For Want of a Better Conversation

For Want of a Better Conversation


“That’s the problem with this city you hear? And I, for one, can’t stand for it.
Absolutely not. How absurd? Vagrants prowling the streets. Stealing away on subway cars like stowaways… Then BAM. There they go! Holding the whole cabin hostage with their pleas for alms and pity! It’s disgraceful. And really, we’re the ones responsible. We’re the ones that have to do something about it.”

The man beside me stares back vacantly, quiet, but attentive. A dumb look in his eyes. You can always tell if someone’s dumb by the look in their eyes. There’s a rounded softness to dumb eyes, a glaze of earnest expectancy. You can always tell they want to understand. They just can’t. Doesn’t mean they’re bad people of course. Some of my best friends are idiots. I dropped by Paul’s house yesterday for lunch and you know what his excuse was this time? He said he couldn’t eat with me because he has a gluten allergy. Was afraid that he was going to have a reaction to the potatoes au gratin I brought. Can you imagine? I had already looked it up. Potatoes are totally one-hundred-percent gluten-free. I said good-day and enjoyed them on my own. Doesn’t even know what food he can eat. Like a dog licking chocolate off the floor.

The train decelerates quite quickly and I latch on to an adjacent railing fixture. My neighbor, not as quick as I, flails helplessly before finding a fixture of his own. The intercom blares into an irritatingly audible existence.

“Attention all MTA passengers. We apologize for the inconvenience. Lines-“

The man next to me frowns and pulls out one of his earphones. He looks middle aged, nondescript race, Peruvian, if I was forced to guess. His large brown overcoat has a ridiculous amount of pockets and a button down collar. I always thought collars were a contemptible relic with no place in modernity. Traditions unscrutinized are truly the bane of progress.

“The current delay time is expected to-”

The only other passenger in the subway car was a young man sitting opposite to me and the Peruvian. He was tall and thuggish looking, face half hidden by a dark hoodie, with a bulging navy blue JanSport slouched next to him. His legs are sprawled outwards, maliciously congesting any potential traffic flow. There’s a small scar on his left cheekbone. I leaned forward for a better look when his menacing gaze fixed itself upon me. Enough was enough.

“Stop it” I declare.

“Excuse me?”

Ignorance gets you nowhere in life. Some people never learn that.

“Your aggressive posturing. I’m not afraid of you.”

Dumbfounded by the audacity of a total stranger who was unwilling to be intimidated, he averted his defeated gaze, brow furrowed in confusion over his loss. I turn again to my right. Meanwhile this Peruvian man has been engrossed in his smart phone. All it takes for bullies to win is for dumb men to do nothing. I once read that the rise of asocial behavior in millennials is directly linked to an increased reliance on so called ‘social media’ as a substitute for substantive communication. Modern man has crippled himself with his own technological innovation. Why isn’t the train moving?

“Why isn’t the train moving?” I ask. Both men look at me vacuously.

“Train’s delayed until they can get the body off the tracks”

“Oh, dear”

An utter inconvenience. I have to be at my girlfriends place by seven for breakfast. We met when the cashier at The Hungarian Pastry Shop mixed up our coffee orders. I still remember hers. A large vanilla latte with extra sugar. It was repulsively sweet. I was about to confront the cashier when my darling to be stepped before me to offer admonishments in my stead. After justice was served we walked all the way to Central Park together, mutually lamenting the incompetence that riddles today’s service industry. It’s been a year now and whenever we hold hands I feel sixteen again. Whenever we kiss I, for just the briefest moment, forget how.

I miss her.

The faint roar of some far-off wind gently rocks the subway car. The intercom clicks on then off. Then on.

“Thank you for your patience as we deal with this minor delay. Eighty percent of the debris has been removed from the track and we have been given the green light to go ahead. Please be seated and/or secure yourself to the nearest safety installation while the train is departing.”

I find it curious that they used installation as opposed to any other word. It feels…
There’s a slight tug on my bladder that notifies me of our departure. It’s vaguely uncomfortable, yet I’ve come to associate it with being relieved from an extended delay. I need to pee a little.

The rest of the ride is relatively smooth except for a few minor bumps that cause the would-be-bully to hit his head. I stifle a laugh out of decency, but can’t help smiling a bit. And oddly enough, he smiles back. His thin, chapped lips are drawn in a broad arc from cheek to cheek. I avert my eyes, if only to spare myself this gruesome visage. A gut-wrenching cackle breaks from his vindictive smile as he leans forward, preparing to pounce upon me or perhaps the unsuspecting Peruvian man beside me. I can feel the murderous intent emanating from him. He exits on 116th. The coward calls me a creep as the doors are closing. It doesn’t bother me though. I don’t pay losers like that any mind. Mr. Peruvian and I exit on 125th. I wished him well, but he doesn’t hear me and keeps walking in the opposite direction. It’s probably because I mumbled. I didn’t used to mumble. I picked it up from Lillian.

Lilly’s apartment is on the corner of 122nd and Morningside Ave. The front line in the war over the gentrification of Harlem. On the winning side naturally. Unfortunately, due to its locale, coming from the station on 125th is always a bit jarring. Suspicious amounts of newspaper and cardboard litter the streets. Luckily the morning spares me from most of my potential harassers who are no doubt lying dormant in some disreputable alleyway. As I make my way southwards I spot a small vortex of autumn leaves tumbling over one another along the sidewalk. A few stray leaves drift onto the street, only to be crushed by morning commuters.

I find Lily waiting on the steps of her apartment with a cup of coffee in hand. She doesn’t seem to notice my approach, so I stop and watch her for a while. I can see her mouthing tenderly to the magnolias across the street.

“Why do you mumble to yourself?”

“For want of a better conversation I suppose—” Lily sighed dreamily.

“Funny. If only your annunciation was as refined as your wit.”


“Ē,nunciation, happy?”


She paused for a sip.

“Why do you always—”

Lilly’s cheeks puffed and steaming brown liquid shot out of her mouth, splattering on the steps below. I frown as disapprovingly as I can. I forgot what I was going to ask.  Satisfied with her mischief, her face brightens and dimples. I sit a step down from her, careful to avoid her newly formed lake of spit and coffee. We stare out at the leafless magnolias and empty basketball courts, grimacing at each passing car. The coffee was slightly too sweet.

“A bum jumped onto the tracks earlier”

“Oh? You guys hit him?”

“A little bit. Conductor said they cleared eighty percent of him off the track. Guess the rest wouldn’t come off.”

I thought about my conversation with the Peruvian man on the train. He didn’t say much,

but I think I’ve finally pinned down what’s been bothering me.

“It’s not fair that an incredibly disruptive minority of people can inconvenience so many others.”

Lily takes another sip of her coffee, taking the time to aerate it as it enters her mouth.

“How so?”

Someone behind us exits the apartment. Lilly turns around and says hi. It’s reciprocated. It’s a male’s voice and I can smell a cigarette burning. Lilly really ought to tell me these things before hand.

“So a man commits suicide and your first thought is, ‘how dare he inconvenience me?’, seems a little harsh no?”

“Well not just me I would suppose.”

“Okay fine, but you’re still trying to price a human life against the net inconvenience society has to suffer because of them.”

The smoker behind us starts coughing, flicks their half-burnt cigarette into the street and goes back inside.

“Fine. Sure, whats keeping us from pricing it?”

“Well if we did price it, every school bus driver in the U.S. should be hung. While
we’re at it, every kid under the age of 22 ought to be hung.”

“Scathing, but you see my point”

“Let’s say I do, then what do you suppose to do about it?”

“Oh I don’t know. Restrict their movement. Keep them out of the cities where they can do the most harm?”

“Or how about giving them better access to mental healthcare and drug
rehabilitation facilities or any of the other proven methods that have been
promulgated by experts in the field?”

“But at what cost to the tax payer?”

“Hopefully, just hopefully, at one lesser than policing activities and removing bodies from rail tracks. Okay, so we put a price the social cost of homelessness. Now it’s time to front the bill.”

A devastating smile parts from her pale thin lips. But, lovely as she is, she isn’t an economist. Though admittedly, neither am I. Paul took a few courses on economics. I’ll ask him next time I get the chance. I noticed that Lilly had left some breakfast sausages on a small plate on the step above her. I grabbed one. It was cold and slightly chewy.

“Paul’s a pretty cool guy.”

“Too bad you’re a weirdo.”

“Ha. Someone called me a creep on the subway.”

“Did you sit uncomfortably close to them, then try to strike a conversation?”


“Sounds like a bully.”

Traffic starts to pick up and the sidewalk starts to crowd with pedestrians. I still have to pee. I climb up the steps and take a look back at Lillian. Her stocky figure curled into a comical ball as she hugs her knees and stares into that lake of spit and coffee.

I think I’m finally starting to get through to her.

(Story by Raymond Lew)


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