Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Quiet Moment of Tolerance

The narrow container of the underground rail system was packed with people. Yellow florescent lights bathed the mostly young group of riders in a morgue-like hue. On the right and left sides of the train car there were blue fabric seats in rows, two seats on each side. There was an aisle down the center of the car that permitted free movement from one end to the other, but today the seats were all taken and the aisle was crowded with people clutching onto the seat rails for support against the jerking movement of the electric train. In each car, there were two sets of doors that slid open at each station. The space in front of the doors lacked any seats and there were signs along the walls that set apart this space for bicyclists, people in wheelchairs and women pushing bulky strollers. It was a late Saturday afternoon and the seats were filled with white teenagers. There was a popular street festival happening downtown, and the teens were all dressed up for the giant party.
On the left side of the train, taking up three rows of seats, was a group of six girls. Two of them were wearing pink ballerina tutus that didn’t quite cover their white asses (when I saw them later at the event, the bright white flesh of their legs and buttocks made the thin, transparent fabric of their g-strings almost invisible). I noticed their bare thighs touching the dingy blue fabric of the seats and I shivered involuntarily. The other girls in the group were wearing matching tie dye T-shirts and tight blue jeans. Like hippies from another era, they had tied a thin ribbon around their foreheads. But unlike the old fashioned hippies, their T-shirts looked brand new and their faces looked sparkling clean beneath their carefully applied makeup.
The girls were loud and boisterous, almost screaming with each sentence and laughing often in great bursts of intense mirth. Each one of them used her hands to tell a story and her friends would respond with exaggerated facial gestures, like actors trying to project their emotions across a crowded theater.
Watching them, I wondered if I had ever moved with that much energy, if I had ever talked and laughed with that much intensity. I remembered myself as a serious little girl that grew up to be a serious teenager, finding virtue in a learned fa├žade of maturity and self containment. While I delved into my memories, the girls’ bodies buckled over with the strength of their laughter and the sounds of their loud conversation could be heard throughout the train car. Their speech was dotted with exclamations: "like" and "oh my god" and "you know", little phrases which punctuated their statements, outlining them in clear verbal cadences and reaffirming a shared teenage bond. They spoke with authority, blissfully blind of their apparent naivete and youthful simplicity. A smaller group of boys accompanied them, sitting in the seats that were directly behind them, yet facing in the other direction. Every now and then, a single boy turned around in a brave attempt to join the conversation of the girls, but he was completely ignored, and, unable to find a gap in the girls’ conversation in which to interject a comment or a question, he gave up and turned back around.
In the rows of chairs just to the right of the girls, was an older Muslim woman. She was travelling with her daughter, who looked like a younger smoother copy of the woman. They both had the same pronounced eyes and nose, both had the same brown skin, both had the same look of gentle resignation. They traveled with a man that appeared to be the daughter’s husband and a couple of other people that did not appear to be related. The older woman was sitting on the seat closest to the aisle and the window seat next to her was vacant. Her daughter and son-in-law were sitting in the parallel seats beside her. The son-in-law appeared to be at least fifty and had dark eyes and short black hair. He looked in my direction and saw me looking towards them. He smiled at me with a manly gentleness that might have contained a dash of flirtation. The older woman and daughter never look around the train car. They simply looked at each other, at the son-in-law, or at the floor in front of them.
The older woman was wearing a loose white satin scarf around her head which had a subtle swirl design etched into the fabric. The scarf was long and reached down the front of her gray coat and past her hidden breasts. In the middle of her chest, holding the scarf together, was a circular gold broach, the size of a large sand dollar, with a small purple stone resting in the center. There was no artificial color on the woman’s face, but thin gold rimmed glasses sat upon her nose. She held her large black purse on her lap and her slightly wrinkled brown hands sat upon the purse, one over the other. On her left hand was a gold wedding ring. The woman was deeply calm and serene. Every now and then, she would speak to her daughter and to her son-in-law, and when she did, she made a singular repeating gesture with her hands that seemed to say: "we can’t change anything or anybody, so let’s relax…who knows what is their fate or ours?" It was a gesture of knowing compassion, a gesture of sharply etched and painfully earned humility and peace. Mostly, she remained silent and she rested her eyes on her hands and the floor and she kept her lips upturned in the faintest hint of a smile.
Without truly knowing her, I felt that this woman had learned to accept that she now lived in a different place, a different culture where girls ran around with their legs and ass showing and where they talked in loud voices instead of looking down at the floor in obedience and submission. She had learned to take this in and not react to it. Her faith had matured within her and she was no longer offended by the world. The world would keep on changing and she would keep on believing, she would keep on remaining calm and she would keep on waiting. The extent of her influence was clear and well defined. Anything that stood outside of it was to be accepted or ignored. To the young girls in tutus and tight jeans, she was invisible. To her, they were lost ghosts. In a tenuous fabric of tolerance, both of their worlds could momentarily coexist in this train car as it speeded in a blur of harsh mechanical sound and power on its way towards the city. In this moment, there was the understanding of silence, the understanding of staying in your seat when you are travelling, of standing when the doors open, of leaving when it’s time to leave. The older Muslim woman would not disturb the young girls and the girls would not disturb her. And I would look upon them both and see myself in all of it. I was the young girl looking for admiration. I was also the old woman diving deeply into myself in a search for knowledge and peace. I was invisible and I was also a ghost and I was something else, something that I couldn’t quite define just yet, something just beyond the reach of my understanding.
Directly in front of me were two Latina women. They both looked like they were under twenty. One was in charge of holding onto the handles of a pink baby stroller. It was a very simple plastic device, a straightforward piece of machinery that had one function and fulfilled it reasonably well. It had plastic white wheels, plastic white handles and frame, and a pink fabric covered in images of a small white teddy bear and some yellow flowers. The fabric covered the canopy of the stroller and also covered the seat for the small baby inside. The little baby girl was wearing a pink terry cloth outfit and she had a small gold bracelet around her tiny brown wrist. Her face and torso were covered from view by the stroller’s canopy, but her legs kicked out often and her tiny right hand repeatedly clenched into a tiny weak fist. I imagined myself in the stroller, awash in filtered pink light as the fabric in front of me disguised the various sources of sound, turning them all into a single rumble coming from a world yet to be discovered. To the little baby inside the stroller, all the people were invisible, all of them were ghosts, all of them were equally incomprehensible, equally strange, equally acceptable, equally easy to fear or love. The world was a spiraling haze of potential discovery and all beings held an unrealized promise in their simple presence. I looked at the girls dressed up as hippies and I looked at the older woman dressed up as a Muslim and I looked at the little stroller once again. I saw the little legs kick in spontaneous joy, and my eyes filled with tears.

The wise Muslim woman who remained calm
and unfazed by a strange modern world
of young girls with strong gazes,
short skirts, tight pants
and loud voices of daring and pride.

The little baby girl that responded
with little kicks of pleasure
as the promised world appeared around her
in loud bursts of grinding metal
and clouds of boisterous laughter.

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