Well, friends, no one was reading in my carriage on the way home today; any ability to concentrate on anything at all was shot completely to hell by two meatheads shouting threats and insults at each other. The scene came complete with stereotypical bad-cinema moves such as one oaf turning to his presumed audience (i.e., the rest of the car) and making his case to us, then standing up and removing his outerwear and looming in simian fashion over his seated foe, while the latter challenged his aggressor to go ahead and make good on his promises– an outcome which, of course, never happened, and which consequently meant the rest of us were trapped listening to this inane exchange until they both got off and actually started chest-bumping and pushing each other along the platform as we were finally able to leave them behind.
It was the second day in a row that I had to be vigilant about the people around me; a completely different sort of mentally disturbed individual paced up and down my car last night, muttering to herself and getting every now and then in the face of some poor passenger she decided she didn’t like. In that instance, at least pretending to be engrossed in my magazine seemed like a good protective move, and as long as this lost soul was on the other side of the carriage, I could actually get in a paragraph or two.
My increased train-riding over the past year has made especially evident some alternate uses of reading. In this last instance, it proved to be a sort of defensive shield. Less justifiable– and (hence?) more shameful– are those times when I just don’t want to deal with one more panhandler. Although everyone involved can probably see through the ruse, being visibly sunk into a book makes it seem (we all tell ourselves) as if you’re so in the zone that you just didn’t notice the person begging for change or making a public plea for assistance in the aisle. My own worst bout of comeuppance concerning this tactic came about a year ago; although I really had been fixated on a novel, I was well aware of the guy who’d just gotten up and said, “I don’t mean to scare anyone.” In spite of my own wishes that I weren’t so jaded, that I could believe that each person’s pleas were honest and legitimate and valuable, and that I could– and more importantly, were willing to– give something to every needy person who crossed my path every day– in spite of all that rolling guiltily around inside me, I didn’t look up, and tried to focus on the doings of fictional characters as well as possible, while the story of the living person in front of me continued to be told. And when we arrived at my station and I headed out the door, I happened to glance at the man who had reached a point where he saw no choice but to publicly set his own dignity aside– and who, I finally allowed myself to see, was asking for money in order to bandage the largest, most horror-film-esque gaping and suppurating wounds I’ve ever witnessed on a living being.
I still haven’t been able to rid myself of the painful awareness of what some Southern religionists I know would call being convicted of one’s own sin– or the regressive spiral of guilt that continues to accuse my inhumanity vis-à-vis everyone in need (whether a so-called “worthy victim” or not) to whom I haven’t given what I’ve got when asked for it. Every now and then, it makes taking up a bound volume of print feel like the bad sort of privilege– an easy method of dismissing harsh realities from which most people on this planet simply can’t walk away. Handing a homeless person a book is so far from making any meaningful difference in a horrifying structural situation, such a gesture is more or less an insult. But I really do wish those two lunks on the train today had been more able and willing to tune out the world– or at least each other– with some sort of reading material of their choice. In following the adventures and travails of some disembodied character, they might have felt less need to act out flawed attempts at heroism for themselves.
It’s the kind of thing you (or I, at least) hope will happen when buried in a book in public: some fellow reader sees the text in your hand (or on the table, your lap, etc., etc.) and feels enough of a connection or surge of curiosity to take a chance and say a few words to you. Before today, it had happened twice in my life that I could remember, totaling a 50% goodness ratio.
Instance 1 (the bad) taught me a lesson: never make it obvious in a public place that you’re studying biblical Hebrew. Because that one fundamentalist nut in the vicinity will somehow hone in on you and assume you share the same ideals. Even though you can’t see the flames painted on the back of his jean jacket, and the question about where the person viewing them thinks s/he will spend eternity,* his Chester Molester glasses tell you all you need to know, regarding the sort of conversation that’s about to be foisted upon you. And you, of course, not enjoying fights about metaphysics or faulty logic or anything else, really, will find yourself losing a battle against a member of the Pentecostal inquisition. In this case, in a hostel in Boston.
Instance 2 (the good): deciding it was time to cede my table to someone else in the crowded café where I’d been reading Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, I packed my bag and made ready to leave. But before I’d stepped away, a representative from a neighboring tableful of Russians asked what I was reading, and whether it was as fascinating as its cover and title made it appear. I granted it was interesting, and we had a short conversation about reading and physics, and then I left, feeling a tiny bit more connected to my neighborhood.
I’m glad to report that my train ride home today provided me with a third case of someone stepping briefly into my life, thanks to a text– and that this chance meeting upped the goodness ratio of those types of encounters. Pulling into a station, an elderly gentleman caught my eye, saying in reference to the latest issue of The New Yorker I was reading, “It’s quite a cover this week, isn’t it?” He had to have recognized the particular font and/or one of the cartoons from the publication, as I had the magazine folded in a way that didn’t make it obvious to most people what I was reading. But we smiled at each other in recognition of our common enjoyment of a particular periodical, and parted ways as he got off the train. Those few seconds were a far cry from a new friendship– but I’ll take it, by golly. I’ll take it.
* This self-made design was only revealed to me after the crusader finally walked away in disgust. It was also what told the surly Irishman at the check-in desk that the argument he was witnessing was not, in fact, a domestic dispute, as he’d originally assumed was the case.
I’ve often wondered how accurate instinctual reactions to the reading preferences of new acquaintances or absolute strangers can really be. Ever since I made the incredibly stupid mistake, ca. a dozen years ago, of studying in public with a textbook labeled “Biblical Hebrew,” I’ve had a sort of heightened awareness of the unwanted attention a simple book in your hand can bring you. In that instance, an overzealous young dude in molester spectacles plopped down in front of me, so that I couldn’t see the back of his jacket covered in flames and asking all viewers to consider where they’d be spending the rest of eternity. He assumed my class materials would make me sympathetic to the condemnations he cheerily started spouting about a multitude of sinners, a barrage that my idealistically inept self tried to stem, with a predictable lack of success.
Every now and then, I have to recall this evangelist’s erroneous expectations, especially when I meet a guy who waxes lyrical about Camus or Updike. After all, one’s own exposure to just a tiny percentage of these authors’ fans doesn’t mean that the rest of their devotees will follow their predecessors’ pattern, and start mansplaining about something or other before the conversation is over.
And I also wonder what sort of first (or only) impression my own reading casts– as, for instance, on the train this morning, where I found myself immersed in an article in The New Yorker that featured a full-page image of a giant sign someone in Trump Country had hung up, featuring Hillary Clinton behind bars. Would the young urbanites temporarily sharing my personal space make easy assumptions about that distressing photograph in my hands– or were my worries my own problem, in that I didn’t trust my fellow passengers to possess the critical awareness that reading about something does not equate to supporting that something? My jumpiness may have been more indicative of what a polarized farce politics in this country has become, and the nastiness that interactions between strangers can take on due to that lamentable situation.
I almost hoped that, if anyone was making any unfavorable assumptions about me (and let’s be honest, if anyone even bothered to notice any individual in the usual pre-work crowd), it was due to the freakish sight of someone attending to entire pages– on actual paper!– populated by nothing but words. In that case, I would simply be consigned to the irrelevance of the old and démodé, a place that, strange to say, I’m not really all that disappointed to inhabit. But in the end, that anxiety lasted all of about one minute, and by the time I’d gotten off at my stop, my passing angst had been overtaken by ten other concerns. I’m still, though, considering a further exploration of how accurately the reading one enjoys reflects the person enjoying it. Input is always welcome.
I’ve probably mentioned it before, but I have a habit of mishearing song lyrics in usually pathetic ways. It took at least a decade before I heard Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” correctly, in lieu of my own version: “Like a twister I was born to walk alone.” Hell, I came from tornado country, and it made absolute sense; when would a twister really be able to get on well with others? My friends’ continuing favorite is the version of “Winter Wonderland” I had in my head until my mid-thirties; for my entire life up until that point, I truly believed I was hearing, “In the middle we can build a snowman/and pretend that he is sparse and brown.” It was a revelation when I realized, upon hearing the cloying song while on the treadmill at the gym, that the real lyrics were “In the meadow we can build a snowman/and pretend that he is Parson Brown.” Curiously enough, I had always been more prone to wonder, “In the middle of what?” than “Why a sparse and brown snowman?”
But today, my holiday tradition of bad substitutions continued when I walked through a burst of Eartha Kitt*, one of my favorite bad-asses, singing “Santa Baby.” Back at the office, I found I’d turned her entreaty to the fat man to “sign your X on the line” to a demand to “put your ass on the line.” What would it mean for Santa to do such a thing– and for whom? I can’t imagine the suited sleigh driver taking a bullet for Dasher or Dancer, or risking his career for a once-in-a-lifetime deal on elf hats. Still, I enjoy picturing that demand being made, and Santa stumbling about trying to figure out what to do in the face of the coolest chick ever to have graced his polar palace.
Upon relating what was going on in my head to a co-worker, he told me his wife went about for years singing Kiss’s “Rock and Roll All Night” as “I wanna rock and roll all night/and part of every day.” I love it: the crazy band celebrating its love of licentiousness and wanton behavior– but only to a certain degree, because really: too much is just too much.
And on those joyful, yet erroneous notes, I’ll retire for the night. Happy mangled singing, all!
* Said occurrence had me coming home and listening to the chanteuse– and I found it very apropos of yesterday’s post to hear her singing silkily, in “Let’s Misbehave,” “If you want a future, darling, why don’t you get a past?”