The Subway Chronicles
The Bag Lady's Rules

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By: Eliza Gibbons

     The crowds spewing out of the subway maw overwhelm this New Mexico girl. It isn't so much the sheer number of people, but the way they stream out of the subway. A lot of jostling, a bit of pushing, clamped down faces and severe jaw lines. The steady flow of people in their own world taking up the entire staircase damn it, jockeying for position to get out and on with it faster.

    I can't possibly attempt to push myself underground against that mob of human traffic. The train can only be so big, is my big-state/little-town thinking. I'll wait.

     I am fresh out of graduate school and dressed in my only suit, an elegant, tailored subtle pin striped version of the necessary Blue Suit. My feet already ache I didn't know about the distances I'd have to walk on these hard New York sidewalks. I'm thinking I look pretty good, professional, I'll certainly make a good impression. I guess I must look like the self-concerned yuppy with my act fully together to that bag lady at the top of the stairs, rather than the broke MBA that I am, on my way to an interview in a terrifying, rushing city.

     I wake up from my daze of watching the people streaming out of the subway and see the bag lady fully: an undeterminable age fifty-ish, forty-ish, hard to tell; gray, flowzy hair kind of wild about her head; several layers of grimy clothes - I can imagine how she must smell in the summer heat; two overflowing plastic grocery bags, one in each hand, that she slashes around like weapons, aiming randomly at the departing subway riders. The fierce invective flowing out of her mouth is her most notable characteristic. It is a stream as constant as the people filing past. In an unending flow she screams every filthy word she knows, with a few vicious racial slurs hurled in. Her vocabulary is powerful and deep, and she showers it at maximum volume on the stone faces bustling past her. Her hatred is sly and cruel for anyone who chances across her tongue or line of vision Jewish, black, Asian, Irish, none of the above, were all the same to her.

     I must be staring. A lot of things about New York make me gape.

     "You!" a commuter man says brusquely, finger pointed unmistakably at me. "You stay away from her." gesturing over his shoulder to the bag lady. I recover quickly from the pointing digit (we dont do that in New Mexico), think "well, duh", smile and say, "Thank you. I will."

     The bustling stream of bodies ends abruptly so I head for the right rail, as far as possible from the womans military stance at the left side of the subway entrance. I think fleetingly that she hasnt noticed me, because she hasn't looked at me once this whole time. But Im not so lucky in my new suit and scared face. She focuses her attention entirely on me and lets loose. "Fucking Irish scum!" she hurls the words at me. "I'm not even Irish." I think. "And so what if I was?" as I hurry past. (We don't care about that in New Mexico). "Bitch!" she swings a bag at me. "Slut!" she rages. "Filthy Irish whore!" Another bag comes whizzing towards me, but I'm already past her in my clattering rush underground. Other similar words follow my hurried bewilderment down the hot, urine-soaked stairs. I fight my stupid welling tears.

     As I think I'm reaching safety a man reaches out for me from behind. "Wait." he says calmly. I look back to see a middle-aged Asian man, dressed in an expensive suit and looking fully the investment banker type. "She spit on you." And he reaches out with his bare hand and wipes away a glob of white spittle from my left shoulder. Then he hurries on without another word or even a glance back.

     Did I say thank you? I have no idea. I was so confounded by the previous thirty seconds that I have no recollection of what I did. I don't remember getting onto the subway, I don't recall the interview, and for a variety of reasons, I didn't stay in New York much longer.

     Twelve years later, I still remember that man, reaching out to a stranger in a mad, weird situation. His tiny gesture was of near-heroic proportions. The outwardly disturbed woman and the terribly serene man form part of the whole of the incoherent, stunning, horrible, fascinating place that is New York. The city has its shadow side, as does our own human nature. While most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes, dont we all have some of that craziness and some of that placidness in ourselves? Would we ever act upon those extreme impulses we keep under behavioral guard inside ourselves? There are freaks and heroes among us everywhere. Perhaps encountering the one leads you invariably to find the other.

 

Eliza Gibbons is a freelance writer living in Denver, Colorado. She spent six years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, working in the finance area of a multi-national company, and is currently the managing director for an investor relations firm. Gibbons is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish.