I will probably be stabbed on the subway because too often I violate the MTA prime directive and I stare at people. One day I will stare at the wrong person and he will stab me; either he will be one of America’s Most Wanted, or he will be an impatient paranoid man with a penchant for privacy and a long blade strapped to the side of his left leg, a gangster, perhaps, antsy from a recent release from a halfway house. I say “he” because a woman wouldn’t stab me. She would, if obviously beautiful, long ago have learned how to endure a gaze. And if not, she would walk away, scowl, or stare back in an exaggerated manner to demonstrate what an impolite fool I look. I can tell you this with the authority of experience.
I’m not staring because of attraction. Attraction inspires a series of furtive glances. I’m staring either because I’ve become lost in a series of image associations or because I’ve fallen into a narrative inspired by the first quick observation but swiftly detached from the reality of the stared-upon person as I cascade through the story in my head. (And before you suggest it, yes, I have mentioned this to my therapist, and she confessed that she did the same thing. She makes up stories about people she sees on the bus. “He has a mean wife,” she will silently diagnose. “She hectors him.”)
Recently I was staring at a man who looked like a Russian icon. “He looks so Russian,” I thought. “Like Ivan the Terrible Russian. No, like a saint, the way they portray their saints. The long, gaunt faces, the dark, otherworldly, suffering eyes.” He looked like the depiction of Joseph in the paintings of the Holy Family I saw at the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia in Prague.
I was watched as I walked through each room by a different short unsmiling nun. But I couldn’t hurry along (I had no idea of what they needed to get back to doing, anyway) because the depiction of the nativity in Eastern Europe art is so different from what I was accustomed to: more brown, less blue, more earthy, less divine. No celestial shafts of light, no halo around the Virgin and child, no magi. Plenty of straw and wood, a large assortment of unimpressed livestock, a slightly more interested cat (the Italians never show a cat) and a weary Joseph. He has the air of a man who most likely has to muck out the stables to pay for their night’s lodging and still has that tax thing to figure out.
Any-way. I was staring at this medieval-faced but youngish man on the 7 train. He nodded. I nodded back. The train stopped at Bryant Park. I rose to leave. He spoke to me. I pulled my earbuds off in time to hear him ask, “Russki?”
“Sorry?” I asked.
He shook his head, realizing I was not Russki. But he was. I was right! And I stepped off the subway, still alive.
Originally published Monday, November 22, 2010