A few weeks ago, I was riding Metro North back from New York City. Midnight had just about rung out the train, and I was huddled, hoodie up, in a seat by the door. Initially, I’d stabbed at some course packet, but as Larchmont lurched to Rye, my eyes were reading without reading. It was a Tuesday and the trip was compulsive and I was beginning to wonder if the restaurant and relatively random friend from NYU had been worth it after all.
There was a man sitting across the aisle. A rugged man – with too-big baggy jeans and those cheap padded sneakers. He had an Obama cap on and was fingering an unscratched scratch ticket. Also, he was black.
A few stops later another man entered the car. He had a navy tie and a black sports coat. He clutched a leather laptop case in one hand a Blackberry in the other. The dented doors clamped behind him and fluidly, almost viscerally, he sat down across from the other man, smiling slightly before pouring himself back into his handheld mask. This guy was white.
I don’t know what this says about me or my origins in the outskirts of Cambridge, Mass., but the procurement of this well-dressed, jawboned father figure relaxed my shoulders and untucked my feet. I was alone, after all, and my cell phone had died at dinner.
Within minutes, the white guy asked about the other man’s hat. After a bit of surface political talk, they shifted to the city and the city shifted them to jazz. They liked the same genre, they knew the same artists; the men were leaning in on elbows and talking like old friends. We rolled on to Port Chester as they exchanged song titles, street names and stories from dusty bars.
This made me happy. Probably in some childish fantasy of post-racial actualization. He had an Obama hat on for God’s sake. They kept talking, this rugged man and his polished counterpart. Talking and leaning until it was nearly 1 a.m. and the white guy had to use the bathroom.
“Excuse me,” I remember him saying, “I’m just going to run to the toilet.”
He stood up, but stopped himself before leaving. He paused for too long and he knew it; the contemplation was apparent. He lowered his eyes and reached down to grab his oversized laptop bag and phone from the table– hauling them with him into the tiny bathroom compartment.
The black man folded his fingers together and shifted in toward the window. When the man came back from the bathroom, he provided a closed-mouth smile before pulling out his Blackberry and fiddling around in its universe. The black man followed suit — reading the instructions on the back of his scratch ticket until the white guy got off at Greenwich.
“Nice talking to you,” he said, as he left his seat. “Best of luck.”
Once he was gone, the rugged man pulled a penny from his windbreaker and scratched out the numbers all the way to New Haven.