I stepped onto the crowded subway at First Avenue, cold, wet and annoyed that my dentist was out sick after I’d gone all the way over to NYU’s dental school. The train car was packed almost to capacity, the five or so people who exited barely making room for people to enter. I noticed there was space near the midpoint of two entrances in the car, and got more annoyed. One of my serious pet peeves is when there’s a lot of people who need to get onto the train, and the people already on the train just stand there, blocking the entrance. It’s the kind of inconsideration that can make one miss a train when she’s already running late, and I’m always careful to move toward the middle in those situations. So I said, “excuse me” with detectable annoyance, ready to move into the empty middle space if the person next to me was determined to hold on to her hand rail.
Then I noticed that the terrible offender was a little girl. She looked up at me with wide eyes and hurridly stepped backward until she wound up in the middle of a crowd of people much taller than her with no access to a rail. I instantly felt bad, like one of *those* New Yorkers who give us all a bad name. She looked really flustered. “Do you have something to hold onto?” I asked her, managing a half-smile and moving slightly to make the railing available to her. She scrambled for a few moments to get situated with the tangled headphone cords plugged into her iPod mini, and I really thought she was going to go for a tumble when the train started moving. But she managed to get the earbuds in place and grasp the rail just before the train lurched forward.
I think it must have been her first time riding the subway alone. She was so small, couldn’t have been more than 10 years old, yet was dressed in the style of your typical Williamsburg-dwelling resident. Black peacoat, a long gray t-shirt over black leggings, brown and white Oxford shoes. Everything about her outfit was striving to proclaim an exaggerated maturity — except for the pink fabric flower clip that held back part of her hair. It was a kid’s item, purchased by a grandmother or aunt at a kid’s store, a dead giveaway.
I glanced down at her iPod and saw she was spasticly flipping from song to song, only spending about 10 seconds at a time on each. Curious as to what kids are listening to these days, I peered over her shoulder and glimpsed her screen.
Little girl, don’t you know what goes on at Snoop Dogg shows? Women sit on the shoulders of their male friends, waiting for the camera to broadcast them on the big screen so they can flash the crowd. He smokes blunts on stage and fires t-shirts into the crowd through an oversized bong. He raps about bitches and hos. What is an adorable, innocent girl like you doing listening to that?
Where were her parents?
I wanted to sit her down and talk to her about school, and priorities, and ask her why she was riding the subway alone at night. She exited the train ahead of me at Bedford Avenue, slipping between the crowd with ease as people ran into me, and walked up the stairs with faux confidence. Out into the night. I thought it a possibility that some bartender would be fooled by her hip outfit, overlooking her height and obvious age, and accidentally or apathetically get her trashed.
I don’t know why that girl fascinated me so much. I think that when I was 10, I was roaming cities by myself and listening to vulgar lyrics while not understanding what they mean too. I think she shocked me because I wondered if I was looking at her how other people look at me… as a little girl in a big city, striving to play a role that might be out of her league. And I think that probably, if I told that little girl what I thought, she would tell me to go fuck myself, just like I would tell someone who might say that to me.
There’s something about this city that accelerates life. It’s like a time machine that ages the minds of people at 10X the rate of people living in average suburban cities, while keeping their bodies the same. Sometimes it causes mental growing pains as the layers of comforting naïveté are removed, one by one, sometimes peeled other times ripped off. Maybe if you want to get by here, you have to get used to standing naked in the cold. If you want to make it, you have to like it, or at least convince yourself it’s better than being smothered in all that god awful comfort.