The Ignorers and the Chatters

The train is sold out. I’m hoping for a seatmate who will sleep. I know people who have found their soul mates on public transportation, but I’m convinced I’m not one of them.

“Is this seat taken?” He’s about my age, nice looking, and smells good.

During my years of work travel, I discovered a universal truth I’ve held to ever since. There are two types of seatmates: Ignorers and Chatters.

“What are you reading?” he asks as he finishes putting his bag on the overhead rack.

I recognize this as a pivotal point in this relationship, which — unless magic happens — will be over in two hours. What if I make it clear that I just don’t want to talk, to anyone? What if I ignore him?

The best I can do is to hold up the book so he can see the title. Then I give him lukewarm body language. Bette Davis I’m not.

I grew up in New York, so you might think it would be easy for me to find one terse sentence that would let me travel in quiet. But it’s more chronology than geography. It’s growing up in the 50s, I think, that keeps me unable to say “Please be quiet!” to the loud talker in a restaurant or the smarmy salesperson on speakerphone in the airport. I’ve just never been good at it. It came with the territory of my WASPY polite family. Golden rule schmolden rule.

First hour down, and this is what I’ve learned: He is divorced, bad break up. He dates a lot, at least once a week. His son goes to Dartmouth. He has a Cocker Spaniel, and it has a name. I gave up and closed my book 55 minutes ago. Did I say he was a Chatter? He is King of the Chatters.

He does punctuate most of his sentences with: “Don’t you think?” But I realize 25 miles in that his “question” is just a place holder until he can catch his breath. The first few times he said it, I actually opened my mouth to respond, but my timing was off, and he just continued with his train of thought. Besides, it wouldn’t matter if I said: “Let’s get naked and see if anyone notices.” He is on an amazing one-way frequency in this conversation.

For the last 15 minutes of the trip, I retreat to nodding or shaking my head in response to what I guess he’s been saying. I take my cues from his facial expressions. Smile = nod. Frown = shake.

The doors are about to open at the station. I have just spent two hours of my life that I’ll never get back again. I have regrets about that.

“So, are you on Face Book?” he asks as we gather our belongings.

I want to say, “Everyone’s on Face Book.” I want it to be worthy of a Maggie Smith exit line as she harrumphs out of the library in Downtown Abbey.

In my head I can hear my parents, my grandparents, and all my aunts and uncles in some heavenly choir, coming at me from all directions. If you can’t say anything nice . . .

I pretend I don’t hear his question. He asks again. Then I smile. Of course I do.

 

Quick Requiem at a Red Light

After landing on Long Island and renting a car, I’m lost within ten minutes of leaving the airport parking lot. I didn’t think I’d need a GPS in my homeland, but apparently I do. One town just slides into another and looks exactly like the last one did. I feel like there used to be space between them that let you know you were changing zip codes. Okay, it’s been a while.

It makes me wonder how teenagers keep school rivalries going these days. In the Class of ’68, we referred to kids from Wantagh — three miles away — with a vague, almost mythical, curiosity as if they spoke a different dialect and worshipped at Stonehenge. I’m guessing that’s all over now because kids don’t actually have to see each other anymore to be BFF’s. Maybe kids don’t root for the home team either. Maybe they don’t chant at football games, or even go to football games. We shouted, “We are good! We are great! We’re the Class of ’68!” Our lungs got a workout back then. But we hardly ever used our thumbs the way kids do today.

I finally get my bearings by telling myself that when I get to the corner with Shoe Town on the right and Carvel up ahead on the left, I’ll know where I am. And then I recognize that I’m at that corner, but Shoe Town is gone. It’s a bank now. It’s probably been a bank for years. Maybe it’s not even the original building. I have no idea. When you haven’t lived in your hometown since 1973, things like this happen.

Shoe Town was one of the few perfect things in my pubescent years, and it seems right to mourn its passing as I wait at the red light. Before it came into my life and offered me the anonymity I needed with feet like mine, shoe shopping was a humiliating hell. Before the boxy store on the corner went up, all I had were smarmy salesmen measuring my foot and then sighing and saying, “I’ll see what I can do,” only to come back from that secret room in the back with one box instead of the five or six choices other girls got.

The summer before 6th grade, just before Shoe Town opened, my mother and I went on a fruitless quest to find something in my size (10) that wasn’t a patent-leather stiletto heel designed for a woman three times my age.

After one salesman measured my foot, he looked over at my mother and said, “Well, we don’t have any shoes that will fit her, but I could give you a couple of boxes to take home.”

She pretended to think it wasn’t funny, but later when I overheard her telling the story to my father, I could hear chuckles all around. This is what I was up against until I finally found a shoe store that made sense.

For one thing, Shoe Town was self-serve way before its time, so I could be my own agent. I could also walk there with my friends and spend as much time as I needed to try on every shoe in Size 8 or 9 that looked like it had any chance of fitting my foot and walking a few steps before I’d melt in pain in front of the full length mirrors they had in the corners.

Eventually I’d wander over to the Size 10 rack where I belonged and settle on a pair that didn’t embarrass me too much. Later, in my room, I would rub the 10 from inside the shoes until it was gone. Just in case. I took shoe size very seriously, as if it were a blight on my character.

When you come back to the place where you grew up, it’s all right there, sitting at a red light. Now you remember everything. How good it felt to buy your own shoes and carry them home. How the Carvel Flying Saucer melted in your hand all the way down Jerusalem Avenue. Opening your front door and knowing that roast chicken was for dinner. Your mother humming along to the Ray Conniff Singers on the HiFi. Running up the stairs to your room and trying on your new shoes. And thinking there was no way life would ever change from that day.

So you mourn the passing of a shoe store that was kind to you, and that’s not the weirdest thought you have at the red light. The oddest thing is that you still call this town home.