It was a small gesture. But I noticed because it was movement on an otherwise still subway car. I couldn’t be too sure, so I looked down at my shoes, then quickly back up and it happened again: a twitchiness underneath his tattered Patagonia.
I started to alert other passengers but my breath was cowering, I couldn’t shape it. The ostensibly lifeless homeless man sitting across from me was surely masturbating.
As I looked up, his battered hands would slow to a halt, then get right back to it once I turned away. We continued this game of Red Light/Green Light for the next several stops. I wasn’t exactly sure where I was getting off—I left Emma in such a blind haste that I hadn’t even thought about where I was going. Had she followed after me with the same reckless abandon, as I hoped she would, I wouldn’t even have made it this far.
By this time he knew I was onto him, so he surrendered his show of boozy- unconsciousness and fixed his gaze on me. As if to say, “I won’t bend to your shaming any longer!” I did a sweeping inspection of the subway car, in hopes that the wash of disbelief on my face would inform others of what was happening in front of me.
After a few seconds of panicky deliberation, I registered that no one was paying attention. A staple of New York City transit, I guess.
And he continued, the vagrant diddling himself across from me. He seemed to have all the time in the world for this. My god, did he have time. I have never taken such care with anything. That’s my problem with life. I hurry through it like I’m being chased. Even things whose whole purpose is slowness, like drinking a glass of red wine, I slurp it down like I’m dying of thirst or trying to win a competition. Or if I’m at an art show with Emma, I’m the first one of us to say, “this is really, really, transformative work.” The sooner you remark on how transformative the work is, the sooner you can ask, “You hungry?”
The homeless man masturbating across from me was taking so long that I almost forgot about the absurdity of this Bukowskian drama for whole moments at a time. I would unintentionally find myself staring, then dart my focus up toward the ceiling when he started shifting his weight.
I had never paid much attention to that part of the train, a shabby old subway car from the 80s, it was adorned with maps of the city’s transit routes and diversity-driven ads for Borough of Manhattan Community College. Make The City Your Classroom. What a poor choice for a tagline. If I could make the city my classroom, then why would I need to attend Borough of Manhattan Community College? A weak effort. I would have gone with, Start With a Dream, Finish With a Future. Or maybe, The Education You
Want, The Attention You Deserve. This is my other problem: I stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. It goes hand in hand with my first problem: rushing.
I met Emma two years ago at a concert in Prospect Park. It was an entire three months before our relationship became physical. When I asked her to move in, she made me buy a whole new set of towels. I only had one, but I was more than willing to share it. I just couldn’t help but go through Emma’s phone when she forgot it at home this morning. I managed to get through a week’s worth of texts from her tennis instructor Chris before she realized her mistake and came back. Chris promised to pleasure her with a kind of care and precision that you only read about in erotic fiction. I envy his patience. As I was storming out of our apartment, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was that same patience that made him such an exceptional teacher.
The homeless man masturbating across from me takes such incredibly long pauses that I almost wonder if he’s okay. Like maybe he’s sick or very old. Or maybe just really tired. Maybe he’s already masturbated in front of several other strangers tonight and he’s all worn out. In some moments I almost think he’s about to give up, but then he starts back up again with fresh resolve to get the job done.
Don’t give up now.
You’re so close.
There’s so much to look forward to.
I believe in you.
In fact, in this moment I believe in everything: true love, the American dream, fireworks on the 4th of July, the children, the animals, our vast and precious universe—everyone and everything.
The homeless man masturbating across from me experiences a climax so divine that non-observers, now attentive, are as inspired as they are repulsed. As though we shared a bond like that of twins, he reads my thoughts and answers my pleas with ringing affirmative.
It was a small gesture, but I was moved.