4:44, 8th Street: Two young, black kids enter the train holding cardboard boxes. They’re a classic Mutt-and-Jeff pair, one tall and lanky, the other short and squat. I have trouble placing their ages, but it’s doubtful either one has reached high school yet. The tall one stays near me at the front of the car, while his partner begins to squeeze his way towards the back. As the doors shut, the tall one clears his throat. “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention please,” he calls out. “I am sorry to disturb you. I am selling candy to raise money to help keep me off the streets, so that I don’t end up having to do something I don’t want to do.”
It’s a refreshingly honest (and vaguely menacing) twist on a familiar pitch. Previously, when I had encountered these kids (not these two kids specifically, but two like them; there is a veritable army of kids selling candy on the subway) they had always claimed to be from the Boys Club, selling candy to raise money for their basketball team’s uniforms. I don’t know anyone who believed this story, and apparently neither did the kids, so they have seemingly decided to come clean and play on the public’s appreciation for honesty and entrepreneurialism.
“All candy is a dollar,” continued the tall kid. “All I have available are peanut M&Ms and Welch’s fruit snacks.” The selection is unchanging and utterly baffling. Peanut M&Ms are understandable, though I would hazard the plain variety would sell even better. Welch’s fruit snacks, on the other hand, seem like a guaranteed loser, a denizen of a veritable confectionery ghetto that includes Ring Pops, Fun Dip and Circus Peanuts, among others. The obvious explanation is that these are the only two types of candy these kids are able to purchase in bulk. I wonder briefly where it comes from. Is it the same company our school used to raise money for our class trip? If so, why not go with Reese’s peanut butter cups or Snickers bars? Is there some foreclosed-upon warehouse out in Long Island City where a consignment of peanut M&Ms and Welch’s fruit snacks was abandoned mid-shipment? I’ve often wondered what treasures lie hidden behind those miles of corrugated iron doors.
With the preamble out of the way, both kids begin making their rounds. As usual, I politely decline. A balding man in a flannel smoking jacket looks up from his paper momentarily, then quickly does a double-take and digs a dollar out of his pocket for some M&Ms. It is the only sale of the day, at least in our car. The tall kid pockets the money and meets his partner by the doors in the middle. As they wait for the next stop, he stoops down to tie his shoe. He is wearing $200 custom Air Jordans.
4:47, Union Square: A lot of activity here; half the car exits while an equal number board to take their places. Above ground, directly over our heads, sits a bronze George Washington astride a horse. There’s quite a lot of history memorialized in Union Square, but most people who visit it these days are either buying vegetables at the Greenmarket or skateboarding or smoking pot or just sitting around wasting time the way kids do. Union Square was the first part of New York City I can remember visiting, years ago, but though I ride the train beneath it every day it seems an eternity since I’ve gone upstairs. It always struck me that the types of people I saw hanging out on the square were never the people I encountered on the train. The two groups seemed completely disparate, as if they existed in different worlds.
One of the last people to enter the train is a young girl. She stops just inside the doors, right next to where I’m sitting. Instead of grabbing the handrail and leaning back against the doors after they close, she turns sideways and leans against the bars on the side of my seat, her dark, waist-length hair spilling down into my face. Though I avoid conflict by nature, this is a situation that cannot go unaddressed, not only for its brazenness but because it is in no way extraordinary. The subway is where one may witness the straining of what Edgar Rice Burroughs called the “thin veneer of civilization”. As I’ve mentioned previously, all the incidental contact caused by being in such close proximity to so many people in such confined quarters lends – in many people’s minds – an implied permission to dispense with common courtesy. Whether it is arrogance or some sort of defense mechanism, it still holds true that the more New Yorkers you crowd together in a space, the greater lengths each will go to in order to deny the existence of the others. So it was I found my face buried in a stranger’s hair. After several huffs of displeasure, I matter-of-factly raised my arm and rested it on top of the bar, jabbing an elbow deep in the young woman’s spine in the process. The latter started and began to turn around, but apprising herself of the situation, thought better of it and repositioned herself at a more respectable distance. For another day at least, anarchy is averted.
Photo Source: Urban Omnibus