So last night at around 7:30 I was on my way to Brooklyn to meet a friend for drinks. (Yes, sometimes I go to Brooklyn.) The train was packed, and I was standing pressed up against the door at the center of the car, reading a magazine, and generally ignoring my surroundings. The seat next to me became available, and a young woman sat down. A minute or two later she started sobbing. It was one of those sounds where you aren’t sure at first whether a person is laughing or crying, but it soon became obvious that she was doing the latter.
One of the tough things about New York-any densely packed city, really-is you’re so focused on maintaining personal space and minding your own business that when an event occurs where you actually do want to console a perfect stranger you freeze up and resist the impulse. I had no idea what she was crying about: it could have been a break-up, someone in her family may have been diagnosed with some terrible disease, it could simply have been a case of everything hitting at once. It didn’t really matter; when something like that happens your natural human response is to reach out and do your best to soothe. But, again, who wants to be that intrusive dickhead who won’t leave you alone to your suffering? (Plus, I had at least ten years on her; I didn’t want to seem like some old letch.)
I wasn’t alone. Everyone in the car tried to sneak a look at her and see if she was okay. It felt, at least to me, like everyone wanted to give her a hand. Of course, no one did; that would be breaking the rules. I tried to focus on my magazine.
After a couple of minutes the crying stopped, and I became very aware that she was looking at me.
“Don’t think it won’t happen to you,” she said. “You, with your magazine.”
This seemed an odd detail to pick out-did the magazine give me some air of prosperity and contentment? To be fair, I was reading the Weekly Standard, so she may have thought I was some rich asshole who is easily convinced by faulty logic, juvenile nitpickery, failed parodies, and really cheap paper. Actually, I am not sure why I read that magazine at all. It’s TERRIBLE.
Anyway, I looked back at her. “Don’t think what won’t happen?”
She quietly responded, “Layoffs.”
At this point we had crossed under to Brooklyn. I was about three stops away from my destination. I explained that I had been unemployed for five months. I asked her if her termination had happened today. She nodded.
“What was it?”
“My dream job,” she said. “Something I loved.”
The car was loud. I leaned over slightly and told her that I knew how she felt, how I wasn’t going to say everything would be perfect, that I understood that it hurt now and that it would hurt more later. I told her that as terrible as it seemed, she needed to understand that it’s how we react when things are going badly rather than how we react when everything’s great that proves who were are. I offered every platitude and bromide that one can give in that situation, and many of the things I said are actually things I am somehow still able to convince myself of even in the face of my current situation, of our current situation. I told her to go get drunk. I told her tonight was a night to mourn and tomorrow was a night to plan. I was a subway Dr. Phil or something.
We came to my stop. I repeated the line about nothing ever being as bleak as it seems at the time. I told her that if she really loved her job and it was something she had to do, she would find a way to do it somehow. I said goodbye, and she reached out and grabbed my hand and mumbled “Thank you.”
So, yes, human connection. A small moment where the city’s indifferent mask gives way to a comforting smile. It’s almost disconcerting. (It’s disconcerting enough that I actually just wrote the line, “A small moment where the city’s indifferent mask gives way to a comforting smile.”) I’m sure you’ll make your “Missed Connection” jokes or comments about “Why didn’t you get her number?” but I didn’t want her number. That brief period of time where I was able to help, if I was able to help, if it made any bit of difference, was all that mattered. I wish I were like that more often. But most days I’m just me, and everybody knows what that guy’s like.
I thank you for your attention.