I almost never ride the subway after midnight. I just don’t stay out that late. I’ve done it maybe once before, and that was on a weekend, and with friends.
But there I was, this past Thursday night, boarding the subway around 12:10 am, to head from my old apartment – the one where I’d just handed in my keys – to my new apartment, 45 minutes away. The clocks on the display strip inside the subway showed times like 0:22, and the conductor announced that a police officer was on the train if we needed assistance.
I didn’t think I’d need any assistance. The train car was full, and stayed consistently full – no empty seats, a few people standing – for most of the trip. While some of the passengers were lively, not a single one was rowdy, the people on the car were varied on so many levels – age, gender, ethnicity, mode of dress, level of awakeness, and native language.
When I boarded the train, there was a woman sitting across from me with a kid who was probably her son. He looked to be about ten years old, and both he and his mother (or other equivalent caregiver) were carrying small rolling duffel bags. She had a beach bag with her as well, and he had a plastic bag of the sort you’d get at the grocery store. She let him know that they’d be getting off not at the next stop, but at the stop afterward, and his response was, “Oh, so we’re getting off in another two stops,” or something along those lines. She told him not to pick at a band-aid he had on, because she was worried whatever the band-aid was protecting would get infected. When she spoke, she enunciated her words. It may or may not matter to this story that both the woman and the boy were black.
As I sat across from them for those two stops, I wondered why a woman and her son would be traveling together after midnight. Where would they be going with duffel bags? I couldn’t help but think that maybe they were homeless, and headed to a shelter for the night. The only other explanation I could come up with was that they were taking an overnight bus to somewhere. They were getting off at the right stop to board a bus.
But then, I wondered if maybe I was completely wrong, if maybe there was some other, completely rational explanation for what they were doing on the subway so late, and where they could possibly be headed.
I also began to wonder what they might have thought of me.
There’s nothing unusual about a single woman traveling the subway at that hour. I wasn’t the only one. I was dressed casually, wearing a t-shirt and a denim skirt. Nothing so weird about that either. But then, there were the items I was carrying. I had my purse with me, but also four full-looking tote bags, stuffed with a random assortment of odds and ends, some of which stuck out over the tops of the bags. In my hand, I was carrying a huge straw hat that I only wear when I’m trying to dress in medieval clothing on a summer day (which is to say, at events like renaissance faires).
Just like the woman and the boy must have had a perfectly good explanation for where they were going at that hour, I had an explanation too. I had just handed in the keys to my old apartment, but not until after I cleaned up the mess left behind after the movers had finished their job. They managed to move most of my stuff, but there were some items left behind, and the assortment included items as random as a bathroom trash can, a pair of dish gloves, and three hats. The only thing that these items all shared in common was that they were the belongings that hadn’t made it into the moving truck, but that needed to get to my new apartment. I was traveling back so late because it had taken me a long time to clean everything up, and I’d gotten a late start because the cable guys had finished installing my new internet later than I had planned on.
But it would be pretty hard, most likely impossible, to figure that out just from looking at me, and I wondered if maybe the other folks on the subway saw a very different picture. A woman on the subway, late at night, carrying an assortment of bags and a huge straw hat. Did they think I was homeless? Did they think I had some sort of mental illness? Did they feel uneasy sitting next to me? Did they think it was even stranger when, out of concern that a smaller straw hat would get bent out of shape in one of the bags (which was why it hadn’t gone with the movers), I pulled it out and put it on my head? What explanations were these people cooking up, and how wildly inaccurate were they? Were they confused when my iPhone rang, and I pulled it out to see what call I couldn’t quite catch before I lost reception again? (For the record, it was my mother, who wanted to know if I’d made it home yet.)
I can only assume that these impressions were different from the impression I left on the visibly religious Jewish guys I walked past on my way from the subway to my apartment. They saw me wearing a knee-length denim skirt and a hat on my head at 1 am. If they noticed me at all, I think they might have taken for granted that I was a married, Orthodox Jewish woman. From their perspective, that would have made perfect sense, given the combination of skirt and hat, but it also would have been mostly wrong (though the Jewish woman part, at least, would have been correct.)
Thinking about how others were seeing me made me think about the assumptions I might have been making about the woman and the boy. Maybe they were returning late from a vacation. Maybe they were headed to the airport to take a red-eye flight to visit family. Wherever they were going, though, all I’m left with are guesses, and a decent chance those guesses are as wrong as the guesses that other people might have made about me.
It can be fun to sit on the subway and try to work out the stories of the other passengers, but, without overhearing a particularly informative snippet of conversation, or just flat-out asking the passenger in question, it’s impossible to know whether those stories match the facts, or whether they are just an intriguing fiction.