The night before, I became someone I once vowed to never be—the enraged consumer, returning a twelve-dollar burger twice to the kitchen. In protest of its eternally rare pink midsection, I refused to pay. I told the manager, a wide and hostile woman, I wanted a burger perfectly medium well for the significant sum of twelve dollars. She said “fine,” snarled at me, and strode away. In shame, I left the bar.
Before you accuse me of being a big fat liar, I wanted to admit I turned 36 last June. This all happened early in the morning. Too early. It took place on public transportation. I was late for class. On the crowded trolley, close to the back, I sat by a man manipulating himself—but a stab of flesh exposed—and so across the aisle I shifted and sat in gum. Blackened by dirt, it was the kind that stuck to the pants my mother had cleaned and pressed for me a couple weeks back. This was the second time I wore them. I said, “Fuck,” softly but aloud. I noticed the crusty punk next to me seemed pleased by this. Was she pleased a grown man in his mother’s pressed pants would curse aloud? Or was she merely pleased I sat in the kind that stuck? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you I sat there with an overstuffed book bag and all of my weight on one thigh until the crowded trolley emptied out at 30th Street Station. After that I moved to an empty two-seater and waited my turn. As the crusty punk departed at 19th, I could read all but the last half letter of the words on the back of her green tee: “College is a scar” is what I saw. Yep, she had the book on me.
At 15th, I descended, turned right, ascended, turned right, descended, and walked all the way down, past the elevated line to the furthest steps for the Northbound local of the Broad Street subway. Subterranean Philadelphia stunk. Down the final stairwell, I missed my train and saw a SEPTA guy guarding an innocent book bag, which in this case was labeled a suspicious package. He told me to move ten yards back. So I did, where I looked for gum on a silver metal bench and then sat. A minute later, I took out a pen and napkin and started scribbling notes about gum adversity on the Green Line, and a minute after that, a man blasting music too loud for his headphones showed up with his 5-year-old son. They plopped down right next to me. The father was grooving to the beat, physically moving his body to the music coming out of the headphones. His elbow occasionally knocked against mine. The son was on his other side. I couldn’t see him.
The son said to the father: “Dad.”
He said it again, louder, “Dad.”
He said it a third time, maybe even grabbing Dad’s arm, or so I imagined.
“What is it?”
“Can I listen too?”
“No, son. No way you can listen to this music.” Dad put the headphones back on and returned to the groove.
On the other side of my brain, I was mulling over an old expression, which may even be a cliché to some, but has been an endless puzzle to me: “Always treat children like adults, and adults like children.” I turned to the twosome and tried to see if this saying would help me understand a grown man blasting music in his ears while ignoring his small child. Did the father do the right thing by telling the son he couldn’t listen to the music? Was the father preparing the son for a lonely world in which you have to bring your own tunes on public transportation? Was this then treating him like an adult, the way you’re supposed to treat a child? Or did the father do the wrong thing by censoring the music, telling the son he was too young, a child, and that the music was for adults only. Should he have let the son
listen to the music, and then explain all of the lyrics and why they were inappropriate to share with children?
I peered as far as I could without appearing too obvious. I tried to get a look at the kid, to see his expression. The boy looked sad. I thought of my own father who split at three but almost never wore headphones and blasted music throughout his house while smoking pot aplenty right in front of me at five, and then to discourage me from smoking sharing regular cigarettes at seven, and even by accident taking me to see Barbarella by age nine. The authorities, my older sister anyway, claim “breast” was my first word and maybe that’s why Jane Fonda with wings made perfect sense to me. Indeed, when I was a child, it was the age of real ones, and my father often treated me like an adult.
I got out another napkin and started scribbling notes down about parenthood. Little things I wanted to do better. So I wrote, “Avoid divorce at all costs.” Then, I remembered that at 36, I’m childless and I haven’t even the measliest bush, I mean bird, in hand, and somehow precisely that fact brings photographic images of virginity lost over 15 years ago, when I was 20, to a generous Jewish woman and in fact, five years previous to that, at 15, I first got tongue, again from a Jewish girl, and even fifteen years previously, I sense a pattern here, as you now know, I was practically born a boob.
So I changed strategies and upon the napkin began scribbling, in 1000 characters or less, what I first wanted the wife to know about me. On my jdate profile. I’d set up my account after reading in a conservative periodical that due to False Idols in reconstructionist synagogues there were free radicals in copious quantities-- liberal Jewish women that is—highly educated and earning good bank. It was time to leap away from the early a.m. hustle, and over to a suitable house-husbanding gig.
I wrote, “I do not believe listening to loud music while ignoring one’s 5-year-old is an effective parenting strategy. But I’m extremely grateful for the lost virginity, the teenage tongue, and the tit from Mom. Although I’ve been out in the world for a while—caught up in the usual pan-Asian cuisine, East or South, 7—11, my first gig and so allowed to say it, work, overtime, the real-estate game, grading papers, even the blonde, blue-eyed traditional infatuation which upon our second date, in our fourth hour together, I’ll argue stridently against; okay, no, I will not admit to two timing, any sort of ménage a trois and there was nary, a red hot Latina lover, and the closest I had to rough trade was a talented and cultivated African American princess, but yes, okay, there were strip clubs and men’s clubs, maybe one or two true-blue fag joints in between but the lone barroom brawl was only to protect my good name. What? Can’t you use that sixth or seventh word back on the World Wide Web? I didn’t mean cigarettes or marijuana or any other dating simulation—Oy Vey! It’s so confusing but in conclusion, I’m your typical casual male, mixed up, mixed ethnic, a bit unsettled but interested in settling down—not particularly so much on this subway bench—God damn it all! I owe everything to Jewish women! I can produce! I will deliver! I think.”
And then I crossed out “I think,” and not only because I wanted to end on that lightning rod of a note but because I could hear the train approaching, I shoved my pen back in my book bag, stuffed the napkin deep in the pocket of my gum-stuck pants, sprung alert from my seat and read on the billboard, “Labels are for packages, not people” and saw that McDonald’s depicts fresh, leafy lettuce, cherry tomatoes, and fine slices of unblemished apples in their advertising, as I stepped forward to gain good position for boarding the train. But in doing so, lusting over those apples, their browning apparently airbrushed away, I tripped over an old lady’s walker, which I noticed as I turned back to figure out why I was stumbling
too quickly forward and about to fall flat in front of the train. Death on the
tracks. Staring back at the survivor of my accident, I saw the old lady shared my look of guilt and horror--at what her walker had inadvertently caused or what my last writing on napkin would be? (All that pejorative filth and 7—11 absolution.) But just in the nick of time, Headphones Dad leaped up, grabbed both sides of my jacket and pulled me right into him. We stumbled back against the bench, almost but not quite directly into his son.
His son was okay. I was okay. I didn’t even look at the old lady. The train stopped. I thanked the man. Profusely. Three more times. People left the train. He said, “No problem” every time. I told him I really meant it, I really, really meant it and was about to offer free conversation or tutoring for the kid when I realized this would call attention to the aforementioned parenting concern. “I never wanted to offend anyone” was all I said. The father looked at me quizzically and then helped his son board the train. The boy saw the whole thing and clearly recognized that his father saved a stranger’s life. “You okay, little man?” was all the father said to the boy. The
boy beamed proudly. Proud of Dad.
On the platform where my life was saved, I vowed never again to become someone I didn’t want to be. In fact, from that day forward, I planned to leave twenty minutes earlier, to slowly and methodically journey on public transportation, to smile at those impressionable minds as I strode into class each morning on time. I would become more like my savior; even during rush hour, he could see what was important and knew how to live.
Back to literature, I tried to reconcile with myself over whether or not I should depict the man as a good father in the story. Should I leave out the headphones? Maybe not in the story version, but certainly to sell the script? I couldn’t decide.
Life sure was one heck of a near-death situation. And then, just in time, I remembered to board the train.
Alex Kudera is the author of the original adjunct novel, Fight for Your Long Day, and a comic crime novel, Auggie's Revenge. He has taught literature and writing in Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina, and China.