"Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Tina, and I'm homeless," began Tina's plea to yet another captive audience on the Lexington Avenue subway.
In her borrowed Con Edison jacket she seemed to embody the hapless invincibility of that tragi-comic utility. The jacket and her formalized manner gave her the emotional edge she needed to publicize her fate. Yet, there was something almost silly about a beggar wearing the uniform of the nation's largest electric company. I felt I was in a softer-than-life New Yorker cartoon where middle class experiences are filtered through the mannered excesses of contemporary speech. So the caption for this scene might read: "Hello, my name is Tina and I'll be your panhandler."
Her most proximate abutters were two middle class women also discussing real estate; and two decidedly non-middle class guys who smirked at her.
"Well, my name is Joey," one of them shouted, "and why should I give you money to buy drugs?"
Tina's inaudible retort caused Joey to draw himself up to his full if inconsiderable height and declare proudly, "I am not a drug dealer. I am a drug user!" He waived a woozy high five in the direction of his friend. Point, set and match, I thought.
"But you and Jim each have such great apartments," said one of the young women, oblivious to what I thought was a scene.
"Yes," nodded Jim's fiancée, "but we really want a place of our own, something we bought together. You know how it is." Her friend nodded back. They nodded at each other. I nodded.
Tina resumed her speech. Joey contemplated his bottle.
Suddenly, Jim's fiancée looked at Joey and said, "I know you, don't I?"
Joey and I looked at her as if she were crazy.
"I think we met at a party," she continued casually.
At the telescoped end of the class tunnel was a beam of focused light; a social path illuminated. A shot.
Joey stole a glimpse of his reflection in the window, taking inventory. It reminded me of the first time I put on fancy clothes and saw myself in the mirror. Again, a silly caption suggested itself: "The inner child spies the outer adult."
This was fun.
Joey tested the social waters as a peer and attempted small talk with Jim's fiancée. But his shell, honed by social friction at the boundaries of his limited circles, was gone. He had lost his edge, and as his repartee failed, their class positions calcified and they returned to their respective conversational corners.
"The downpayment's a killer, but Jim's parents will help us out," were her parting words as she and her friend found their way around the desperately unperturbable Tina.
"What's wrong with telling a girl she's pretty? Tell me, since when is that a crime?" spat out Joey to his friend, as Tina, oblivious to what I thought was a scene, collected a few dollars towards her downpayment.
Joey had retreated into the hostility of the slouch,
the comfort of the bottle, and the security of the sexist remark. He had been, for a period of time measurable in units of hope, inside her circle; vulnerable. And he had been disarmed, exposed.
In a lifetime of joyless, pointless travel; a lifetime of long stops and self doubt, this may have been his most sorrowful ride.