A Subway Tautology

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A Subway Tautology

By Lucine Kasbarian

First published in Green Briar Review Literary Journal

August 6, 2012


One day in New York City, a conservatively dressed man boarded the “A” train and sat across from me. A few minutes later, he began to execute, with rapid strokes, a variety of hand gestures in and around his face.


His gesticulations reminded me of what the manager of a baseball team does when he wants to signal instructions to his players. With lightning speed, our subway rider tapped his chin, scratched his scalp, wrung his hands, stroked his ear, twisted his wrists, rubbed his eyebrows, wiggled his fingers, shook his fists, and wiped his nose.


Then a few minutes later, he did the same thing all over again.


Much as I tried not to stare, I couldn’t help but be mesmerized. When our subway rider did his hand dance, the order in which he performed each part of his ritual was exactly the same. And there was a determined quality about his movements, as if something ominous would happen if he failed to perform with flawless execution.


I glanced around the train and noticed that many other passengers were also observing this poor devil.


Normally, this would not be such an outrageous sight on a New York City subway, where the jaded have come to expect anything. However, at the next subway stop, another man boarded the train and took the only seat available. It happened to be next to our gesticulator, who, for the moment, was not performing his ritual.


Within a few minutes, not unlike our subway rider, the second man began to perform intricate hand motions of his own. Had the newcomer seen our subway rider do his thing? No, the second man was sincere, not a mimic.


I was stunned. And from the look of things, so were my fellow travelers. What were the chances of seeing two such people acting in the same peculiar manner, and sitting next to one another at that? Perhaps it would not seem so unusual, considering that the subway stations at which our gesticulators boarded were in close proximity to the Psychiatry Clinic of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.


It is what happened next, however, that left its indelible mark. As passengers looked on in thrall, our subway rider cast his gaze upon the newest arrival as well.


As he observed the second man in action, our rider’s eyes flared in horror, for it was at that precise moment that the proverbial mirror had been held up to him.


The first man did not like what he saw.


Evidently so much so that he stopped gesticulating – at least for the duration of my ride.


Why did our first man feel compelled to suppress his own gesturing? At a conscious level, had he been aware of his own behavior? Did he think the newcomer was mocking him? Could both men have been manifesting adverse side effects of some anti-psychotic medication?


We will never know. But a few things are certain: Something inside of our subway rider was stronger than his affliction. He almost certainly benefited, at least temporarily, from something his counterpart had enabled him to see. And I walked away with questions for a lifetime.


Should we sometimes reflect to others their unattractive conduct, thus making them conscious of that which they do? Could it be that the repellent behaviors we notice in others could simply be reflecting our own shortcomings? Should we not consider that, before we criticize, we must evaluate our own motives and actions?


At some point in our lives, all of these possibilities may occur.