Christmas, 1988, N Train
A young woman we know writes: It was the gilt-edged pages that gave him away. Most people who read the Bible on the subway have a small pocket edition and keep it to themselves. This young man looked as if he had come away with the family King James. Otherwise, he was ordinary-looking; gray jacket, plaid scarf, blue jeans, white sneakers, bristly brown hair; a gold wedding band. He waited until the N train had pulled out of the Queensboro Plaza station and was under the East River, and then he read aloud, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…" A groan went out from my fellow-passengers.
Talk about a captive audience. The train was too crowded for people to switch cars. And New Yorkers will put up with all sorts of things rather than give up their seats on the subway. I couldn’t help thinking that the young man was lucky there were no maniacs aboard and no piles of stones at hand. But no matter how you feel about being force-fed the gospel under the East River it holds up better than the Times or the Post or the subway ads for Dr. Zizmor, dermatologist. Anyway, no one moved. No one said, "Oh, shut up." No one wanted to be identified as an irreligious loner at Christmastime.
I found myself criticizing the young man’s intonation. He had a good strong voice, but the words rocked up and back unvaryingly: "…to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child." When he was done, and the shepherds had rejoiced, he changed--thank goodness--his rhythm. He started singing "Joy to the World." He sang two full verses of it, again in a good, strong voice. But no one joined in. I was tempted, partly because I felt sorry for him--singing in the face of so much hostility--and also because I’m a sucker for actual human voices raised in song, as opposed to canned carols such as one hears in Doubleday (pa-rum-pa-pum-pum) and in Barnes & Noble (gloh-o-o-o-o-oh-o-o-o-o-oh-o-o-o-o-oh-ria). But I was sitting next to a man rigid with pain and fury at having his subway meditations interrupted, and I felt sorry for him, too. Especially when the young man finished singing and began to preach, reminding us that we were all God’s creatures on the N train and that for each of us He had a plan. God’s creature next to me was probably thinking that he didn’t take the subway to fall in with God’s plan--he took the subway to get to Fifty-ninth and Lexington.
(“The Talk of the Town” in The New Yorker, Dec. 26, 1988.)
So go out and light yourself on fire! What have you got to lose?