Found in Transit

A woman once offered me her seat on a rush hour 3 train. New Yorkers only donate seats to the elderly, the injured, and the pregnant, so it was obvious what she thought.

“Not pregnant – just fat,” I told her, matter-of-factly, compelled to set precedent before this woman’s so-called generosity spawned an outbreak of eating disorders in young, potbellied women across town. I did later notice that my nude Lycra top gave my suit pants button the illusion of a giant belly button. But when teetering along such a fine line, no reasonable female rider would have erred on the side of pregnant!

It was presumptive at best and rude at worst, but in all honesty, she affected little more than my day’s lunch selection. Nor would such a mild lapse in subway etiquette affect anyone else. Not when the Internet offers evidence of at least a dozen subway gropers, a toenail-clipper, and a weave-ripper too angry to realize she left her baby on the train. Such tall tales of transgression are rarely witnessed firsthand, unless millions of this city’s moving nuts, bolts, and bodies align in your cosmic disfavor. Only then does a five-minute ride – meant to not even punctuate the story of your life – carry on past the platform. On a stifling July morning, while stuck in more ways than one, this happened to me.

I was neck-deep into the Summer of Uncertainty, a time that followed my rigorous legal education and desperate job search. I secured work at a law firm starting that fall, but the position was far from what I'd hoped for. Frankly, I don’t know what I had hoped for. Three weeks before the bar exam, as I agonized through four-hour video lectures and dozens of practice tests, my existential “purpose” moments were taking on a life of their own. I was grinding to gain access to a career that I didn’t even know I wanted. Only a strict daily bar exam regimen gave me the robotic ability to maintain my emotions at a functional level. Indeed, running out of cereal was enough of a misstep to send me into a Jessie Spano tailspin.

The regimen went as follows: One. Wake up and eat cereal; specifically, Honey Bunches of Oats. Two. Assume same seat on eighth floor of law library. Three. Practice questions; lots of them. Reassure miscellaneous former classmate that he or she will not fail the bar exam. Four. Consume Asian-inspired noodle dish for linner (purgatory between lunch and dinner, usually when “the shakes” would set in). Five. Flash cards. Six. Call Mom and yell, because she “doesn’t understand.” Seven. Reassure myself that I will not fail the bar exam. Eight. Reality television (for perspective). Sleep. Repeat.

The only time I deviated slightly from the regimen was on Saturdays, when my allegedly nondenominational law school closed up shop for the weekly Day of Rest. The regimen did not allot for rest, so I would study in my apartment to avoid distraction.

This particular  Saturday, it was twenty degrees warmer than my window unit could handle, so my then-boyfriend (now-fiancé) Doug suggested that I study with him at his midtown office while he crammed for the GMAT exam. I was reluctant to deviate so far from the plan, but I was starting to sound like an episode of “Intervention.” I had to lighten up.

We made our way to the 4 train at Union Square, he in mesh shorts and flip-flops, me dressed for the New York City Marathon of Studying: spandex, sneakers, my “time to shower” headband, and a lumbar-supporting backpack carrying enough supplies and nonperishables to survive Armageddon.

The subway platform was packed with the extra weekend-only obstacles of strollers, performers, hobos, and the like. “Yankees must be playing,” Doug said. The crusade of pinstripes made it clear.

When the train pulled up, we rode a wave of people into a stuffed car, packed shoulder-to-shoulder like a weekday morning. The overhead vents blew cool air, but it was too hot and crowded for any sense of ease. I have always felt anxious on crowded express trains. I told myself to grin and bear the discomfort. Yet, as we pulled out of the station, a wee Yankees fan began to lose his lunch on his spectators. The stars had certainly aligned.»

The first heave was sad. Passengers gave obligatory “awes” and “oh nos,” while subtly, slowly, inching toward dryer ground in a socially acceptable fashion. The communal pity ceased right about then.

The boy’s mother held his hands behind his back and let him attempt the “long jump” of vomit. He projected all over the shins and midsections of passengers around him. Splat. Burp. Splarf. He rotated, like a sprinkler, covering all ground – and people – evenly. The mother’s efforts were unprecedented, as she made every attempt to avoid the tragedy of her son soiling his own crisp Yankees jersey. Debriefing after the fact, Doug and I concluded that there was no way this family came from Jewish descent, like us, because a Jewish mother (confronted with the risk of public shame) would have directed the barf into the nearest bag, her purse, her own two hands, or at the very least, would have died trying.

“We are experiencing delays due to train traffic ahead of us. Please be patient.”

Didn’t this train in front of us know that we had projectile vomit on our hands? Thirty seconds of delay was making everyone queasy – including the boy’s little brother. Was it something they ate?

“Oh no, now the other one’s doing it!” A man cried out in turmoil before being overcome by a dual tsunami of spew. He didn’t stand a chance.

The brothers heaved on passengers, while their parents held their arms back to ensure that their Yankees paraphernalia remained unscathed. It was a synchronized Cirque de Soleil of sickness. Splat. Splat. Turn. Burp. Burp. Turn. Splarf. Splarf. Turn. In my crippled state of narcissism, I genuinely believed this routine was being performed only for me.

“Oh my god, really?” I yelped like a child, without any regard for those actually in the splash zone. “Get back! Get back!” I screamed at Doug, shoving him against the glass door, as if there was actually somewhere to move. Fortunately, my Armageddon backpack – having even more utility than I had imagined – shielded me spatially from the carnage. I also happened to apply a generous dollop of scented moisturizer to my hands prior to boarding the train, which upon cupping my face, helped to buffer the stench.

We pulled up to Grand Central Station. As the doors opened, passengers quickly leapfrogged off the train, soiled with physical and mental mementos of what had just happened. Doug jumped over the landmines first, leading me out by the hand as I, or the shell of me that remained three weeks before the bar exam, crumbled.

Rambling tearful circles around Doug and whoever else would pick up the phone, I cried of how being stuck with the Brothers Barf was cosmic payback for deciding to break the regimen. I should never have left home. I should never have agreed to study with anyone else. I should never have had a bagel instead of cereal. It was karma.

Yet, as I vocalized my rock bottom to more and more people that morning, it made less and less sense. My tears eventually turned to chuckles. The Brothers Barf and their notorious parents were the exclamation point in my perpetual run-on sentence of a summer. They could only have found me on an inescapable express train, which halting to a pause, forced me to do the same. That night, I took the train back downtown, but not before sitting down for a proper dinner – spaghetti and meatballs, with a salad to start. I enjoyed every bite.

Joelle Berger is an attorney in New York City. She recently broke free from the grip of private practice to pursue a more sustainable existence and – most importantly – her writing.

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