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New York Minute

I finished a novel this morning on my subway ride to work. I had to read the last paragraph twice and felt that peculiar almost weightless feeling that comes when you finish a book. I read the last page again and then looked up, disoriented. The car was crowded and two older women stood in front of me. I had noticed them before but didn’t want to break the spell of that last page.

Now that I was done I offered my seat to the shorter woman who looked older. She refused.

“You saying I look old?” she said and then smiled.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “If I see you again I won’t extend the courtesy.”

She liked that and when the person sitting next to me stood up at the next stop, she sat down.

“You know you are damned either way,” she said. “If you offer the seat you can offend someone’s pride, if you don’t offer it, you have no manners.”

“The worst is when you offer it to a woman you think is pregnant,” said her friend, still standing after she refused my offer to sit, too. “Then you find out she’s not.”

I told them that my parents raised me to have manners but for most of my life I performed acts of kindness selfishly, keeping score of how many nice things I’d done.

“Well, it’s karma,” said the standing woman.

“No,” I said, “it was a set-up to feel burned if things didn’t go my way.”

I said that now I do what I do because it makes me feel good not because it means anything else.

“That’s a good philosophy of life,” said the older woman sitting next to me.

I told her that it was a relief. We talked about courtesies and feminism and she said that women can confuse gender and manners. Then she said, “Where are we?”

“Two more stops,” her friend said.

I asked where they were going and the woman sitting next to me said, “Roosevelt Hospital.”

“Oh, for you or to see someone?” I said, regretting it as soon as the words came out of my mouth.

“I’m starting chemo today,” she said.

“Really? You look vital,” I said and regretted that even more.

She said she felt great but worried that her children were so upset.

“I told them that I’m as strong as I’ve felt in a long time,” she said and we talked about feeling helpless. Her kids are helpless to make her better and she is helpless to help them. As she spoke I remembered the review of the new Joan Didion memoir that I’d read last weekend in the New York Times. The book is about how the author handled the death of her daughter, which happened shortly after the death of her husband. John Banville concluded his review with:

The author as she presents herself here, aging and baffled, is defenseless against the pain of loss, not only the loss of loved ones but the loss that is yet to come: the loss, that is, of selfhood. The book will be another huge success, for reasons not mistaken but insufficient. Certainly as a testament of suffering nobly borne, which is what it will be generally taken for, it is exemplary. However, it is most profound, and most provocative, at another level, the level at which the author comes fully to realize, and to face squarely, the dismaying fact that against life’s worst onslaughts nothing avails, not even art; especially not art.

The older woman sitting next to me looked strong and she smiled and told me how much she liked her doctors. When we got to 59th street I leaned over and kissed her cheek and she stood up and the two women pushed through the crowded car. I looked after them and saw the older woman turn back and smile and me. I thought of my wife and how I always look after her when I leave her on the subway. The woman waved and then was gone.

[Photo Credit: Dark Magoo]

Categories:  New York Minute  NYC  Subway Stories

Tags:  deadwood  joan didion

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1 TheGreenMan   ~  Nov 9, 2011 9:46 am

Awesome. Thanks.

2 Jon DeRosa   ~  Nov 9, 2011 9:47 am

Best to her and her fam on a tough road.

3 ms october   ~  Nov 9, 2011 9:50 am

thanks for sharing that alex.

i hope she is doing as well as she can.

something like this always makes me think of the tribe line - there's 8 million stories in this city, what a pity.
everyone has something going on.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 9, 2011 10:02 am

She was really cool.

5 Normando   ~  Nov 9, 2011 10:12 am

She was lucky to run into the likes of you. Both of the things that you said your regretted were the result of kindness and caring about someone. It sounds like she appreciated both.

Also, this line - “No,” I said, “it was a set-up to feel burned if things didn’t go my way.” - I had a lot of that in me when I was younger. What helped jolt me out of it was my Dad telling me "I say 'good morning' to people on my walk to work. It's up to them if they want to say 'good morning' back." For some reason, that line resonated with me, and I've tried to extrapolate it to nearly every situation that it could stretch to.

6 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 9, 2011 10:14 am

5) That's a great line and a great state of mind. All too often I am tempted to say "You're welcome" to someone who doesn't say thank you after I've held the door for them. Need to get over that shit. Not holding the door but waiting for a response.

7 kenboyer made me cry   ~  Nov 9, 2011 10:42 am

If we could be a little more kind, and lot less greedy, then we'd all be better off.

My father told me this a long time ago, "People will eventually forget what you said, people will eventually forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel".

8 Normando   ~  Nov 9, 2011 10:46 am

[6] NO, NO, NO - the lesson is to stop holding the door immediately!! :)

[7] Dads can be smart!

9 Alex Belth   ~  Nov 9, 2011 10:47 am

yeah, go Dads. That's great.

10 Mr OK Jazz Tokyo   ~  Nov 9, 2011 7:52 pm

[0] Wow, this was great. Thanks AB. I really miss the interaction with people in NYC..you can get some of that here but really always at a distance.

11 Mike Fox   ~  Nov 9, 2011 9:07 pm

Can't remember where I picked this up.

Every morning a loving zayda walked his grandson to school, and every morning as they turned a corner a schnorrer stood there holding out his hat for money and every morning the zayde dropped a sixpenny-piece into it. The little grandson asked his zayde: "Zayde, why do you give that schorrer money every morning? He probably just spends it on drink." The zayde replied: "Well, my son, I'd rather have it on his conscience than mine..."

12 Boatzilla   ~  Nov 10, 2011 1:02 am

Wow. Alex, "There's no crying in Bronx Banter!" but you've got me all misty-eyed. No fair.

13 the wife   ~  Nov 10, 2011 8:50 pm

Awesome story, Sweetheart. :)

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