Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Index

I usually did not mind riding the subways while living in Manhattan. While suburban commuters around the country were fighting their way through traffic, I was usually reading and sipping a travel-mug of coffee. I even got used to strangers reading over my shoulder.

Several moves later, I still remember the poor woman who fashioned her own wig from brown bag, paper mache. She parked it right on top of her head, and wore it around town like it was the most natural thing. We were often on the same C-train, and if I remember correctly her stop was somewhere around the Natural History Museum. I have no idea what she did when it rained. I imagine she had a shelf full of them. Or perhaps the wig was extremely well shellacked.

Only the tourists laughed and gawked.

Every straphanger has a parcel full of outrageous stories, and I have my share. As long as you were extremely polite everything was cool. Bump someone and don’t express the proper penance, they might just decide to teach you some manners.

One day, I happened to be reading a technical manual of some sort, and the individual smashed next to me said something like, “Computers are the wave of the future.”

If that comment had been bandied about in the 50’s rather than in the 21st Century he may be credited with prophetic insight. He obviously did not know much about computers, but discoursed for about a minute on the topic. He seemed sane and calm, so I didn’t mind humoring him. I know I have made an ass of myself once or twice talking about something I knew little or nothing about, and am more than forgiving of these little human foibles.

Actually, he turned out to be a very nice gentleman. It was obvious he just needed to talk to another human being. He was not being overtly needy, so I did not discourage him.

He directed my attention to two children and his wife sitting across from us. His kids were absolutely adorable; both sitting calmly, one was reading a book. Some how the discussion moved on to more personal subjects, which was the real reason for his introduction. He revealed to me how he had not been a particularly good father. He had been too angry, he said. He had really struggled to provide for his family. He had been experiencing some recent health problems, and these issues seem to have made him more introspective.

Perhaps it sounds uncomfortable to be cornered by a stranger and have them open up in such a personal way, but the individual was extremely rational and concise. This was not the raving of the dissolute. We were both stuck underground for a while so why not talk.

I replied, “Well, I’m not so sure that kids require their parents to be perfect. We all make mistakes, but so few own up and seek to do a little better.”

I didn’t consider what I said particularly insightful, but it was if a burden had been lifted, and his face lit up. He must have been carrying around some sort of pain for him to reach out to a stranger. My usual reaction when in that kind of pain, and not a very good one, is to turn inward. When we finally departed, we shook hands, and wished each other well

New York is a tough town, but I had many such experiences. In some ways I miss New York. I miss the many accidental meetings. Of course, if you don’t develop guiding principles you will soon be miserable. When do you discourage random strangers from talking with you? How do you do so to prevent it from turning ugly? Who is chatting you up because they want something from you? Who are the over eager leeches who missed that part of brain development that should key them in to the fact that no one cares? And that is just the beginning. In New York, either consciously or unconsciously, one develops a human interaction safety index consisting of complex algorithms.

Or you die.

I developed that index long before showing up on the isle of Manhattan partially from bartending, and partially from attending high school. I worked at a dive bar owned by a one-legged Panamanian after crashing and burning from one of my more stressful jobs. But, that is another story for another day.

In some other dreary city, the guy next to me tonight in my evening commute was reading Overcoming Loneliness. He smiled nervously, and said, “Hello” when I sat next to him, and I responded in kind. Later, when he fell asleep I saw the book title. I realized that the Index had become automatic in some ways. The guideline that I used would be phrased something like, “When someone does not greet you with an open ended question, such as ‘How are you doing?’ they have let you of the hook, therefore do not open the door with an open ended greeting of your own.

We human beings are a sad bunch.

Every US citizen who is not a Bush loving, Baptist choir singing, halleluiah shouting church-goer had better develop a human interaction safety index pretty quick.

Or you will die.

The Necessity for Enlightened Thinking


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