I work in midtown on the east side. At the end of the day, I usually stroll over to 6th Avenue and catch the F train. I need the exercise, and the walk helps clear my head. The final block before I reach the subway is my favorite. The sameness of skyscrapers and anonymous office workers comes to an abrupt end on the stretch of 47th Street known as the Diamond District.
Crossing Fifth Avenue, I enter a self-contained world. Shop windows display glittering diamonds. Hawkers, getting paid on commission, look to steer customers into stores, “We buy, we sell,” they chirp hopefully. Shop signs boast, “We pay the highest prices for gold, diamonds, and watches.” Arrows pointing up worn staircases run alongside advertisements for various businesses: watch repair, locksmith, pawnbroker, jewelry polishing, engraving, lender, kosher restaurant. Several store windows announce they accept bitcoin. Armored trucks—Brinks, Ferrari, Malca-Amit—transporting cash and diamonds line the block and are loaded by uniformed guards carrying guns in their holsters. Up and down the street, men cluster in small groups smoking and talking. Cigarette butts line the street. For reasons I cannot fathom, I’ve noticed that an unusually large number of people on this street walk with a limp. Sometimes, I buy fruit from an Indian man who often appears late in the afternoon selling boxes of blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. By the time I descend the stairs into the subway, I have in only 20 minutes left my work life and been transported through an entirely different world before entering the underground, which, of course, is its own place.
I’ve been riding the subway since the days of tokens and graffiti. Most of my time on trains or waiting on platforms is spent reading a newspaper or a book or my phone, but of course there have been memorable experiences. I’ve listened to musicians whose playing moved me to tears, heard fantastical tales from beggars, skipped over amazingly large rodents, and, as a child, cowered on a subway platform as a gang fight took place just a few feet away from me. As I got older, I fell in love with beautiful women seated across the aisle from me, only to have them get off at their stop without even noticing me. On a beautiful September morning, riding the F train from Fourth Avenue to Smith and 9th before descending into Carroll Street, I watched the World Trade Center towers on fire. Later on, for a period of months, I found myself time and again alongside hundreds of uniformed firefighters travelling on my train to funerals at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There have been unexpected reunions as well. Once, as I listened to a Caribbean preacher on my crowded car exclaiming about her fellow riders’ wickedness and the fires of damnation, I looked up and noticed seated across from me an old friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Nearly every day I watch as weary people give up their seat on a crowded train to an elderly or pregnant passenger. Well, I could go on and on, and if you’ve been riding the New York City subway for any period of time, I’m sure you have plenty of stories, too.
In late May, I had a most peculiar subway ride; so much so that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It was about 7 in the evening, past the worst of rush hour, and I managed to snag a seat. As I opened my copy of The New York Times and turned to the Opinion Page, I heard the voice of the person seated next to me asking in a slightly accented singsong English, “What is that article saying about Gaza?” It was the man next to me. He was middle aged, maybe 50, and wearing Hasidic garb. Black hat, black suit, white shirt. His beard was brown with specks of gray. The man was unusually tall, and sat cross-legged with his left foot sticking out, somewhat immodestly, into the middle of the subway car. His shoes were unusual for a Hasid—polished and fashionable brown leather loafers.
I was tired and just wanted to read my newspaper, so I pretended not to hear him, but then again he asked me, “What does your newspaper say about Gaza?” He was talking about a column by Thomas Friedman that ran along the top of the page. I hadn’t read it and hadn’t been intending to do so, but then he asked me the same question a third time. I glanced up and down the article and ascertained, perhaps incorrectly, its basic message.
“He’s saying that Palestinians and Israelis share the same ecosystem and a common destiny. The poor Gazans dump 10 million liters of raw sewage in the Mediterranean every day and it’s flowing north to Israel’s biggest desalination plant.”
“Hamas shoots thousands of rockets into Israel. So maybe they want to kill us with this sewage too. Maybe we can build a wall along the ocean? A fence on one side and wall on the other,” he said.
“I can see empathy isn’t your strong suit,” I muttered.
He made a disgusted guttural sound and dismissively waved the back of his hand in the direction of my face. And then he said something to himself that I didn’t quite catch.
I only wanted to read the newspaper on my long subway ride to Brooklyn, but he’d insisted on poking me. It occurred to me that the man might be drunk, but I didn’t smell any booze on him. If he wanted to get under my skin, I’ll admit he’d succeeded. And without thinking too much about it, I decided to poke him back.
“There’s something I read. Maybe you can explain it to me,” I said as I turned the pages of the A section. Where is it? Oh, maybe it wasn’t today’s newspaper. It must have been a few days ago. There was a long article about how the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem were blocking traffic and fighting with police to protest some new law. They don’t have to serve in the army. This law just required they register for service. And they are throwing stones at the police. I don’t understand this. Who’s going to protect them from the rockets and the raw sewage?”
My seatmate grunted and sighed before answering. “You cannot just drag people out of yeshiva and make them join the army. It will not work. Besides we are keeping and upholding the religious law for everyone. And we do serve. We do Zaka. You know Zaka?”
“When there are terrorism victims we gather the victims’ body parts and blood so they can have a proper burial. You don’t know Zaka? This is very important.”
This might have been the end of our conversation but it’s a long ride to Brooklyn. And when the train stopped at 23rd Street, a silver-haired man with two female companions entered our car. I’d spent the last month watching episodes of The Sopranos, and the man who entered the train, I thought, had a striking resemblance to the character Paulie Walnuts.
The car by now had gotten crowded. Paulie and his travelling companions found themselves standing in front of us, and he said to my Hasidic sparring partner, “Do me a favor pal, watch your leg.”
“Pal. What is this word, pal?” the Hasid asked suspiciously. It was clear that he suspected he’d been subjected to an anti-Semitic slur.
“Pal. You know. Buddy. Amigo. Compadre,” Paulie said.
“I never heard such a word. Pal? Maybe this is a word from another place. Are you from Texas?”
“No, my friend. Not Texas. Jersey.”
And that was the end of the conversation, until the train stopped at West 4th Street and Paulie and his companions headed to the open doors. As they were exiting, he looked back at us and said, “Shalom, pal.”
There was something so wonderful about this entire exchange that I decided to engage again with my antagonist.
“So what are you? Not Satmar or else you wouldn’t be talking to me? Let me guess. Bobover?”
(There are a number of distinct Hasidic groups. Each has its own spiritual leaders. The groups, or dynasties as they are sometimes called, are usually named after a town in Eastern Europe where the founder was born or lived (in the 18th or 19th century).
“I’ve heard of them. Where did they come from Galicia?”
“Yes. Eastern Poland. Did you have relatives from there too?”
“Lithuania, but they were lucky to have gotten out early. Maybe 1900,” I said.
“My father escaped from the Nazis. The rest of his family was murdered. He escaped to Hungaria,” he said.
“You mean Hungary?”
“He disguised himself as a gentile. He was just a child. And he escaped to Hungaria. He was all alone. Somehow he survived.”
“And then what? A displaced persons camp?”
“Yes. He was in a camp after the war. And then finally he ended up in Antwerp.”
“And then from Antwerp, he moved to Brooklyn?”
“No. I grew up in Antwerp, and moved here to get married. My parents are now in Jerusalem. We have a very nice community in Brooklyn. We don’t have all the problems that you have.”
“Problems? What problems?”
“Making trouble. Drugs. Crime.”
“Look at the nice people on this train. Look around. I don’t see them making any trouble,” I said
“Not now. But who knows what they do at night.”
“New York is the safest city in America. Thirty years ago, it was different.”
“Yes. I have heard it was very bad then. There was a Jewish girl who went on the Brooklyn Bridge for a walk and they burned her.
“I don’t remember that. It could be. You’re living in Borough Park? You get off at 18th Avenue?”
“Yes. Would you like to see some photos of my family?”
I said yes, and my traveling companion proceeded to swipe through a series of photos on his phone. He especially wanted to show me photos of his youngest daughter’s wedding. The woman was not attractive and didn’t look especially happy in the photos. In one, she was flanked by her husband and father. The men were wearing shtreimels, the broad fur hats worn by many married Hasidic Jews on special occasions. The bride was dressed in a white dress that went up to her neck with sleeves that covered her elbows.
In another picture he identified various relatives for my benefit, one after another, including a series of grandchildren.
“Grandchildren. You’re young to have grandchildren,” I told him.
“We start early. You don’t want to be too old to enjoy them. And you have children? Grandchildren?”
“Two daughters. No grandchildren.”
“Tell them not to wait too long.”
“It’s not for me to tell them. They are grown women,” I said.
He responded with a sound from the back of his throat and, as he had at the beginning of our conversation, he waved the back of his hand dismissively in my direction.
The stop before I got off, I asked the man his name.
“Yosef. In English, it’s Joseph,” he said.
“Joseph. Joey for short. Pal Joey. That’s how I’m going to remember it. I’m getting off next stop, have a good night.”
“Gutn nacht,” he said, as I got up from my seat.
I stood and waited by the doors in the middle of the car. And then because the train had stopped again between 4th and 7th avenues, I stood and waited some more. The train didn’t move for nearly 10 minutes.
At one point, I turned to return to my seat, but a man wearing a baseball cap adorned with the flag of Puerto Rico had taken it. Joseph was talking to the man. Maybe they were discussing Hurricane Maria or smartphones, or the New York City transit system. I have no idea really.
So I turned back and looked out the doors of the train, which was motionless inside the dark tunnel, and waited for it to move. I could see Joseph and the man with the baseball cap in the reflection of the door window. I imagined the life of Joseph’s father and wondered how he’d survived, and considered what kind of father he might have been. I thought about his son’s vigilance, paranoia, and cruelty, and how trauma can be handed down from generation to generation. As I waited, I also thought about the resiliency of human beings and the miracle of a community that had been nearly annihilated, reinventing itself in a strange land.
Finally, the train started moving, slowly, creaking and squeaking into 7th Avenue. Doors opened. I exited, walked to the stairs, and ascended.