I often write about my experiences on the New York City Subway system; specifically the “F train,” Usually I am inspired by a face I see, a person’s actions or an occurrence on the journey.
This past December I was walking towards McDonald Avenue to take the train to Manhattan. I had just come from praying and I was feeling kind of blue but trying to keep a positive attitude. The wind was blowing hard and there was a Winter Storm warning in effect. As I walked up the steps to the platform, there was a mother trying to carry a stroller up the stairs. As the train rumbled above me arriving and then pulling away, I carried the stroller up the two sets of staircases.
As I stood on the platform I checked my phone for the usual distractions – emails, social media responses and if there was any breaking news stories. When I looked up I noticed there were a lot of people standing around waiting on the train to slowly makes it way into the station. From a distance of around twenty feet, I saw an elderly man sitting on the bench. He was a familiar figure to me as I had known him since I was a child and had seen him around my neighborhood, in the shuls and at social gatherings. He was the sort of fellow who was always standing upright and boisterous. He possessed the presence of a man who would walk into a room and have everyone’s attention.
He sat there and had a look on his face of confusion; as if he had gotten off the train at an unfamiliar stop. He was disheveled, as if he had gotten dressed in a hurry and had forgotten to brush his hair. His coat was buttoned incorrectly and his hand seemed to be shaking.
Although I usually prefer to keep to myself on the subway – something about this man made me want to greet him; before I could a familiar smile burst forth and a hand thrust towards me in greeting.
“How you doing Zalta?” That familiar voice which used to boom in the shuls or on the streets of our neighborhood. The voice was the same – the source was a shell of the man I remembered.
“I am good, it is great to see you, Mr. B.”
“You look just like your father – I miss him, what a man! A legend!” As always a tear streaked through my heart whenever someone mentioned my father. He had passed away two years earlier – but the void was still pulsating within me.
“He was a legend – one in a million.” Never modest when it comes to my parents.
“You still playing stickball?” He asked me as if I were a retired professional.
“Not recently – there’s no place to play anymore. Remember that time we played, you, me and Mickey?” Mickey was another hero of mine who had passed away the same year as my father.
“I couldn’t touch his curveball. What a good man.” He said pursing his lips.
“Oh yeah, our world is less because of their absence.” I said.
“No doubt about it. We could use some of that generation these days.” He added and then was silent for a moment. “Are you still in the travel business?” He asked me loudly – as if it was something he had just remembered to ask. I had worked in my family business for over 20 years before leaving it in 2002 – it amazes me how people still associate me with it after all these years.
“No, I left there a while ago, thought the grass was greener.”
“Yeah, well, my business, I had to close it down. Now I am a 70 year old gopher for my son in law. He is very nice, put up a desk for me, gives me things to do…” He wasn’t convincing, I let it go.
“He is a good guy, your son in law.” I was being very generous.
“Well, my daughter is happy, that’s all that matters.” He stood up as the train made its way into the station.
We sat down next to each other and he opened up his New York Post as I took out the book I was reading, “A Man in Full,” by Tom Wolfe. I couldn’t concentrate on the words so I put it down. He noticed and he began to speak.
“How is your mother?” He asked me.
“She is great – she is an amazing lady, I am very blessed.”
“My wife, she is something special; she threw me out of the house this morning when I asked her to drive me to the station. She doesn’t let me get away with using ‘older’ as an excuse. She always stands by me through it all.”
I was taken aback – but I decided to play along.
“She is a beautiful lady; I remember we all had a crush on her when she was our teacher.” I laughed and he smiled. I wondered if he still saw her the same way each day despite the cruel years.
“She looked like Jaclyn Smith from ‘Charlie’s Angels,’ remember that show? People used to stop her all the time.”
“Of course.” I smiled.
He never stopped smiling as he seemed to traverse through the years he had shared with his wife. He was lost in his thoughts so I kept quiet.
I got an alert on my phone from Chase – account is low again, it’ll probably be overdrawn by this afternoon. I closed my eyes and wondered what I needed to do to make enough money. I was feeling down on myself when I looked at Mr. B; he was sleeping or perhaps day dreaming. On his wrist was a watch worth more than my monthly salary; it didn’t matter; there are some things that money cannot buy. Mr. B had lost his wife a couple of years ago; before she passed away he was working full time and still going on business trips. Once she passed – he was broken.
The train rolled into 34th Street and we walked together to his office; I told him I hoped to see him again on the train and he smiled.
“You think I am crazy?” He said still smiling.
“No, we all have our coping system – I admire you, Mr. B. You are a good man.” We shook hands and said goodbye.
I sent my wife a text message with a simple, “I love you.”
Life can be very complicated and it seems to get even more complicated as the years pass. I have had a hard time financially and had some health scares – but I knew that everything would turn out all right.
Somehow, I knew that there was a plan for me to make this world a better place. I know it will have to do with my words, my gift of writing and creativity. God had given me this ability for a reason – I just needed to find a way to make it work for me.
As I walked towards my building I was filled with hope and gratitude. I still had so much to be thankful for and without hope and gratitude, what else is there?