I made a temporary friend this morning.
I was waiting for the downtown express train, running a few minutes late for my part time job, and found myself among throngs of people wondering if and when a downtown train would ever make its way to us. In case you didn’t know, the MTA (Metro Transit Authority) is competing in the great New York City-wide competition to see which service can be the most wasteful and unreliable part of the public sector. Although you do almost always eventually get pretty close to where you wanted to end up.
I’m waiting for five or six minutes when a young man comes up to me, leans way out over the track to try to peek down the tunnel, inevitably reminding a dozen others to lean out and also confirm that there was nothing coming.
“The five train just came, yeah?”
“Nope, nothing’s come for a while.”
“Well, it must have just come, cause my girlfriend is on it, and she said she’d meet me here, and I’ve been here since 9:15.” [It’s now a little after 10]
He leans out, halfway over the track, holding onto a column for balance. He was youngish, good looking guy, wearing a “New York” hoodie. He was ambiguously Latino (that is, to my clunky Hispanophone radar) and had a pierced nose—stud not hoop.
“Of course, she could have just left me behind. You know how Filippinos are.”
You know what, I actually didn’t. I mean, other than being Catholic, speaking Tagalog and having a crazy former queen (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1173911.stm), I hardly know anything about Filippinos. Luckily, my new acquaintance (whose name, alas, I did not catch) filled me.
“Filippinos will just LEAVE you. You stop to fix your sneaker—my girl keeps walking. I get up, I can hardly see her she’s walking so fast. She does that to her kids too! They stop for something, she keeps walking”—he swings his arm, emphatically walking in place for me—“don’t care who’s behind her. I’m always like, baby, you gotta stop, cause what if I’m walking with you and I get kidnapped?—[arms shoot up into a V over his shoulders]—you not gonna know till you’re home and I’m not there. Cause I was kidnapped.”
For a minute we just looked at each other, sighing and shaking our heads ruefully. Damn, those Filippinos. Who would have thought behind the innocent exteriors they’re heartless power-walkers. With their own children. What if you got kidnapped?
“I like your shoes,” he then said, pointing.
“I just noticed them, otherwise I would have said something earlier,” he lets me know. “They’re like suede or something.”
They’re actually cowhide, white with brown spots. They still have the hair and everything. And they’re secretly orthopedic (hey, I’m young but I walk a lot). I couldn’t think of the word cowhide though (yes, I constantly blank out on clutch terms), so I nodded and said they were that hairy kind of leather.
“Oh, yeah, of course. They’re from cows. I used to have cows. They’re scary.”
“You had cows?”
“Yeah, back in Puerto Rico.”
He’d had cows there, and there were bulls too, and he has scars on his chest from hopping a barbed wire fence, running away from a bull his brother incited to chase him.
The train finally showed up (a four, not a five), but he hopped on, saying he’s find his girlfriend at work.
We shared a vertical rail inside the car and he continued to tell me about Puerto Rico. He was talkative but in no hurry, had no axe to grind. Our conversation might have been his first chance to ramble this morning, and I felt like a welcome comrade in shooting the shit rather than an ersatz audience. I was sorta glad he started talking with me even though I’d been reading the paper; something I love to do on the subway, but it also still feels like a self-enclosing yuppie thing to do, at least at the east side 125th street station. I learned he didn’t like cows at all, too big and intimidating, but they’d had lots of birds, back in Puerto Rico, which he remembered fondly.
He told me they’d kept ostriches and I asked if they kept them for the eggs or the meat. He looked at me like I was a bit of a mercenary—“We just like them. We had a bird sanctuary, with cages, long as two of these cars.” He gestures across the train, and tells me that they had parrots, cockatoos, all kinds of birds. They sold two of the ostriches for $3500 but they died on the plane.
“It wasn’t our fault—they were fine when they lived with us.”
“Maybe it’s like an air pressure thing? I mean, birds are probably sensitive.” I thought about how tiny an ostrich’s head is, and how that must effect its mood (or it’s very survival) at high altitudes.
“I mean, they just died, that’s all, probably because they were on a plane,” he said, in a tone that seemed to correct my outlandish hypothesis. “We sold them to my grandfather too, except, of course, he wasn’t really my grandfather. But he was a lawyer and so we had to take care of him and called him grandfather.”
I offer no further interpretation of this immediately aforementioned collection of declarative statements.
Anyhow, after the ostrich disappointment, he got into Shar Peis, which this grandfather fellow also kept, but had my new acquaintance take care of. Apparently, you have to be very rigorous when you bathe Shar Peis, because if you don’t dry them in the folds of their skin, they grow a fungus there. This was illustrated by the young man scrunching up the front of his hoodie in his hands, then flinging it loose with his fingers imitating a virulent aggressive canine fungus.
“I had no idea.”
“Yeah. Not just that, but when they big, they aren’t even cute anymore. Their skin stretches over their body, and they aren’t so great. Then the only good thing is to use them for fighting.”
“Fighting?? A Shar Pei??”
“Oh yeah, you give them surgery on their eyes, so that they look like a pit bull. They’re real strong too. Except, really, they’re bad for fighting. They got all that skin. You could pull their face like this—” he reaches out in front of him, grabs the saggy skin of our imagined Shar Pei, and slowly drags it towards us in his right hand. “Like that, see?”
I don’t know much about dog fighting, and I had no idea you could give a Shar Pei cosmetic surgery to look like a pit bull. But I really was having fun chatting and so I threw out the only Shar Pei trivia I had, which is decidedly lame.
“Don’t Shar Peis die real young though, because they’re specially bred and stuff?”
“Oh yeah, this one, he only lived to be like five. Which…lemme see…that’s forty nine in dog years.”
I started to say how this was pretty young, at least for a dog, but he cut me off—
“No, not really, I mean, its normal to die at fifty. Everyone in my family dies at fifty. My grandfather, died in 1980 at age 50, my other grandfather and my grandma, they died at fifty. I’m gonna die at fifty. But you know, that’s okay, cause would you want to live forever?”
“I dunno, I mean, no—“
“Exactly. When I was little, I used to think about living to be maybe 800 or 900 years old. I figured we’d be able to, you know?”
I’ll be honest, I have had my brainwashed-by-progressive-ideology moments where I fancied maybe I’d live a decade or so longer than my recent forefathers. But not really. And I never really pictured a life of pre-flood proportions.
My thoughts dashed from my grandmother who is sharp and sweet and ninety next month to my cigar-smoking grandfather who made it to his mid-80s, when my interlocutor raised a number of objections to this vision of living until 800 or 900. The biggest problem, he figured, was marriage.
“I’m gonna be like 850 years old! And it’s gonna be my 800 anniversary! And I’m like—damn, baby, I am so sick of you after all these years. I mean, imagine, you married to one girl for 800 years. You wouldn’t even be that happy at your anniversary party, cause you spent so long together already. That’s not how it should be. That’s why it better to die at fifty.”
I really love that even if we were doomed to walk the earth for centuries, my new friend figured you should stick by your woman, as tedious as it might be.
Anyway, at this point he asked me where I was from, and then we talk about the Cardinals for a while and Pujols and whether La Russa would get resigned.
“You probably don’t even remember before La Russa was there, do you? Cause you’re 22.”
I told him I was actually older than that, which prompted him to ask me to guess his age. I hate doing that. Luckily he looked in his late 20’s, which is a safe age—I figure—for either over- or underguessing. I ended up only guessing off by four years, but only learned that after he put on a very good bluffing expression, blank as hell, and said he was fifty-four. I asked how come he hadn’t died yet. He bugged up, almost high fived me or something in honor of his predestined early death, and told me that he was actually only thirty-four. Then, with a sudden seriousness, almost scowling, after his laughter, he announced that he was a grandfather. I really had believed that the guy was only a few years older than me, and all of the sudden I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg.
“I’m only thirty four, and I’m a grandfather,” he assured me again.
I congratulated him, asked if his grandchild was a baby girl or a baby boy. I figured it was safe to assume they were babies. He has twin daughters, he tells me, they’re now fifteen, and they each have a baby—one a boy, one a girl.
I know, I know, teen pregnancy is a serious affair, but news of babies always makes me happy, so I congratulated him that he could have a baby girl and baby boy. He just shook his head and said, “They’re fifteen! What they doing having babies?” A minute ago he’d been pinching back the skin around his eyes to imitate a pit bull.
I shook my head along with him, told him that meant that he’d better help them out then. I felt like we’d bonded over the past forty blocks enough for me to chime in with humble, albeit plebeian, advice.
“How am I gonna help them? They’re the ones that had the babies. Plus, I got stuff to do. I gotta find my girlfriend. I got stuff to do.”
At that very moment the train came to a complete stop—86th and Lexington. It was my stop and I wished him and his daughters well. He shot me an adorable smile and bid me farewell and I scampered off to tutor my fancy Upper East Side younguns, thinking of this man who’s peddled ostriches, trained Shar Peis to fight, and already has two generations of progeny at 34.
All that story, in one dinky subway stop.