Strange TIMES

There are many thousands of towns in this vast land where one is expected to acknowledge everyone you meet. From waving to Farmer Brown as he motors by in his ancient pick-up truck to greeting kindhearted Mrs. Nordlinger in the produce aisle of the supermarket, all are entitled to -- and, in fact, likely expect -- a tip o' the hat.

New York City is not one of those places.

This is not, as is so often assumed by John and Jane McDoe of Anywhere, USA, rampant aloofness on our part. It's certainly not rudeness. It's an unspoken yet universal (in our little universe, anyway) collective agreement that life is too short. There's simply no time for greeting the many hundreds of strangers who cross one's path each day.

And besides, even if one did resolve to speak to everyone encountered in the course of a day, a fairly high percentage of them wouldn't understand you. Of the eight million stories in the Naked City, at least a couple million of them require translation.

There are people in New York who hail from every country, every county, every city in the world and not a few, one comes to suspect, who have journeyed here from distant planets.

New York is like a giant bag of specialty jelly beans that contains not only those traditional candy flavors that purport to mimic cherries, grapes, limes, and lemons (but are perhaps more accurately dubbed simply Red, Purple, Green, and Yellow) but also disconcertingly accurate confectionery reproductions of such foodstuffs as buttered popcorn, peanut butter, and jalapeño peppers. Close your eyes, plunge your hand in, and you can never be certain what unexpected, even unsettling combination you'll pull out.

Odd pairings are a given in this town, the world headquarters for the International Order of Strange Bedfellows. Throw a lariat over any three people on the street, and you're liable to have lassoed a priest, a minister, and a rabbi; a doctor, a lawyer, and an Indian chief; or a Tom, a Dick, and a Mujibur.

The subway is perhaps the best venue for close observation of the intermingling of disparate New Yorkers. On a crowded subway car, one is apt to encounter people of a dozen different faiths, twenty different nationalities, a rainbow of skin tones, and one shared thought: Why is that man standing so close to me?

The subway has a way, too, of creating connections that might not otherwise occur. One such occurrence happened to me recently.

I enter a crowded car on the downtown #1 train at the 59th Street station. I've snagged the last seat in the car, at the very end of a bench; there are perhaps two or three dozen people left standing. To my left, sitting very straight and proper -- knees together, hands crossed primly -- is a lovely young woman of East Indian or perhaps Pakistani descent. She is dressed elegantly in a peach sari, her head covered, a ruby-colored bindi in the middle of her forehead, just above and between her eyebrows.

I notice her, of course, but do not speak. Like millions of my straphanging brethren, I don't generally speak to strangers on the subway; I leave them to their thoughts as they leave me to mine. Instead, I slide into my seat and bury my nose in a book.

At 50th Street, I glance up to see that the car remains relatively full; a handful of people depart the train, and two or three others board.

At 42nd Street, though, a major hub that allows riders to transfer to any of a dozen trains, there is a nearly unprecedented exodus. In fact, every single rider, save my sari-garbed neighbor and I, departs the train.

This is certainly an unexpected development. Where, moments before, she and I had been merely two ingredients in a stew of strangers, now we are alone in a suddenly very roomy subway car, sitting snugly side by side.

My first impulse is to crack wise. A sally is my initial reaction to most situations, to tell the truth, and a couple of not terribly original japes now come to mind.

"Finally, darling, we're alone," it occurs to me to crack. "I thought they'd never leave."

Or perhaps I could revive that old standard, "We've got to stop meeting like this."

And yet, I restrain myself. As discussed above, it's no small thing to speak to a stranger on the subway, and I find that there is something especially daunting about a woman in unfamiliar, apparently traditional, perhaps even religious attire.

Of course, it may be that she is dressed as any woman on the street in her ancestral homeland might be. Her diaphanous raiment, veil, and headcovering may well be the equivalent of "business casual" where she comes from but, provincial rube that I am, I'd never know it.

Instead I live in fear that such garb signifies affiliation with some draconian sect that will lop off one of her limbs should she so much as give me the time of day (Heaven knows what punishment she might then face for giggling at a mildly flirty jape from one such as me).

So I keep my quips to myself.

Still, I'm a little surprised that she does not slide a few feet down the bench or even cross the aisle to sit on the opposite side of the car. Perhaps she suffers the same crosscultural guilt that I've occasionally experienced when space opened up to my left, say, and someone who was not a white-bread Middle American like me was seated to my right: I've often worried that my neighbor might think I was moving not to give us both a bit more elbow room, but because I preferred not to sit by someone of their kind.

(Yes, I realize just how ridiculous this is; I ask only for your forbearance, your pity, and your prayers.)

Whatever her reason, this exotic stranger, transformed by fate into something more like a companion, stays put. We remain elbow to elbow, the entire car to ourselves, as the train progresses from 42nd to 34th Street and on to the 28th Street, 23rd Street, 18th Street, and finally 14th Street stations. It is at this last where I will exit the train and make my way up the stairs to the street.

Somehow, and I'm at a loss to explain it, no one enters our car at any of the above stations, but if someone had, they would surely have thought us a couple. An odd couple, yes -- a lovely young Asian in traditional garb and a pasty-faced dork in classic schlub wear -- but a couple nonetheless.

And, as such, it feels strange, despite the fact that we've exchanged not a word and scarcely a glance, to leave the car and not turn to say goodbye. However, I hew to the accepted standards of behavior and am on my way.

It's funny but, of the thousands of people with whom I've since shared a subway car, I remember not a one, and yet I'll no doubt recall the six or seven silent minutes I spent with that young woman for years to come.

New York, she is an enigmatic matchmaker whose ways cannot be explained.

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