“Thank you for your trust,” said The Coffee Dude.
I looked at The Coffee Dude for some time after he spoke, trying to figure out what he meant. He calmly looked down at me – smiling – from his position inside his little metal coffee cart on the corner of 40th Street and 7th Avenue. I’d just paid $2 for a coffee AND a donut. At a high falutin coffee chain across the street the same would cost about $4.50, and they don’t thank you for you trust over there. After looking at The Coffee Dude smile at me for a few more seconds, I shook my head, thanked him, and accepted the compliment for what it was. The Coffee Dude thought I trusted him. Maybe I did. I grabbed the coffee and the donut from him.
“Have a blessed day, my friend,” he said with a thick Middle Eastern accent. He rolled the “r” in “friend” which widened his smile even more.
It was hard not to smile back, so I grinned and thanked him through my less than pearly whites. Then I turned from The Coffee Dude and faced the fast New York City morning. The corner of 40th Street and 7th Avenue is at the heart of Midtown Manhattan. For those of you who haven’t been to New York, close your eyes and imagine Manhattan Island as a really big bathtub, Midtown being the drain. Then imagine the Statue of Liberty taking a bath in the tub. Next, imagine Lady Liberty’s sexy french form slipping out of the tub and pulling the stopper. Finally, imagine the water swirling down that drain, along with all the little bits of human she scrubbed off during her bath. That is a street corner in Midtown Manhattan in the morning. People rushing in and out of tall buildings along the cavernous avenues. People rushing up out of and down into the subway station. People rushing, rushing, rushing – helplessly going down the drain.
But it’s not like that around little sardine can that is The Coffee Dude’s coffee cart. It’s total stillness there. As I walked away, the lady who waited behind behind me said hello to him.
“Yes,” he replied, “is good to see you. You want the same thing today, miss?”
“Yeah, the same,” said the lady.
I pointed my feet to my warehouse-job-of-the-month. As I crossed the street, I realized I was still smiling. I glanced behind me. A blur of humanity crossed between me and The Coffee Dude’s cart. But I’d taken a bit of his humanity with me. And, though it’s been a few days, I’m pretty sure I had a blessed day. Go figure.
On Friday morning, I caught the R train in Bay Ridge, like I usually do. The train was filled with the usual types – Irish folks, Italian folks, or Irish-Italian folks – heading into Manhattan to work. Bay Ridge out on the edge of the city, so the train was not packed and everybody had a seat. Then I got off at 36th Street in Brooklyn to transfer to the D train. There, I joined the swarming hoard of Latinos waiting for the next train. The D train was coming from Brooklyn’s Chinatown, and was already shoulder to shoulder with Asian passengers when the Latinos and I boarded. But we all got in, each of us contorting our bodies to fit in whatever empty spaces were left. I found a metal bar to hold onto just before the train jerked into motion. But others weren’t so lucky, ramming into other commuters to create a scene not unlike – I imagine – a particle accelerator.
A White middle-aged woman pushed her way through the crowd. Her hair covered most of her face – a hulking black coat hunched over her bent frame. Dark sunglasses shielded her eyes against the rest of the world. She bumped and barged her way deeper into the car and MIRACULOUSLY found the only emtpy seat on the whole damn train, pushing a Latino lady out of the way in the process. It was a coveted seat on the edge of the bench, so she only had to sit by one other person. Eyes hidden, face hidden, body hidden, she sat, holding her invisible trophy. Her isolation was complete, for then, she was safe and seperate from all of us.
The one person she had to sit next to was a young Asian girl who didn’t care who sat next to her. Her head was pointed straight down at her smart phone as she played a video game. She probably couldn’t even see the middle-aged woman. The young girl’s hair fell all around her face like a curtain – her own shield from the world. Her tiny fingertips danced obsessively across the screen of her smart phone – tap, tap, tap…tap…slide…tap, tap, tap…slide…
At the Atlantic/Pacific stop, the White hipsters and Hassidic Jews piled in. When the doors finally shut, there was nowhere to move. We were crammed tight – didn’t even need to hold on to anything. This is the case, most mornings, on the D train. You’re going to feel the heat of other people. You’re going to know who did and didn’t brush their teeth. You’re going to know who wore deodorant, who didn’t, and who’s religion forbade them from using deodorant.
The metal links of human sausage rocketed toward Manhattan. As we crossed over the Manhattan Bridge – offering a clear view of the Statue of Liberty – everybody seemed to jerk and sway to the motions of the train with acceptance. Packed train ride, 8 to 10 hours of work, packed ride home, then the weekend. All seemed fine and no different than any other day. Until someone farted. Badly.
At first, I looked around to see if anyone suspected me of the cardinal sin of subway rush-hour travel. I was prepared to defend myself against anybody. When certain that no one suspected me, I set out to find the culprit. I looked for That Guy – or Girl (hey, it could’ve been) looking down, frozen, desperately trying to disappear.
But I couldn’t find That Guy…or Girl. Because 7 out of 10 passengers were looking down. 7 out of 10 passengers were frozen. 7 out of 10 passengers, though maybe not trying to disappear, were far from the reality of the train. Why? Because 7 out of 10 passengers held a smart phone connected to earbuds that pumped a song, video game, or movie straight into their head – an electric blanket offering immeasurable seperation from the Latino, Asian, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Ironic White Hipster, Russian or Persian that pressed against their body. Body heat can’t compete with such narcotic warmth. I looked at the 3 out of 10 without a smart phone. They just wiggled their nose and grimmaced, while staring vacantly out the window – possibly at Lady Liberty as she got out of the bath tub.
And 7 out of 10 is the number. I’ve counted many times – on packed trains and on trains with barely 10 passengers. In fact, I’ve counted a consistent run of 8 out of 10, here and there. 7 out of 10, no matter who’s on the train…and no matter what train.
I don’t mean to judge. I really don’t. I am far from a judge. On paper, I’m nothing more than a semi-employed day laborer. That means I’m unemployed semi of the time. In between jumping from one warehouse lilly pad to another, I have a lot of time to count. The people on the D train work hard and I’m willing to bet most want nothing more than to get through the day with as little surprise and heartache as possible. If a smart phone helps them to do that, then why would I want them to put it away? Why would I want to break their heart? And, I confess, I always feel an immediate urge – as the D train pops above ground and ascends up the bridge – to pull my Samsung Galaxy III out and swipe my fingers all over the Facebook. But I don’t and that’s my own decision. But what I do, though, when I’m cramped in the train, is try to feel the energy of other passengers in contact with me – their warmth. I try not to jerk away. I try to accept the connection and play my little part in the bigger moment called Here and Now. When I can put my fear aside and feel my fellow passengers, my shoulders don’t sag so much and the world isn’t so heavy, and loneliness becomes the most ridiculous concept. But, hey – another confession – sometimes even I can get pissed off with having an armpit in my face, so I pull out my hand robot and veg over the pictures of your drunken birthday party the night before.
When I got out of the D train, I went straight to The Coffee Dude. A lady was ordering.
“How are you today?” she asked The Coffee Dude.
“Oh, I am the same,” replied The Coffee Dude, smiling.
Such a statement combined with such a smile must have confused the lady.
“Yes. Everyday I am the same. Whether day is good or day is bad. No matter what happens, I am the same.”
She thanked him and left. I walked up to the cart.
“Ah, one coffee, one donut?” asked The Coffee Dude, smiling, remembering.