Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

Do I consider myself a hero? Yes. Yes I do.

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.

61 Comments / Post A Comment

KarenUhOh (#19)

You know what? Decency is everybody's secret weapon.

Peter Feld (#79)

That's why I try to use it so sparingly, but yes.

Megan (#672)

I know this to be patently untrue.

BlinkyMcChuck (#202)

Karen, I love you.

Helman (#209)

You should write about your emotions MORE!

Peter Feld (#79)

well, you can always take another look at this.

Thanks for this Alex.

numbersix (#85)

Goddamn, Balk.

MercuryPDX (#65)

It's nothing to be embarrassed about Balk. You did good.

Aatom (#74)

This makes me want to give you a fist bump.

karion (#11)

Thanks, Balk. You are one of the good guys.

Emily (#20)


J/k. I teared up. And now I have "Don't Stop Believin'" stuck in my head?

Alex Balk (#4)

I hate you.

Emily (#20)


Alex Balk (#4)

Appreciated, everyone, but let's have a little moratorium on the congratulations, sweet as they are. Story's not so much about me as it is about, I dunno, larger issues and urban living and whatever. Thanks.

Hez (#147)

FUCK YOU AND YOUR MORABORIUM. I call "awesome" on you, Balk.

Also, as a fellow word monkey who's been on the unemployment line many times in the past, "don't think it won't happen to you with your magazine" is a line that will probably haunt my nightmares, so thanks for that. *shudder*

Rod T (#33)

Observations for this column may be sent to Metropolitan Diary at or to The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. Please include your name, mailing address and daytime telephone number; upon request, names may be withheld in print. Submissions become the property of The Times and cannot be returned. They may be edited, and may be republished in all media.

Alex Balk (#4)

THAT'S more like it.

Mary Mouse (#670)

"All dialogue in Modern Love is based on memory."

BeRightBack (#59)

So maybe wearing this shirt everywhere I go sends the wrong message?

brianvan (#149)

So I was reading my MAD Magazine on the subway, and Al Jaffe sat next to me and started crying…

Rod T (#33)

… may be republished in Awl media.

gecko (#668)

Thank you.

Ross (#667)

Happened to be one of the people within feet of Balk and this young woman. It was pretty heartbreaking. The part I caught was when she mentioned "a job I loved." That may have been the shocking part for anyone eavesdropping, so rare. We're never expecting that. This is what you get for reading instead of putting in earbuds, cranking the iPod and shutting out the rest of the world. Kidding aside, you handled her admirably.

mathnet (#27)

I'm trying to decide whether or not to be moved. Are you serious, and if so, did you know at the time that Balk was Balk?

hman (#53)

This lessens my anger/worries over the fare increase. Thanks.

CrappyEditor (#377)


Moff (#28)

"Sheeple," dude. It's sheeple.

shebs (#680)

Blogger sex. Haht.

Moff (#28)

Yeah, but maybe some of the rest of us wanted her number, dude. There's no reason the search for young, emotionally vulnerable women can't be crowdsourced, too.

I'm just saying, think of people besides yourself once in a while, Alex.

"So you think you're a tough-guy huh? Ehhh, you're not so tough. What's this, tough-guy magazine? Chain gonna make you tough?"

Lisanti (#13)

This makes me want to fist-bump you with my cock.

brianvan (#149)

"My Cock" ©2006 Alex Balk

I once sobbed on the 6 train from 14th to 161st street. A French family sat across from me and tried not to stare. A guy standing next to me looked concerned, but didn't talk to me. Now I'll think of him as a guy who cared but maybe didn't know what to say. Thanks.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

I once threw up on the 6 train somewhere between Bleecker and 110. People just slowly backed away….

binkysdream (#173)

So that's where your name comes from!

Emily (#20)

I think I may have witnessed this! Either that or it's happened more than once. Hmm!

LilyBlue (#166)

Are you a pregnant 16-year-old? If so, I'm the nice lady that handed you the plastic bag.

While living in Paris I fainted on the Metro and hit my head. But I guess you knew that. Oh, and no one stopped to help. Guess you knew that too!

IBentMyWookie (#133)

But what was the job? I mean, this is sweet and all, but what if it turns out that she was a stylist for Teen Vogue or something equally asinine? What's the point of a lengthy anecdote if you can't judge the parties involved?

binkysdream (#173)

If that were the case, then you ask for Jessica Stam's number. Duh.

You were on the F, weren't you.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

I think the F train is officially the Train Where Dreams Go To Die

BlinkyMcChuck (#202)

My thought also.

katiebakes (#32)


Sassypants (#673)

You did a great thing, Balk. What you said was spot on, but supportive as well. You put a bit of wind back in that girl's sails and probably lessened her dread. You helped her to cope. That's nothing to sneeze at. Well done.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

Worst. Penthouse Letter. Ever.

fek (#93)

I mean, it's nothing on "Take her to Bar Stuzzichini. Make sure to check out the menu, grease up the staff there, know what you're going to order an hour before," but still: it works.

And that woman went on to become head of the new Slate ladysite Double X. Yes, Linda Hirshman. And now you know…the rest of the story.

suitep (#120)

Some of us can only aspire to be 'good guys'. Some fail miserably. I love it when someone doesn't.

Patrick M (#404)

I appreciate all the sentiment here, but everyone knows that "you with your magazine" is grifter slang for "handjob with my mouth", right?

Stop Okay Go (#365)

Thanks for sharing, Balk. I love these stories and the others linked to in the comments. Come clean though, isn't this story really just the lyrics to "Downtown Train"?

jolie (#16)

The headline on this really should have been "Real Men Do Their Crying in Cabs"

NatashaVC (#464)

I tell people that one of the things that made me so uneasy about New York was that there was nowhere to cry and scream in private. In LA, I sob in my car about any old thing (and I so do) without anyone being the wiser. But looking back, the obvious fear was that I'd weep in a plastic train seat and no one would talk to me even if I wanted them to. CODA: And that's the reason I deleted PULP from my iPod.

missdelite (#625)

Hardcore urbanites walk it off behind their Dior shades.

shebs (#680)

I have stood on the corner of Market and Third Street in SF, at 10 a.m., clutching a GAP bag full of my desk contents, sobbing after being laid off and no one did a damn thing. I guess in San Francisco, sobbing and carrying plastic bags on Market Street just means you're homeless or crazy, or both.

souplines (#502)

Balk, that's so emo of you. Side part and beard to follow.

zidaane (#373)

Choire should lock up the cat's steroids.

slinkimalinki (#182)

i've cried on lots of buses and nobody did a damned thing. which is probably good because "oh, i don't know, everything." doesn't give people much direction for comforting.

sigerson (#179)

My only comment on this is that she sounds a little bitchy. Ok, ok, you're crying. That's one thing. But then to get all accusatory and belligerent with some stranger trying to read his neo-conservative rag in peace? Kind of aggressive, amirite? Only other possibility is that she wanted a little hatesex to make the pain go away and just reached out to the nearest acceptable male.

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