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Marilynne Robinson, Subway Ride, Lesson

In the opening essay of When I Was a Child I Wrote Books, Marilynne Robinson writes of the miraculous improbability that is every human being: each mind containing more neurons than stars in our universe, arranged in patterns complicated beyond our reckoning, loving and hurting and thinking, floating through a vast vacuum gulf; if from a certain scale even a chair would look like a cloud of energy, what might each of us appear to be….

I’d been trying consciously to keep this in mind, to remind myself (lovely how the word remains ingrained, linguistically guarded from decades of neuroscientific preference for brain) each time I found myself angry or dismissive: How can so-and-so, such-and-such, be so stupid, corrupt, mean, thoughtless? Squint on the inside, see them for a moment as a cloud of light. An effective routine, but easy to forget, and when I stepped into the subway on my way uptown I saw the wool army blanket pile, a sneaker poking out one end, garbage-bagged belongings, a slumbering twitch, smelled it/him, and chose a seat from which vantage he’d be hidden.

Above him was one of those Poetry in Motion subway posters. “Graduation,” by Dorothea Tanning:

He told us, with the years, you will come
to love the world.

And we sat there with our souls in our laps,
and comforted them.

Forty-five minutes later, a few minutes late for dinner, I walked fast toward the 72nd street B/C station exit. I passed a boy, maybe twelve years old, black, who called to me and matched my pace and asked how he could get on the 4/5 train. A cloud of suspicion: Maybe he was selling something, thinking of stealing something? Not breaking stride, I told him that he’d have to catch a train back downtown — to 59th, I thought, I wasn’t sure, I could have checked my iPhone subway map but that would have meant stopping — then ride the E across town to 51st, then take the 4/5 from there. His face fell, he looked as though he were halfway to tears, and then I was up the stairs and on the street, thinking what an asshole I was.

At dinner I checked the phone and realized I’d given him the wrong station. He needed to transfer at 50th, not 59th.

Dinner, wonderful company, movie — about Moslem immigrants risking themselves to save Jews in occupied Vichy France — back downtown on the subway. Waiting for the G train at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a homeless man walking up the platform, asking for money. No singles in my wallet, I shake my head when he passes. On the train, headphones on, I look up and he’s passing through the car. This time, finally, I feel in my pocket, find two quarters and hand them over. From no perspective at that moment would I appear as a cloud of light.

Image: Man sleeping on the subway.

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