It’s nearly 1am on the 4th of July. I’m standing in a crowded train, listening to a German man talk to an American guy, who is probably my age or older.
The American is very polite, but it’s obvious the German is more into the conversation. At Queensboro Plaza the talkative European hops off the train, while me, a girl with a large bag, and the American Boy smile and shake our heads. It’s been a busy day, and New York dwellers often become the entertainment for visitors, but sometimes we still rise to the occasion to speak fondly of our city.
I turn my head slightly to the right. “Hiiiiii,” a man in his late-thirties says, making eye contact that cannot be avoided, even by one of the best gaze dodgers. (Me.)
Egads. I’m trapped.
“Hi,” I say so briefly that you might not have heard it.
Oh, but he heard it.
“How are you?” he stands up with an eager expression. This is when I realize there is something a little off about this man. I don’t think he would hurt a fly, but you never know what someone is capable of, and I’m in no mood to chat it up after 4th of July festivities.
“Where do live?” he says.
“In New York,” I say. The whole train is listening. I feel the stares and baited breath. It’s awkward, but no one knows the best way to interrupt.
“Oh. I see, I see,” he nods vigorously. “Well I live in Queens. I can walk anywhere! I walk to Woodside, to Sunnyside, in Astoria. I walk all the time – I can really walk anywhere,” he says, looking up at me with expectant eyes.
“Impressive,” I say, like you might to a small child. I hate being rude, but I look away and hope he accepts this social cue.
“So where do you live?”
Social cue fail.
“I’m not going to tell you exactly where I live. I live around New York.”
“Oh ok, ok.” Did he get the picture? The American Boy and Bag Girl watch the scenario carefully.
“How old are you?” he asks lightheartedly.
I shift my weight from one foot to the other, hiking my book bag up with a free hand. After weighing the options in my head, I look directly at him and say with a not-so-pleasant smile, “I’m probably not going to tell you that either.”
Social cue accepted.
“Oh. Bye!” he says and sits down about three feet from me.
People on the train begin to talk again. “Well, points for trying,” the American Boy leans over and says with a grin. I laugh in response. “Yes, well you were getting chatted up earlier.”
“Hiiiiii,” the awkward man says, standing up again and cutting across our conversation. This time he’s closer but with his back toward me. My ally looks subtly in my direction, and I know he’s going to take one for the team.
“Hey man, what’s up?”
“Do you live around here?”
“Yeah. I do. I like it out in Queens,” American Boy says with more enthusiasm than he should have to muster on a late night subway ride – and for that I was thankful.
But the rest of their tête-à-tête is a blur. While the talkative man’s back is turned, a woman in blue, probably in her late 20s, grabs me carefully by the sleeve. She says nothing but she doesn’t have to. I let her lead me to a seat she’s willingly given up. (This is “girl code” at it’s finest, my friends.)
“Thank you,” I say.
She and her husband smile. “We thought about pretending we knew you earlier,” he says. “But you were answering all the questions well enough.”
“Yeah, we assumed your name was probably Katelyn or something,” Wife chimes in, citing a generic babies-of-the-eighties name.
“Close enough,” I say. “Yeah, thanks so much… just trying to get home, ya’ know?”
They nod as we watch the awkward man chat with American Boy. When the train stops at Broadway, the man departs and everyone seems to breathe a sigh of relief.
“We were literally going to follow you home,” Husband says, looking over at his wife. She glances at me. “Yep, we were like ‘alright… if he follows, we follow.’”
I laugh at the odd parade of people that could possibly have followed me back to my apartment. And while I wasn’t terribly worried about my safety, the collective kindness of a subway car was a nod toward the general greatness of human connections.
“The whole train was on your side,” Husband continues. He gestures at a family sitting across from us, who smiles in return. The father has his hand on a stroller, with a little baby girl inside. They don’t speak much English, but basic body language is universal, so I wave and smile back.
“I know, I usually have headphones. They're such a lifesaver,” I say.
Wife nods her head. “Oh yeah, I hate when I don’t have those things.”
Headphones are New York’s Novocain: They’re fabulous for blocking out immense amounts of stimulants and sometimes necessary for peace of mind. But headphones also make you numb or unaware – and that illusive apathy is always the great danger.
“Then again,” I smile, “If I’d been wearing headphones, there never would have been this little moment.” The phrase was said with a slight sarcastic twist and a roll of the eyes… but I meant it.
They laughed in agreement. I thanked them one more time for their help, and then we all walked off the train.
And no one followed me home.