A woman’s head was under my armpit.
It fit, I’ll give you that. On a crowded train you do what you have to do. I’d been caught Tuesday morning in the crush to get on the F train at Roosevelt. Man, was it crowded. I couldn’t stop at my usual door spot. I was swept forward by the wave of humanity behind me. I went with the flow, sometimes a good thing to do when tempers are flaring because trains are delayed.
So I found myself in the center of the car, equidistant to each pole and the doors, and the rail to all four corners. What to do? I had a few seconds before the doors closed and in that time I had to make a decision that would impact significantly on the comfort of my twenty-minute subway ride. I knew I didn’t want to try to use the ceiling grip (tented fingers on the ceiling used as an upside down anchor to stop you from landing on a nearby passenger when the train either started or stopped). The ceiling grip never worked for more than a stop; it was too difficult to keep in place for multiple-stop journeys.
So I looked at my pole options. With all hand-grips equidistant, I needed another criteria for selection. A quick scan showed me there was space high on a center pole to my right. I’m not that tall, but I’m tall for my neighborhood so I reached over heads and took a high grip – sometimes called the armpit grip – before the train lurched forward.
I looked at the woman under my arm, thinking that if I smiled at her at least the awkwardness of the situation might be alleviated. She was a short Asian woman, probably in her sixties, wearing black and red, with a pocketbook clutched tightly under her left arm. She stared forward with the patented cross-cultural subway passenger’s blank stare.
A woman next to her, I realized, was talking to her – or perhaps I should say talking at her. She was also Asian, dressed in black and red and had a similar bag under her arm. Her whole arm encircled the pole I had chosen. She spoke Chinese in a barking tone, thrusting her chin at the woman under my arm.
I recoiled a moment, thinking my armpit was in danger. But then I relaxed a little, as her one-sided conversation continued without fisticuffs emerging.
I surreptitiously glanced down at the woman beneath my arm. Her impassive face never moved while her partner spoke. No raised eyebrow. No involuntary twitch. No nod or shake of the head. No eye contact. Nothing. The woman, who I now assumed was either a relative or a good friend – at least in my mind that’s who she was – continued talking and pinching her face together as if saying, “Can you believe the things that I have to go through?”
They got off at 34th Street Penn Station, and my armpit, no longer exposed, breathed a sigh of relief. At 23rd Street we were still crowded and the wave of commuters swept me out the doors.
I pulled myself to shore, out of the throng of humanity, and waited for the turnstiles to clear. Then, adjusting my bag on my back, I exited with some sense of dignity.
Sometimes you go with the flow and sometimes you wait for your chance to swim alone.