How to Touch Strangers on The Train
On a blustery November day, deep in the heart of Scorpio season, I found myself in a rare state, pleasantly drunk in Bed Stuy, BK. It’s not often that I go out in this fashion but this night was a special occasion. I was out celebrating the birthday of a dear friend, dancing the night away in her honor.
I drank rum, laughed and mingled, and shook my booty on the dance floor until my thighs ached. My night peaked around 1:30am and I slipped out of the club knowing it was the perfect time to make my way back to the train. The ride home would take nearly an hour and I wanted to enjoy my buzz on the way back to the city, sobering up as I got closer to my Midtown subway station.
When I got onto the C train in Brooklyn, the train car was sparsely populated. I noticed a few sleepy passengers, commuters engaged in varying levels of napping, head’s leaning against the windows or hanging down towards their laps. I felt happy and radiant as I donned my headphones and selected my favorite playlist which would entertain me as we plugged along the underground tracks towards the city.
The ride was notably uneventful until we stopped at West 4th street where a slew of interesting and fabulously dressed characters flooded onto the train. These passengers were clearly active members of the city’s nightlife on a Saturday night. One among them was a handsome middle aged man who entered the train and walked across the car, aiming for the seat next to me. He had brilliant silver-grey hair and wore a red leather jacket, the color of a deep, Earthy rust. I looked into his face as I shifted over in my seat, a gesture to welcome him into the seat next to me.
The man sat down in the seat next to me and let out a weighty sigh. He turned to me with an expression of defeat written on his face and lamented, “Love hurts.”
“Always.” I replied. “That’s the nature of the game.”
His expression relaxed a bit and he replied, “You are so right.”
I offered him an encouraging nod and shifted my posture to look forward in my seat, acutely aware of the man to my left who would certainly consume all of my attention should I give him the opportunity. I could feel him; he wanted to connect. He wanted to know that someone cared about him. He wanted to remember that beautiful connections and magical moments can be delivered when you least expect them and most need them.
This man was needy. On this epithet, let me be clear, I do not mean that as a negative judgement of this man. We all have needs and we all have moments when our needs feel intensely unmet. On this night, this man needed to feel seen and he desperately wanted to feel connected to another human. I could feel his attention on me. I knew that if I looked toward him or gave him any opening he would jump all over it and talk my ear off for the rest of my ride home. ‘Not tonight,’ I thought. I was not interested in providing emotional labor and I stared determinedly forward, careful not to look too far to the left.
There I sat on an uptown C train at 2 in the morning, next to a man who was watching me intently, hoping for another chance to interact. I maintained a forward gaze; I felt no need to fix him. He was perfect, sitting over there to my left, a tangled ball of heartache and emotion, a human yearning for a meaningful connection.
I took solace in the protection that my headphones offered me. I could pretend not to notice him while silently feeling into his beautiful, flawed humanness. I looked down and noticed his shoes, brown leather wing tip shoes, quite fashionable. I wanted to offer him a gesture of connection and acknowledgment but I didn’t want to get sucked into the drama of his story.
‘Maybe I’ll hold his hand,’ I thought. I looked up at the electronic strip across the train which told me I still had 10 minutes before we would reach my stop. I looked down at his hand, encased in a black leather glove. I strategized.
One stop, I decided. I would hold this man’s hand for one stop, from 42nd street to 50th street. I waited and we rode together in silence. I listened to my music and he... yearned.
As our train pulled out of the 42nd street station, I looked toward him with a soft smile and lifted my left hand toward his. The man pulled the glove off of his right hand so immediately, it made me chuckle a little. Yes, this man was very hungry for connection. My hand landed into his and he gave it a little squeeze. I looked forward, watching the subway track zoom by, anticipating my stop. I was happy to offer this gesture of connection and I felt self validated that I was being the kind of gentle medicine that the world so desperately needs.
It felt good to offer a small gesture to a lonely soul and I was very deliberate that it should last only a few moments. I was postured slightly forward, ready to hop off the train at the next stop. I was proud that I chose to offer what I could and I was eager to absolve myself of any pull for more attention. The train approached 50th street and I was ready to break contact; I waited for the train to slow down.
But, as any New Yorker knows, the MTA can be wildly unpredictable and, instead of slowing to a stop at 50th street, the train zoomed along the track, passing my stop entirely. Fuck.
My heart began to race. There I was, holding a stranger’s hand on the C train and I began to feel self conscious. Holding a needy stranger’s hand for two stops was more than I had bargained for. What could I do, now? If I broke the hand hold now, I would have to sit there next to him for another minute or two. He would try to talk to me and I definitely didn’t want that. The next stop would be Columbus Circle. Fuck.
Alright, I decided, there’s nothing to do now but surrender. I took a deep breath, relaxed backward into my seat and allowed my hand to rest into his. The contact felt warm and I allowed myself to just close my eyes and feel the electricity running between our palms. I felt him next to me. He took a deep breath and relaxed into it a little deeper. We just sat there, two strangers, holding hands on the C train in the heart of New York City. I could smell the leather of his jacket and I could taste the sweetness of the moment.
The train began to slow into Columbus Circle and my eyes popped open. I gave his hand a little squeeze and looked into his face which was gently lined with experience. I said to him, “You’re going to be ok.”
He flashed me a tender smile and clung to my hand. As I moved to get up, his body moved forward toward mine. I awkwardly swerved away from him, avoiding what I’m almost sure was going to be a motion to kiss. Motion denied. I disappeared through the subway car doors and onto the platform. I smiled all the way home and I didn’t look back.
Touch is food and we live in a starving culture.