About once a month somebody starts a conversation with me on the train. I don’t go looking for these exchanges, but I must emit electromechanical impulses that pull the lonely talkers toward me. Call it the Law of Attraction on the Harlem Line. I never completely ignore the talkers since I’m curious about where the conversations will go. While some get a polite murmur or two as I keep my nose in a book, I avidly engage others when I sense a common ground. Sometimes I’ll even start the conversation if the person is reading a book I’ve enjoyed or is wearing some obviously orange-and-black Princeton attire. Usually I do more listening than talking, knowing that, one way or another, I’ll exit the train an hour after it leaves Grand Central Terminal.
Two talkers grabbed me in the past week, both times on the way home from New York. The first time, I was sitting in facing seats, with two visiting tourists laden with bags across from me. I sat down after they moved some bags. Then a man got on at 125th Street and offered to move the remaining bags to sit down. The women didn’t understand English and couldn’t tell what he wanted.
“Ok, I’ll go stand out in the vestibule,” he said with a belligerent edge in his voice. Finally they saw the point and he moved the bags to an overhead rack. I was deep into reading the book “The Beautiful Bureaucrat,” and put out now conversational vibes. I did notice the man didn’t have a backpack or briefcase, just a cell phone and a tablet. He made some calls, either to family members or business related. We sat knee to knee but I studiously avoided interacting with him.
The train moved along and he started talking about how lousy the train system was. “The German and the Japanese, after the war, got the latest technology. We’re still using train technology from the 1840s,” he groused.
“I think the Germans and the Japanese paid a pretty high price to get that technology,” I said.
“If we had the $7 trillion we spent in the Middle East we could rebuild the infrastructure.” He sounded like a man on the edge, needing only one comment cross-ways from his world view to push him in a direction I didn’t want to see. I gave fewer and fewer details to questions about my family or work.
Then he began griping about real estate prices, how he had lost a lot of the value of the home he bought in Westchester. I said I wasn’t aware of that since I didn’t own any real estate. I really began to back away when he said people weren’t moving to communities in our area because the public schools were becoming, shall we say, more diverse, and guys like him had to send their kids to private schools even as their property values tanked.
He finally got the point I was trying to avoid him. “I’m sorry, you’re reading,” he said. I relaxed for a stop, then he started in again. I feared he was getting off at the same station I was, but he left a few stops before, to my relief.
Saturday night, I was coming home after seeing the play “A View From the Bridge” by Arthur Miller. My favorite newstand at Grand Central happened to have the Jewish Press, the voice of Orthodox and black-hat Brooklyn, and I buy the paper when I can find it; the newstand veers in and out of stocking it. I snapped up a copy and settled in to browse the paper, which is now far thicker than the venerable Village Voice, another publication I’ve read since I moved to New York in 1980.
I’ll admit I liked to display the Jewish Press to see if anybody notices it. Not only am I one of the rare souls on the train reading a print publication, but I was reading one a little different from, say, the New York Times Magazine or The New Yorker. For some people, the Jewish Press may be a provocative as American Rifleman.
Sure enough, before the train left Grand Central, an elderly woman across the aisle asked me where I got the paper. I said my favorite newstand happened to have it, so I bought it.
“Is is Orthodox leaning?” she asked.
I pondered my answer. “It IS Orthodox, and moves out from there,” I said. “You’re not going to find any Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist tendencies in the Jewish Press.”
I said I have subscribed to the Forward newspaper since it began publishing an English edition in 1991, and she was interested in also subscribing, but didn’t know who to contact. She lacked a computer and didn’t know how to proceed. I looked up the subscription number on my phone and jotted it down on the Press’ front page — and told her I’d give her the Press when she was leaving the train.
The talk went in a political direction. First she asked what I thought about the death of Justice Scalia, and I told her the vicious comments about his passing saddened me. She felt his positions went against Jewish values and she had no problem with his death. For the election, she was a strong Hillary Clinton supporter. I wondered how she would react if I declared, “Hillary doesn’t belong in the White House, she belongs in the Big House!” but that would have been unfairly provocative and cruel. As with the earlier conversation, I simply let her talk.
“Do you like Bibi?” she asked, referring to Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“He’s the right man for the time,” I said, and we moved into Israeli politics, where her views surprised me. Besides liking Netanyahu, she also was a huge fan of Ariel Sharon. I would have never suspected. Then again, she had lived in Israel and had experienced the country first-hand.
We talked more about family issues, dating, and she asked about my Significant Other, knitting and listening to a podcast beside me. We exchanged business cards in case topics of mutual interest arose, She asked me to keep an eye out for a not-tall cultured single man who was looking for a similar New York Times-reading woman. I made a pitch for my dating book, so we both used our chat as a sales opportunity.
Her stop came and she left, Jewish Press in hand. I’m glad we engaged. I’m looking forward to the next encounter that the Law of Attraction throws at me.