New Yorkers who purchase Metrocards seem accustomed to commuting on the subway. When Jeanette and LouLou join me on trips to Manhattan we Uber or Lyft around town, alongside using either rideshare company from neighboring airports. After checking out of the Sixty LES last month, I popped into the Citibank on Grand Street; thereafter walked a few blocks to Delancey and Essex Street to catch the F train, with four stops until Jay Street in Brooklyn — there meeting the A Far Rockaway bound train — letting me off at the Howard Beach station connecting to JFK’s Airtrain.
Essex Street subway station in the Lower East Side is harsh. An elderly man sheltered there since last November was just as bundled up; his folding shopping cart still overflowing, amid an entire two hundred square foot circumference, pungent of his urine soiled clothing. I held my breath hurrying across the platform toward a neutral smelling area, yet instantly reminded I was in Manhattan seeing a reasonable size rat scamper in and out of the subway tracks.
Fortunately I only had one small bag; there were plenty of seats on the F; the A somewhat more challenging, though managed to fit between a man and woman at the end of our car. There were so many people who boarded at Jay Street, I could barely see the doors open and close feet away. Impossible to sit back, only the tip of my tailbone rested on the bench’s edge. Knowing the farther we traveled into Brooklyn, eventually reaching Queens, one of the two passengers sandwiching me would get off, leaving an actual seat.
Several stops into the Express A train’s progress, a commotion took place at the opposite end of my car. I certainly couldn’t see with so many sardine-like passengers crowding against each other, nor fully heard what was going on. The loud voice came from an older woman who I presumed to be a beggar scrounging for change from passengers who might show mercy. As expected the further we got from Jay Street, the emptier our train became.
This vociferous woman remained standing in place, her ranting drowned out by the train’s screeching metal against metal and frequent braking. Suddenly the A train emerged from the dark tunnel we’d been barreling through, making way to baby blue sky and endless tombstones bordering an undulating Queen’s cemetery. The woman continued, though at this point I could clearly hear she spoke with a strong Caribbean accent. Curious about the exact nature of her bellowing, I waited until the next stop, plopping myself down inches from her stance. A young black guy across from me removed his Beats headset, listening to what I came over to hear. She wasn’t homeless; grandmotherly head to toe attire, well kept, including her fingernails. If I say the whites of her eyes were aglow, I should also report her teeth illuminated as well — a stark contrast to the woman’s ebony skin.
Rather than make direct eye contact I looked every which way other than into her eyes; though the longer she continued, I became even more intrigued of who she was. The woman didn’t hold a scrawled out cardboard sign pleading destitution. Instead she stood, gripping the vertical pole, riding the A train that afternoon with different purpose. I’m absolutely certain by the wealth of memorized scripture, she probably spent years doing the same on numerous New York subway lines. One phrase she repeated between verses, extending her open palm to the A train passengers, “God loves you, you, you, you, and you.” Nobody was excluded; in a sense she offered benediction to each of us. Nonbeliever passengers appeared to ignore her sermon; most riders stayed engaged on their smart devices.
It was time for me to stop behaving awkwardly and make eye contact with her. She scanned the train, then peered down sensing my stare; I nodded, acknowledging her public blessing. She grinned broadly in response, pouring out utter joy; her genuine smile bowled me over with bliss. Seconds later I got off at the Howard Beach station much calmer, happier, and centered than forty-five minutes earlier boarding at Essex Street. I made way across the elevated open air platform, watching the train pass, glimpsing her gritty pulpit move toward Rockaway.