the student’s painstakingly thoughtful comments. I stop the student’s discourse and say, somewhat embarrassed, that I was not listening. I briefly explain to him why, and then immediately wonder if I should have told him about the anti-Semitic jokes since the student has a Jewish sounding name. However, he seems to think that my awkward situation is funny. My subway companion is sitting with his back to me and is unlikely to see me, so I get back to my business of advising a Columbia senior thesis. After a forty-minute discussion, I leave the tent with hopes that I have left my subway regaler behind.

I have garnered no great wisdom from this encounter, and it will not change my subway behavior. Someday again I will be asked about a book I am reading, and I will still give a brief reply, and the odds are overwhelming I will quickly return to my reading. All I can take away from my subway trip is the reminder that not every experience in New York is pleasant, but even those that are not may add interest to life.

The Ukrainian Jokester

          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