I unzip my jacket and unwind my scarf, the ends of which kiss the subway car floor. My mask contracts and expands over my nose and beard as I hunt for my breath.
It is January, but I am hot and sick and don’t want to stand on a crowded train.
The car jolts from the underground and into a sunset. A short, gaunt lady moves toward me wearing a blood-red wool cap pulled down to her arched brow. She stops and tries to lock eyes with four people sitting on the bench directly before her. Three of them vacantly look away.
“I am begging you anything,” she sobs. Tears trail down her cheeks and drip-drip from her pimpled chin. She wipes her nose with the sleeve of her jean jacket.
How old is she? 22? A rough-life 18? Younger than my children by far. She’s still just a girl. And desperate.
The girl is a couple of feet from me. She’s unmasked.
I am without any cash and debate if I will look her in the eye and apologize for having nothing to give or feign interest in something I find in my vacant gaze.
The woman nearest to me looks up, and we catch each other’s weary eyes. Her scarf is frayed, and her mask well worn. Her eyes ask me, what should to do? Is this thing worthwhile? Does it matter? And more: Can I keep giving? Should I keep giving?
“Please, please, please,” the girl screeches. “I am so desperate. Anything. I don’t know what to do. I need help. I need you.”
She steps away from the woman near me, who sighs, inflating her mask. The woman reaches into her yellow vinyl purse. A safety pin holds one end of its strap in place,
“Young lady, here,” she whispers, and the girl spins to face her. The woman hands her a couple of dollars. “Be well.”
The girl covers her mouth with her left hand in pantomime shock. “Thank you,” she mouths.
The train stops at Smith and 9th Street, and about a quarter of the passengers step onto the platform. Very few are now standing and I am relieved when the girl passes without looking my way. She repeats the message and delivery to the next area’s seated passengers. They all look away. I am distracted by their unmasked faces.
It isn’t obvious, but there is one open seat between a large woman with shopping bags on her lap and an equally large man holding a backpack. The girl eases into the gap between them and leans forward, elbows on her knees, her hands propping up her chin, her wool cap now pulled down over her eyes.
She shrieks and sobs in gasping waves. The man and the woman turn their heads away and purse their lips. Two seats further down, a man reading “Down and Out in Paradise” draws a deep breath, looks up from the page, and rolls his eye. He fingermarks his place and manages to twist enough to reach into the left pocket of his trousers. It annoys the couple on his other side.
He stretches across the woman’s shopping bag and taps the girl on her shoulder with a five-dollar bill. She lifts her cap and takes it. Again, she mouths, “Thank you.”
The train stops at the 4th Avenue station. Most of the passengers get off. The reading man remains, as does the girl. As does a scruffy, slouching fellow wearing a torn winter coat and an untrimmed greying beard. His jacket is open; his belly hangs out from under his t-shirt and over the waist of his blue jeans.
I sit next to the reading man. “It’s a mitzvah,” I tell him.
The breeze from the open doors chills me. I wrap up my scarf and close my jacket.
“Whatever,” he says.
We head back underground and the girl leaps up and lands on the bench next to the scruffy man, her head on his shoulder. He wraps his right arm around her. She nuzzles closer and rests her eyes.
“Did you see that?” I ask the reading man.
He shrugs and gets off at 4th Avenue. The car is almost empty. I unhook my mask and draw in a deep breath. The scruffy man looks down at the girl as if he cares. “You did better today.”
“Thank you,” she says and smiles.