Between last year in Dubai and moving to New York for grad school, I head home to Iowa for the summer. I tend a garden and drive my car a lot, relishing old-timey farm stereotypes – corn, heat, friendliness. I like the thought that we’ve preserved something the rest of the world has forfeited.
I buy perfect tomatoes every other day from the same woman at the Noelridge Park farmers’ market. She says something friendly to me. I fish exact change from the pockets of my sundress, having left my purse on the front seat of my unlocked car, the keys in the ignition, the windows half down.
“I sure appreciate it,” she says. “You need a bag?” And she licks her thumb to grab a plastic sack from the pile.
“No, thanks – brought my own,” I chirp, producing a bag. I wave, moving through a splash of sunlight to the next stand.
In July, just up the interstate from my hometown, two little girls disappear from Evansdale, Iowa. They are cousins, ten and eight years old. They leave behind their bikes. Authorities drag the bottom of Meyers Lake, even begin draining it. They find nothing. The disappearance seems anachronistic, but in small-town Iowa, such crimes are still possible because usually it’s still okay to let your kids play during summer vacation. They’ll be back for lunch.
This abduction makes national news. I go apartment hunting in New York and watch the headlines on the TV screens in La Guardia as I await my return flight. No one else around me recognizes the 319 area code on the screen. But still, no one wants this to be; it’s a threat upon the things for which we’re all nostalgic. One hears words like youngsters, phrases like My word! – What else can you say when you see such a thing?
Now I ride the Manhattan-bound 2 train from Brooklyn every morning, traversing the East River to work in glamorous Midtown. An easy forty minutes – I usually read.
The New York City subway system sees most types of people. When I am brand new in the city, I love this equalizer. I smile at people, not understanding why the subway should be a zone of mutual invisibility. New Yorkers don’t seem to see one another at all. Militantly friendly, I set out in a bubblegum-pink trench coat to coerce people into connecting with one another.
Early in the fall, I sit down on a mid-morning 2 train and open Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, billed on its cover as an “Exotic, erotic autobiographical confession.” I delight when a man in business attire catches my eye from the bench across from me. My delight invites his commentary: “Ooh! That must be just for girls!” He grunt-laughs.
My smile deflates. Having already committed to cheerfulness, I force a chuckle and steer my eyes back to the page.
“Is it good? It looks good! HA.” Grunt-laugh. I look up, try to speak quietly, but have to shout over the din.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Is it – ” he leans across the aisle to see better – “Ooh! Is it exotic and erotic? Mm!” Heads turn.
He keeps talking as though he is picking up a conversation already happening. He moves swiftly from this sexy book to a long tirade about how he really does have a job interview this afternoon – as though I’ve expressed disbelief – he goes on that he is sure he won’t get the job, though. He keeps asking questions, and I don’t know what to do but answer them. I finally see only the page in front of me, let my cheeks redden as the man gropes for the attention of others who know better than I had.
Vernon lives in France. Last year, while I was teaching abroad, I would show him how the buildings in Dubai turned pink at sunset, holding my computer off my balcony; he would show me his view of the sea or his garden in Brittany while we cooked together, me chopping vegetables, him kneading bread dough. He’d tell me about books, art, and good ideas, always generous with his laughter. He is the sanest person I know, this francophone keeper of pet ducks, with hair three French years long and a matching beard. Now that I’m home, I’m counting days until his return in April. Until then, we’ll meet in the Internet.
But Vern is wary of homecoming, apprehensive about communication, of all things. I would rather communicate with him than do most anything else, so his wariness strikes me. Somehow someone so full of ideas has grown quiet, functioning now under a grownup guiding principle – something like if you can’t say anything important or helpful or necessary, don’t say anything at all.
We’ve been talking about a Chuck Klosterman essay he recently reread. Klosterman lived abroad awhile and was astounded to learn that he hadn’t missed anything by not being in the US. He’d expected to be out of touch with election news and the NBA. He realized that even if he’d been here, he wouldn’t have experienced these events firsthand, but would have seen clips of basketball games and political speeches on TV and the Internet. From afar, the 24-hour coverage was still available, enough to blanket anything really important under the heavy snow of commentary. His opinion: Nothing much actually happened.
Vern explains, “Everyone asks me about the United States that they see on the news here [-- and, with equal urgency, How I Met Your Mother --], and I don’t know what they’re talking about. Because usually the things aren’t important.” He fears that this is what awaits him in America, but coming from people he once knew well. A particularly American pressure exists to always have something to say, and this discomforts Vern. He sympathizes with Klosterman, “I think his point is that he’s depressed by the fact that we [Americans] need to be interested in something all the time. And I feel for that. Because sometimes, often times, nothing is happening. We make ourselves think otherwise, but dullness has become unacceptable.”
After a statement like this, he turns away from the screen, scratches his beard as if deciding he agrees with himself. He shifts his position, revealing a wood paneled attic in his friends’ country house, a window view of farmland and sea. As we talk, his friends pop in to say hello. I learn there’s a peat fire downstairs, that the house lost power in a storm just before their American Thanksgiving dinner; they’d eaten by the light of candles shoved into empty wine bottles. They want to know when Vern will be ready to hike to the water.
He fears he’ll appear dull against the American glare, but it seems natural to say less. He doesn’t speak about everything he sees. He saves up his thinking to participate in something bigger than small talk, and he hopes this won’t seem rude.
Perhaps people just feel more comfortable when they have an opinion, even a haphazard one. I get anxious when it seems like everyone else already knows something. I wonder whether I’m missing something obvious.
Through social media, it’s become easy and tempting to join the conversation fast. We’re covered with “coverage,” and the things we hear most loudly are not necessarily most important; they’re the things people feel equipped to talk about out loud. We proclaim opinions whenever we can snatch them up, but they are often not ours or are not complete, just something pithy, conveniently retweeted, buzz-fed, hash-tagged – #garbage – “ideas” that don’t come close to the root of any problem. But we say them, lest someone mistake us for someone on the wrong side of any issue.
We are compelled to speak about everything we see. Say something, for to not join the conversation is suspect. It’s a train we can’t really stop, whether we’re onboard or not. I say to Vern, joining the conversation no longer even requires understanding the whole thing.
Vern agrees, “Joining the conversation rarely requires that you’ve heard the beginning of the conversation. Brash reaction dominates our world.”
Everyone is shouting answers, but no one heard the question.
A week after the subway conversation trap, as I get on the train, a man about my age eyes my Mary Jane pumps and says, “Hey, those shoes are POPPIN’!” Feeling wise, I smile with tight lips. I remember the book incident and decide to avoid conversation like a real New Yorker. I stand next to his seat.
He turns toward me. “Hey, that hair’s poppin’, too!”
Thanks. I give him the same stern smile and reach in my bag for my book.
He continues, almost intimately, “Look, lady, my mom died on my birthday last year and I’m just having a really hard time…”
He asks for money, but I think he wants an ear more than anything. When I find my book I open it. This feels at first so similar to the previous situation; I think I’m finding a way out. But the words are blurry on the page and fuzzy in my ears; I can’t focus through my shame. He hasn’t done anything wrong.
What’s the matter with me?
I couldn’t listen to him?
I don’t have an extra dollar.
I have an apple…
Am I just telling myself I don’t have a dollar because I want to buy coffee?
What’s a dollar going to do for him?
What’s he going to do with that dollar?
No one has ever ignored me like this.
Cacophonous like the train, thoughts screech and rattle, even as I make the decision that brings on my self-disgust. Instead of doing something different, taking back my choice to ignore him, I beat myself up as though the situation has already passed, conveniently irreversible.
I blush purple, stare into my book. He directs his story at another man; I look over to see the new listener literally feign deafness, “Hey, I can’t hear you. Sorry.” He points to his ears to suggest that they aren’t working properly. All characters look sickly in the fluorescent light.
The pre-recorded safety announcement comes from the speakers overhead, warning that we are all to “be on the lookout for suspicious behavior” to prevent terrorism and keep one another safe. The tagline: “If you see something, say something.”
At the first opportunity, I move to a safer blue bench at the other end of the car. I feel ill for the forty-minute ride. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate these situations. I’m good at seeing until I’m asked to also say something.
I still check the news in Eastern Iowa every once in a while. It’s not homesickness so much as a mindless habit. One evening in the fall, I peek at heartland goings-on, ready to catch the train to class in the Village, and I see that in the woods outside Evansdale, Iowa, hunters have discovered two bodies. They will turn out later to be the bodies of the girls, missing since July, but at the time it is speculative. I call my mom immediately. She is still at work.
“Hey, turn on KCRG. They found those girls from Evansdale.”
I hear her breath catch. “Oh.” It comes out as a sad groan. “What happened?”
I explain. She sniffles. Her nightmare is someone’s reality. It makes her think of her own kids, the way the four of us used to disappear for an afternoon or a morning, the way sometimes she could see us out the kitchen window, but often she couldn’t. Those were different times, she tells me.
I get on the train and stare at the ground beneath the seat across from me, lost in thinking about strangers that feel somehow less strange than the people I see here every day. I’ve never known these girls or their families, but I feel strangely responsible for holding them with me in this big, impersonal place.
“Shut up!” says a woman on the other end of the car. She speaks into a stroller that faces away from me. “I said shut up. Shut up.” The child makes cooing noises, isn’t even really crying. The mother sounds bored.
The message from the New York City Police Department: If you see something, say something. Remain alert, and have a safe day.
On a late morning commute last month, I pull To the Lighthouse from my bag, glad Tuesday’s train isn’t terribly crowded. I take a seat, and Virginia Woolf shows me the magnificence of the seemingly ordinary. She uses language so alive that I gasp and put a hand to my scarf several times right there on the train. I digest the words, looking at the MTA subway map as though I’ve never seen it before. The germy handrails shimmer; everything seems remarkable.
A young man in rolled khakis and a green plaid shirt sits kitty corner from me. I see him see my book. Overhead, I hear “If you see something, say something,” and I close the book in my lap to let the words rest in my mind. The train doors open to the Grand Army Plaza platform.
In walks a woman with nicely dyed auburn hair, maybe fifty. I notice her light blue jeans, frumpy lavender polo with a white collar, tennis shoes. She carries a periwinkle backpack. Her cheeks are cratered. She mumbles under her breath.
She sits on the bench across from me, next to the young man, and leans to her side. She holds a folded one-dollar bill in place on the bench and uses the end of her phone to crush whatever she’s folded inside of it, sniffling, mumbling.
She sits up, facing forward, looking just past me, and holds the folded dollar to her face. She sniffs in the white powder, wipes it from her upper lip with her sleeves and leans to her other side and into her backpack all in one swift motion. She places the dollar in the front pouch of her bag and feels around her legs and seat without focusing her eyes to look at them, checking whether she’s dropped anything. She grabs a thick log of lip balm from the same pouch, takes it clean out of its plastic tube. She rubs it all over her face, applying it from the broad sides like it’s a bar of soap, still sniffling, still mumbling.
I look around for astounded others. I’m the only one watching, but the young man with rolled khakis notices less obviously, the same way he noticed my book without seeming to read the cover. Our eyes meet but we exchange no look of solidarity. His expression is disconnected, mine concerned: Are we supposed to do something? He gets off at Atlantic Terminal, leaves me with her. She mumbles off at Nevins Street.
A man in a black Sikh turban sits down in her spot, little crumbs of white still sitting on the bench beside him, unnoticed. He talks to a friend at his shoulder.
In December, two people were shoved to their deaths on the New York subway. Both were pushed by complete strangers, one who was mentally ill, another both racist and confused. The events seem so senseless that no one knows how to prevent more of them. It’s an innocence millions enjoy each day, being able to get on the train in the morning, reading great literature while tunneling under a river. What can we say? Maybe we gasp, My word! Maybe we groan, “oh.” Something that should be sacred is under a threat we cannot understand; people talk around it, but no one’s saying much about it. The answer isn’t fast, and the problem is scary.
“If you see something, say something,” proclaims the official voice of subway safety. I am at a loss.
So much of what we now see ought not to elicit a knee-jerk verbal response. We see plenty; we rarely understand everything. We cannot reasonably always know what to say. And when we do speak, perhaps it should end more often in a question mark. But it doesn’t. Instead, we speak without knowing exactly what we saw, and it becomes a runaway habit; it derails.
I start to hear the commands differently, more aggressively: If you see something, say something. If you can make words with your mouth, if you have a pulse, say something. Why would you think when you could Say Something? Say Something. Say Something.
But I’m still new to New York, still learning. I don’t know enough about the train or the people to say anything just yet. I can ask questions. Why is it commonplace to turn off our humanity to anyone, ever? Then, is anyone asking for my humanity? What is my role here? Do I have one at all?
How about this: What’s it mean that I avert my eyes from everyone on the train now? Better not to make eye contact. Better to look at my own poppin’ shoes than to acknowledge someone else’s gaze on them because in a city so remarkable – that is, worth remark – in a place where all types of people sit beautifully side-by-side on forty-minute trains every day, where we see everything, it is likely that I will not know what to say. And I’ve been instructed, officially, that if I see something, I must say something, and I don’t know what to say. There is a disconnect between the type of person I thought I was and the type of person I am being. This area is clouded gray, and I do not know what to say.
I do not know what to say.
One last story: Yesterday. I am commuting at 8:15 AM. A woman collapses on a stranger in my car. Another stranger pulls the emergency brake. And we all sit there, shocked to be seeing each other. We start sentences we cannot finish. We do not know what to say. So we sit there quietly, frozen in a fluorescent pool, in a dark tunnel, underground.