I step onto the 1 downtown train at 116th street every day and usually stand all the way down to Houston Street, where I get off for work. Sometimes I am able to balance and read a book as I hold on to a greasy pole. Other times, I am not so lucky; at five foot one, the long horizontal bar that runs the length of the subway car is almost out my reach, and I hold on to it hopefully, but not always successfully. As the train barrels down Broadway, the car is usually silent, despite the fact that we are shoulder to shoulder, elbow nestled in soft gut, hand touching hand on the pole for an instant before one of the hands slides higher or lower on the pole to avoid the contact.
It's true that we are each our own island, and that the 1 downtown train at rush hour is ferrying many islands to work, but we can see every single one in the stream and we wonder about them. I say "we" not because I'm assuming other people observe other subway riders as closely as I do, but because I know they do. There is so much that is loud about this city, but the subway commute is filled with many small, silent desires.
Craig's List (www.craigslist.org) is a strange, all-encompassing online community bulletin board. It's based out of San Francisco, where Craig Newmark, a bald, bearded man with round black-rimmed glasses, had the idea for online classifieds. It became so popular that there are now versions of Craig's Lists in cities as far away as Melbourne, Australia.
But the Craig's List that figures into this story is the New York Craig's List. Under the link "Missed Connections" is a novel-in-stories. The stories are brief, cryptic mini-narratives of a met glance or unobserved observation. Books often play major roles:
Girl on A Train
You were sitting across from me on the A Train reading a thick hardcover book with so much intensity. That caught my attention (enough to try finding you this way). You got on at 42nd Street and rode the train to Jay Street to wait for the F train. It was an A train to Lefferts Boulevard. You were wearing a red tank top with a black bra along with a Reebok cap with gray shorts. You have nice legs. You have a light complexion with hazel eyes and long brown hair (pulled through the back of the cap). You also have a dark blue Eastpack backpack and a black fabric shoulder bag. Personally I'd like to meet you and find out why the book had your attention and find out a bit about you.
Want to sit?
You beautiful dark skin... reading a red book... brown one piece dress... asked me if I wanted a seat on the 7 train this morning... just wanted to say you are lovely...
Robert Ludlum Fan on the 6 Train
It was last Saturday (morning around 9:30am on the uptown 6 train... you were wearing an orange hat with a V on it and reading a Robert Ludlum book with a green cover-I was staring at your book (trying to see which one it was) at the same time I tried not to stare at you. When you saw me looking at your book, we both smiled and I kind of started laughing. I got off at 33rd street and never turned around... I wish I had... I was kicking myself for not talking to you.
Not every Missed Connection takes place on a subway. There are just as many "You were the beautiful Asian bartender at Cellar Bar, eating cherries" and "Girl in the revolving door at Morgan Stanley" postings. One of my recent favorites was a cartoon of a Missed Connection.
Henry Street Hottie on Blades
I was standing outside the Last Resort when you bladed by, hair flying back. We made eye contact and smiled, which I feel kind of bad about, since you didn't see the fire hydrant. Ouch. Maybe we can blade together soon? Play some street hockey? You find me, wine sparkler in one hand, kneepads in other next Thursday on Atlantic Avenue. Hope you put some peroxide on that knee.
Every once in a while, someone will post the question: "Has anyone ever actually turned a missed connection into a real connection on Craig's List?" No one ever replies. I wonder how many people scan the Missed Connections page, hoping to find a description of themselves. I know I do. It's hard to feel any kind of connection to anyone in this city when we're flying past each other at the speed of an express subway train or walking briskly down the sidewalk, eyes cast straight ahead. But the secret heart of New York living, I think, is that clandestine observation of everyone else around us. Haven't we all mastered the art of seeing while affecting immersion in a book or a thought? We can immediately spot those who haven't quite gained that skill; they're the weirdoes on the subway who stare.»
My missed connection was a curly-haired blonde in Mona Lisa Café on Bleecker, sometime around Christmas. My friend Rachel was visiting and we'd just finished off two martinis a piece at Barrow Street Alehouse, where the televisions were all on ESPN and the college boys gathered around them like old homeless men around a fire blazing from a rusty old trashcan. When we finally stumbled outside, we headed to Mona Lisa. As we walked toward it in the light snowfall, the windows cast a warm glow on the wet cement outside.
Inside, I sank into an old, too-soft armchair, my head swimming. Rachel and I ordered coffee and some obscene dessert, and I noticed my soon-to-be missed connection sitting alone at the table next to us. He'd been listening to our conversation, and when I spied him, he quickly returned to his task, embarrassed. He was writing Christmas cards. For some reason-maybe it was the cocktails, maybe it was the holiday snowfall-I found this a deeply decent thing. It would follow, of course, that I would also find this an incredibly sexy thing, as the most decent people-the ones who would never consider an affair, an illicit kiss behind a closed door, the ones who are mortified by a gaze held too long-are the ones we find the most irresistible.
As a general rule, I'm not into blondes, but this blonde was writing Christmas cards at a table in Mona Lisa Café on a Friday night. Alone. And he was beautiful. Almost like an angel, who happened to enjoy eavesdropping, and whom I believed enjoyed being caught at it.
I wanted to impress. I put my hand on Rachel's forearm in what I hoped looked like a profound gesture from a very wise twenty-three year old, and said: "Rachel, have I ever recited the last page of ON THE ROAD for you?"
"Yes," she said, unaware of my intentions. "As a matter of fact you have recited the last page of ON THE ROAD. It's a thing you do when you've had too much to drink. And it still hasn't convinced me to read the damn book."
"I think you just need a little more convincing," I said, widening my eyes in a way that hoped conveyed the importance of her acquiescence to this little display. She sighed and sank deeper into her own soft chair. As I began ("So when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier…"), the boy didn't look up, but his pen stopped moving. I knew he was listening. At that point, I was too drunk to consider the possibility that he was finding me pretentious-if one can be pretentious in reciting Kerouac-but I did notice he was paying attention. When I finished, Rachel yawned and checked her watch, but the boy was looking at me and smiling.
We paid the check and pulled on our coats. I slipped my arms into my coat sleeves slowly, trying to linger. The alcohol in my bloodstream had dispersed slightly and I felt as if I were seeing the world for the first time. The curly-haired blonde boy had put his hand on top of his stack of finished Christmas cards and was looking at me expectantly. Then I did what so many regretful Missed Connections bums do-I walked away without saying anything. As we exited, I desperately wanted to turn around and look at him again.
"He's watching you walk away," Rachel whispered, as if we were in danger of being overheard. But Mona Lisa's big, clear picture windows looking out on the street weakened my resolve, so I linked my arm in Rachel's as we walked slowly towards Barrow Street.
Blonde boy at Mona Lisa's, around Christmas two years ago
You were the blonde sitting alone at a table at Mona Lisa's with a hot chocolate and a stack of Christmas cards on a Friday night sometime around Christmas. You overheard me talking about Kerouac and smiled. You had a sweet, open face that made me wish one of those Christmas cards was for me. I should have stopped to chat on my way out but was too embarrassed. Have been kicking myself ever since.