By: Roxanne Zech
People are never as good at multitasking as they think they are. I think about this every time I see someone texting while walking down a crowded street, or every time I pass someone driving while applying makeup during rush hour.
I visited New York City for the first time last month and was pleasantly surprised by the serenity of the subway. During that commute, the lack of cellphone reception limits the nation’s busiest people to a solitary activity: listening to a pre-downloaded podcast, reading a book, enjoying their morning cup of coffee, or simply just sitting.
By the evening of our second day, my friend Jemma* and I have a pretty good idea of how to get around the city. This newfound ability provides us with a thick padding of false bravado. Each person that asks us for directions adds a new layer to our pseudo-New Yorker facade. When a humble, older looking Jamaican man asks us for directions to the Bronx, we all too happily direct him to the 6 toward uptown – we’re headed the same way. He hands us a bookmark colored by a purple sunset and inscribed with a bible verse. We take this token with a warm smile.
While we wait for the train, the music of the underground is in full swing. Jemma and I tap our toes, move our hips, and dance in place while our new traveling companion warns us of dancing to the devil. We laugh this off, promising our music is devil-free. He asks us questions about our hobbies, our beliefs, our studies. We respond kindly, vaguely, safely.
As we step into the subway the questions turn less into questions and more into declarations of character. Cotton-candied hair Jemma is a bold woman, he says with a furrowed brow. She goes where men go, she doesn’t let gender define her. She will marry a soft, weak man. In a very stark contrast, he calls me homely with a smile. He tells me I will grow up and marry a preacher and that I will be a great mother. While being a great mother is something I hope to one day be, at 20 years old these are rarely things I hope to hear based on first impressions.
“Oh, no. You don’t mean that,” Jemma interjects. “In English, that means ugly. It means someone is plain. Roxanne is not plain.”
I move from the pole to the seat next to her. We offer him the empty chair next to us in the hopes of possibly ending the conversation. He declines, responding that if he sits next to us, we will not be able to listen to him. Now towering over us he shares his philosophies on how to live a good life. A quick look around reveals that the rest of the crowded subway grows noticeably uncomfortable.
“Are you in a relationship?” he probes.
We both respond with our usual answers. No, we’re focusing on school. No, we haven’t found anyone we like enough to date. He shakes his head, telling us if we’re not looking for a man, we’ll never find one. He tells us we should focus more on dating.
“You should be married by 23! Every woman can earn a degree by 23! That should be enough,” he laments. We laugh uncomfortably. We promise to go to church more. We promise we’ll read our Bible.
The subway skips our stop on 96th and continues on to 125th.
I sit, listening to him, wondering how many times we’ve sat and been forced to listen to men tell us how we should be living our lives (see mainsplain). How many times have we responded kindly, vaguely, and safely to avoid confrontation with a member of the opposite sex? (see street harassment) How many times has this very subway been made uncomfortable by this type of imposition?
I sit, listening to him, wondering how many times we’ve sat and been forced to listen to men tell us how we should be living our lives (see mainsplain).
He tells us we should come visit him at his church. This is the moment we realize we’ve been duped. He’s a preacher at a Bible Church in the Bronx – he didn’t need our directions. He makes us take down his phone number to further chat about our life plans. My mind flashes to all the times I’ve taken down mens phone numbers with no intention of calling.
When we finally get off 30 blocks north of where we should be, we’re in shock. As the doors close we hear him asking for directions from a different couple. What just happened? How did we let that happen? The shock very quickly turns to rage and the spirit of the staircase consumes us.
“I should have told him you were my girlfriend!”
“I should have told him I didn’t believe in marriage!”
“We should have told him we wanted to raise our children together!”
The walk home is filled with these shoulda-woulda-couldas. Meanwhile, the solace of the subway has vanished. Now I put in my headphones even when there’s no sound.
Well played New York, well played.