I stepped into the crowded subway car and a little girl sitting next to the door yelled something at me.
I shot her a look that said: “I don’t know if I’m going to pay attention to you, but at least let me claim my standing spot and my pole before I decide.” But then my hand met the pole at the same instant I heard her words: “…there’s Vaseline on the poles.”
The palm of my hand was covered with the slick, greasy stuff, and I had to steady myself with nothing to hold onto as the train lurched into motion. The little girl laughed, and I blushed but didn’t resent her for her laugh. She had earned it, I supposed, unlike all those others who were smiling into their newspapers. I tried to laugh too as I rummaged through my backpack.
The girl’s parents, sitting beside her, were oblivious, conversing animatedly in another language–Hindi, Bangla, or something.
There were no tissues in my backpack, so I had to tear a college-ruled page out of my notebook and use it to hold the pole. I looked around and saw that all the poles and hanging straps were greased, and the riders had come up with their own methods of dealing with it: some had cleaned off a little area to hold onto; others, like me, were using tissues or handkerchiefs as shields; still others clung to the tops of seats or braced themselves against doors to avoid the tainted surfaces altogether.
I had gotten on at Delancey and would change at West Fourth–three stops. I decided it would be much more interesting to watch what happened than to take out the book I was reading.
Second Avenue is never a busy stop; only two people got on. A businessman entered the same door I had and was successfully warned by the little girl. He gripped the top of a seat and thanked her. She beamed. This must be the best subway ride in her life, I thought. No squirming in her seat as her parents talked on and on about grown-up stuff–now she had her little job. I imagined her to be independent in that only-child way, one of those you can imagine leaving home at eight rather than eighteen and doing just fine.
The other new passenger, an old man in a fedora, was less lucky than the businessman. He entered further down in the car, and the murmured warnings offered him were too little, too late. He took out a handkerchief, cleaned his hand, then carefully started cleaning the entire pole.
Among the seated people, the warning-murmurers watched in guilty amusement, while the majority, the hard-faced advertisement-gazers and book-readers, tried to pretend nothing was happening. The only ones who laughed aloud were the little girl near me and three Asian high-school girls who sat together at the end of the car. These three were watching as closely as I, speaking in low tones, erupting occasionally into loud laughter. I wondered if they were the pole-greasers. I began to write a story about them in my mind. They were a three-member club, who had been pulling pranks since middle school. It had started with the obvious: short-sheeting and greasing toilet seats at Korean Baptist summer camp. Then, gradually, their pranks became more sophisticated–greasing bus-stop benches or elevator buttons and hiding to watch the results. They were becoming artists of societal disturbance and observation, and Vaseline was their medium of choice–completely harmless, yet spectacularly annoying.
As we pulled into Broadway-Lafayette I quickly planned my own approach. I didn’t trust my voice like the little girl trusted hers; I could not call out. Instead, I staked out a little area of which I was steward and prepared to give gentle warnings.
Several people got off, then only one person came into my area–a stylish young black woman in expensive jeans who didn’t notice the little girl yelling, “Hey! Hey, Lady!”
Keeping hold of my pole, I leaned her way and quickly said, “Be careful.” She shot me a hostile look, preparing to be preached to or hit on. “There’s Vaseline on all the poles.” She didn’t thank me, but returned to lean against the door, which had just closed.
In the time it took to warn her, though, a man about my own age had grabbed my pole. Now he was squatting down, searching his backpack, just as I had. Another man seated nearby, who clearly had not warned him, offered him a tissue.
The businessman who had been warned by the little girl at Second Avenue had become a warning-murmurer. The old man, on the other hand, had fully cleaned his pole, and other passengers were now hanging off it, trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. Further down the car, a white woman in her mid-twenties was in a real mess. She had not grabbed the pole at a distance but put her arm around it and leaned her body against it in order to better hold her magazine. Now she was looking down in dismay at her vintage-shop, fall-color argyle sweater. “Dry clean only,” I silently commiserated.
Another woman near her–short, Puerto Rican, perhaps–was huffing angrily and muttering to herself as she cleaned her hand. She was of the age, late fifties, that I expect Latin women to have accents, but I was proved wrong at the next stop–my stop, West Fourth–when the doors opened. “People entering the train,” she said loudly and clearly. “Do not grab the poles! They are all greased up and messy!”
“School teacher,” I thought appreciatively as I exited the train, squeezing past those first people who might hear her warning, then the people behind who would not. I looked into the face of one commuter after another. They were exhausted and impatient, and expected nothing different from the last thousand subway rides.