May 19, 2019

An Alien's Guide to the Subway


An Alien's Guide to the Subway
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If you read in Webster’s dictionary that Subway is “an electric underground railway,” don’t take it for granted. Dictionaries are written by language pundits in  quiet, softly lit, and lightly-heated libraries, whose subtle aura offers little, if any, protection from the onslaught of the fast food jargon.

One of my first trips to North America was to Washington in mid 1980s. I came with a group of Soviet sociologists invited to the annual convention of the American Sociological Association.

On leaving Moscow, the official parting wishes from the Academy of Sciences were: “be aware of agents’ provocateur attempting to lure the Soviet scholars to America.” While those wistful wishes were for the group in general, I had special orders from a higher authority, my wife, to deliver a bag with winter clothing to her friend’s husband, Boris, who had recently relocated to the States. 

Mindful of  “agents provocateur,” I did no risk calling Boris from the hotel room, and instead stashed the sweaters and woollen socks in a shopping bag, and one night, when the group retired after a long day of imbibing American sociological wisdom, called Boris from an outside pay phone. Boris worked in a garage and suggested we meet that night around ten, by the first southbound car in the nearest Metro station.

“They call it a subway here,” he said. “Just walk to 12th Street, turn right, walk half a block, and you’ll see the entrance.” 

I followed his instructions to the letter and there it was – a color neon SUBWAY sign. True, the door and the stairs seemed a little too narrow for a station entrance, but the Americans were certainly entitled to their own ways. 

Inside, the narrow room framed by the glass counter ended with a small “staff only” door with no visible passage to the station. Behind the counter there were two men dressed like twins in navy-colored shirts and aprons. For a minute or two, I stood motionless in the middle of the room filled with the aromas of bread, meats and hot cheese. The men behind the counter scrutinized me closely.

“What would you like to eat, sir?”

“Eat? I am looking for the subway entrance.” I tried to wipe a puzzled smile off my face, and feeling like Pinocchio in search of a hidden door, looked around again. No hidden door.

The clock on the wall behind the counter said five minutes past ten. Boris was probably waiting for me. 

“This is the place”, said one of the men. “Chicken parmesan, chicken and bacon ranch, bacon double cheese. We make sandwiches, fresh!”

“I mean the subway station, Metro.”  

Now it was their turn to puzzle their wits, but I did not wait for an answer.

“Take care!” I tried to sound casual and left.

Outside, it was dark. The street lights were on, but there were neither other subway signs nor even passersby to ask. I was by myself, alone on the other side of the planet, hating everything from my English instructor to sandwiches and defectors. A police cruiser stopped.

“Anything wrong, sir?”

“Is there a metro station around? You know, underground?”

“You mean the subway.”

Not again, I thought, looking over my shoulder at the “all fresh” sandwich store, but the officer pointed in the direction of some not so distant lights.  

“Not from the neighborhood?”

“Alien,” I said, suddenly remembering the word from my visa application form.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.” 

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