It happened on an unseasonably mild February night around 9:30 between 23rd and Christopher Streets on the No. 1 train: I fell in love all over again on the New York City subway. I was on my way home from seeing a movie alone in Times Square, a depressing Oscar-nominated flick about a woman stuck in a vicious cycle of abuse and prostitution. At 32 years old I had been in the city 10 years and was stuck in a cycle of my own. Though it had always been my dream as a girl growing up in California to live in the Big City, a cloud of dissatisfaction had settled over my life. I had been in the same unsatisfying job, the same stagnant romantic relationship and the same cluttered studio for more than three years. I’d begun to think I’d seen it all in New York. To feel that nothing can surprise you in the midst of 8 million people is like living in a walking coma.
That night I strayed from my usual modus operandi on the subway, which is to bury my nose in a copy of the latest the New Yorker, a perfect distraction since it helps me avoid eye contact and soak up some culture at the same time. But that Wednesday night, the magazine stayed put in my purse. I was exhausted from reading what seemed like hundreds of Seymour Hersh articles about Iraq. Instead, I felt compelled to contemplate the city where I had chosen to live, on the other side of the country from my family, my roots and my history. Basically, I was in a ‘What the hell am I doing here’ mood. It’s a question I’ve asked myself periodically since moving here.
All of a sudden, at 23rd Street a stunning man stepped into my train car carrying four Whole Foods grocery bags and my heart leapt into my throat. He looked like Guy Pearce, the angular Australian movie star, with a sharp chin, a five o’clock shadow and smoldering intense eyes — and he was wearing a jaunty red Elmer Fudd hunting cap. The hat, made of starched itchy-looking wool, was lipstick red and not at all in vogue. His white sneakers too had streaks of brilliant red on the sides. He wore two tiny ponytails tied tightly in matching red rubber bands. The hair stuck out from the back of his hat so fiercely straight it looked dangerous. The pigtails were like an animation signifying forward motion, like this Red Hat Man was being propelled into life by jets of hair.
For a full minute, my eyes roved over him. His high cheekbones, pointed nose and intelligent eyes all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. I thought, This is what human faces are supposed to look like. But he wasn’t classically handsome. He’d never be an Abercrombie & Fitch model or pictured in the pages of J. Crew. Yet, he was magnetic. Not just because of his face, but because of the whole package. The hat. The ponytails. The grocery bags on the subway. Nothing about him said, “I give up. I’ve seen it all. I conform.” That was what got me. After all these years in the city seeing millions of characters, this was a man I couldn’t slat into a pre-made category in my mind. So I continued to stare.
Of course, on the New York City subway looking directly at someone is usually an indication of hostility or mental illness. The code among the sane is that if you are caught staring, you must at least pretend that you’re not doing it. So, when his eyebrows crinkled and he turned toward me, I politely looked away and struck a pose with my chin pointing slightly up, which I hoped was a flattering angle. We were in the middle of a rare warm winter night so I’d shed my usual trousers and heavy sweater and replaced them with a long denim skirt with a slit up the front, no tights and calf-high boots. My hair was in a high playful ponytail. I felt sexy and stylish and I wanted him to appreciate me.
Even while I pretended not to gaze at Red Hat Man, I became more deeply enamoured as his Whole Foods grocery bags came into focus. He went out of his way to shop at a healthy food store. I could tell a million things about him by this single detail. He wasn’t lazy. He wasn’t cheap. He didn’t subsist on Chinese takeout. He could be vegetarian. He might do yoga. He definitely watched his weight. Of course, he could very well be gay. But if he wasn’t, I could be in love forever. I felt a surge of life through my limbs. My heart had long been involved with a man whom I deeply loved and was committed to, but who didn’t give me flutters. He gave me instead the steady, warm cocoon of caring that comes with a longterm relationship. He was also addicted to Mu Shu Pork and Dominos pizza and would have gouged out his eyes with chopsticks before lugging four bags of organic food on the subway.
While actively pretending not to stare at my new crush, I noticed that he was actually looking at me. Yes, I thought, don’t I look cute? I turned to shyly eye him again and his stare darted to the side. Red Hat Man and I played a flirtatious game of ‘I’ll look at you then look away when you look at me’ for the all too short time that remained of my subway ride. I wasn’t sure if he was staring because he was amused by my obvious adoration or if he’d seen something in me too. But there was some palpable connection between us.
When we neared my stop, I scooted to the edge of the plastic seat and hooked my purse over my shoulder, a signal that I would be leaving. He glanced up then looked shyly down. When he looked up again, I did something that I had never done in 10 years of living in the city: I looked directly and deliberately at the stranger across from me, and he looked at me. Together, wide, friendly smiles spread across our faces as we gazed into each other’s eyes like long lost lovers in a movie. We were two people falling in love on the New York City subway. The feeling could have pushed me over.
The car came to a slow, halting stop. “Christopher Street,” the conductor announced my stop. I stood up, still looking at my newfound love and said, “I like your hat.”
“Thanks,” he replied, his voice more deep and masculine than I expected, so unlike his refined features.
“No one wears a hat like that,” I smiled.
“Soon all the kids’ll be wearing them” he joked.
“It’s like you’re out in the woods. It’s cute,” I laughed as the doors threatened to close. I looked him over from top to bottom. “Really cute.” I said stepping out of the subway car, my chest bursting with renewed life.
Then I walked out into the unusually balmy night feeling awake for the first time in what seemed liked years, beaming and in love with my life and with the city all over again. A moment like that was exactly what the hell I was doing here.