Last night on the subway I heard the most incredible conversation between five vagabonds (just really wanted to use that word.) I think they were homeless, but they didn’t seem to be in any altered state, nor were they particularly dirty. That makes me sound like a prejudiced dick but anyone who’s ridden the subway in NYC knows how rare that is. I would guess them to be in their forties and fifties, with that ageless/aged quality of former drug addicts who were now clean. They had a sense of ownership of the subway car that I recognize as a quality of nomads, being a nomad myself much of the time. The moment they sat down it was as if they were in their living room, and so were all of the rest of us.
There were four men and one woman, who was talking when I first sat down, laying with her short legs swung over those of one of the men. She was down a few teeth, and the gaps showed as she talked with great animation. “There’s a medical condition called rage, and when you have it, if anyone hits you, you can’t see. You go blind. And all you can think is just protect yourself protect yourself. So that’s what he did.” A friend had been attacked, stabbed, and had in turn stabbed his five attackers to death in a fit of clinical rage. The talk gradually shifted to judgment, to how those who judge put themselves in God’s place, and they’ll be the ones judged in the end. I’m not religious, but this is true. Most human suffering is caused by people who assume they know things they couldn’t possibly know. Even self-loathing is often arrogance in disguise.
They had a legion of canvas shopping bags with them, and at this point one of the men began fishing through his. He pulled out a lunch bag, from which he removed two sandwiches and a rice krispies treat, the latter of which he opened and began to eat with great relish. I dipped in and out of attention, alternately reading and listening. The conversation was again religious, mostly a monologue by the rice krispies man, who turned his language over in his mouth with great pleasure, clearly a lover of words. He brandished his snack at key moments to enhance his points. A man named George was addressed frequently, but it was impossible to tell if it was the speaker himself or one of the other men, who sat quietly. I tuned out. I tuned in. There was a monologue on how no one minds gossip until it’s directed their way. I tuned out. I tuned in.
“As Tom Cruise said in A Few Good Men, ‘You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!’ ”
“ ‘Baby George, eat some bananas.’
'Baby George, sit down and rest.'
'George, sit down and rest.'
'No. I'm an adult now and I make my own choices.' ”
“It’s all God’s children, not all God’s adults.”
Gradually the elements came clear. George was the man in the middle of the row of three. He was slightly younger than the rest, and looked less worn down, as if his homelessness were new. He sat with his head bowed. He did not respond to much. He seemed humiliated by his bag of handouts, by the loud chatter of his companions. He seemed to think himself superior. It sounded from the talk like he was unwilling to give something up, some habit, some pattern of thought.
The rice krispies man, who was now mowing down a banana, talked about how George had given up a woman who loved him, a child. He talked about how when George walked into the church his wife’s face lit up. A cartoonish, beatific tenderness lit up his face as he demonstrated. His companions loved it. He did it again, turning it side to side for better admiration. He said that George was making a grave mistake walking away. He said something about letting a white woman raise his child, which seemed odd, but I didn’t catch the whole comment.
At this point, the rice krispies man caught me plainly listening. “Do you want his blessings?”
“He’s got a beautiful wife who loves him, and a place to live, and food to eat. Do you want that?”
“I’ll take it.”
George perked up a bit. He looked conflicted.
Eventually the woman spoke up. “George, lemme ask you a question. You got a place tonight right? Well I don’t. And I’m happy. And you’re miserable.” George looked up at her. She had got him with that one.
One by one they all spoke up, I’m happy, me too. Their faces transformed from repose into enormous smiles. They laughed. They were pleased as punch. At 2 AM on a Friday night, everyone else looked beaten down, hollow eyed, sobering into a hangover. I don’t know how they felt - no one spoke when the whole caravan hurried across the platform to the 2 train.
“Whose bag is this?” one of them called.
“Who cares whose it is, just grab it!” the woman shouted back.
On his way past me rice krispies man looked me straight in the eye and bid me goodnight, and I wished him a wonderful night too. I meant it.
The subway car returned to the usual fluorescent silence. A smirk slipped across the face of the girl across from me, like a bird’s shadow, and was gone. Iphones glowed. Religious or not, who among us is willing to spend 2 AM on the 4 train trying to figure out what’s important in life? I missed them already.