Seriously, I cannot make these things up. I’ve been a little disappointed lately – the daily subway commutes have been sort of normal – commuters, students with their faces in their phones not even looking up to see the cutest baby ever, a few old ladies waving at Cub – but other than that nothing much to report. I even began to worry maybe I was assimilating too well into subway life, slowly becoming a jaded everyday-rider that had lost the ability to see the magic of the subway. Until today. Bam! The Universe quelled my fears and delivered in a big way. Here’s what happened.
Cub and I get on at our usual stop, running a little to make the train because I had to re-load the metro card and was doing so just as the train pulled up. We made it, a little sweaty and out of breath. I shoved her stroller into the closest open spot I could find, took my seat, and looked up. Nothing too interesting, smartly dressed business man reading the NY Times, another man reading a thick book, student playing candy crush, etc. Cub immediately begins grabbing at the corner of the NY Times dangling over the edge of her stroller, gets a good fist full and gives it a tug. Smartly dressed businessman looks up, and in a friendly attempt to mitigate her bad subway behavior, I apologize and say, “ she didn’t get a chance to read the business section this morning.” He smiles and we are cool. Then man reading thick book looks over, and says, “If she wants to read she needs to read this, the best American writing ever.” I can’t really disagree since it is the complete essays of Mark Twain. I take the book from his outstretched arm, turn a few pages for her as if to show her this amazing writing, then hand the book back. Now that man with thick book has my attention and I’ve proven amenable… the flood gates open.
He begins to tell me how novels are for the less talented writers who need the grace of all those pages, but the truly talented writers write shorts – because they are tight, and every word counts. It is much harder to write a short piece than a long piece, that he is a writer and he discovered this after 70 years of writing (he is now 71). That’s why he never finished his novel; he’s better than that. That Twain was a greater talent than Hemingway because as he got more mature as a writer he wrote shorter and shorter pieces, while Hemingway wrote more and more novels until he blew his brains out. “If I couldn’t write anymore, I would just read great literature by others, not blow my brains out. That’s stupid. That’s what you do when you don’t really have talent. I’m a writer, and it took me a long time to learn this.”
Smartly dressed businessman is giving me quick side-glances, which translate to WTF. I’m not exactly sure what to do, if I should respond or just listen, so I begin to study thick book man while he talks. He has a rumpled straw cowboy hat, greying medium length thick wavy hair, non-descript business style checked shirt, jeans, white tennis shoes, long self-manicured red finger nails with a few chips in the polish, and a cane painted with delicate purple lilacs. Hmmmm. He then shoves the complete essays of Mark Twain towards Cub again, and says, “When she gets older, look up my writing. My name is Ms. Tom Joelle (pronounced Jo-Elle) Benjamin,” and points to his name written in neat block letters on the end of the book, all bumpy yet precise over the uneven edges of the pages. “My email is Ms.Thomas.Joelle.Benjamin, M S T H O M……” I was just going to ask @ Gmail or Hotmail since it wasn’t really a valid email he gave so carefully (God I’m polite), when he says, “Ellen DeGeneres is famous because she has no edge. I have an edge. The general public is afraid of the edge so I’ll never be famous. I get paid in satisfaction, not in money.” In an attempt to be polite and contribute something to this odd conversation I look at Cub and say, “that’s how babies get paid too,” and smile.
I began to gather Cub and I up as people do when the next stop is theirs. Ms. Benjamin could see we were getting ready to leave, but before our stop he thumbed his book quickly, opened to a page, and held out Mark Twain’s essay “Advice to Youth.” He looked me right in the eye and implored me as if it was his dying wish, “when she is old enough, you have to read this to her. It’s everything she needs to know. The things I’ve told you today are shortcuts to things it took me my whole life to learn. Make sure she knows these things when she is young.” I said I would with a serious nod, acknowledged smartly dressed business man’s last eye cut with a half smile, and Cub and I were on with our day.
I’ve already googled Ms. Tom Joelle Benjamin, and I can’t find any place to read his writing. I probably never will, as he also told me he was on the way to the NYC courthouse to legally change his name so his brother couldn’t get a dime of his money. Then he paused, retracted and said he didn’t have a dime but he didn’t want his brother to even get two cents from him. I thought that was really funny because Cub and I got WAY more than two cents from Ms. Benjamin today.
I keep thinking about how odd that 9-minute ride was. Part of me wants to classify the whole thing under crazy guy on the train with thick book. But as unusual as the messenger was, I keep coming back to the fact that everything Ms. Benjamin said was true – and fairly profound advice: Don’t bury the truth in a bunch of words – know what you mean and say it. If you can’t master something in your life, don’t beat yourself up about it (or blow your brains out) – celebrate the accomplishments of those who have instead. And last but not least, sometimes being paid in satisfaction is more valuable than being paid in money. Thank you Ms. Benjamin for your “advice to youth.” I will teach the things you said to Cub as I promised. If she learns them young they will surely give her an edge.
Helped with stroller on stairs downtown: young 30’s Japanese girl, most likely graduate student, wearing a long lavender linen jumper with a white lace collar underneath. As we bumped down the stairs all I could see under the stroller were her feet. Under her prairie style collar and lavender jumper she had on black, knee-high lace-up Doc Martin boots.
Tip of the day: If you need to re-load your Metro card, do it at the end of a ride no matter what a big pain in the butt it seems to be and how much you just want to get home. If you do it when you are catching a train, you will feel rushed and really bummed if one comes and goes while you are punching buttons at the machine. Loading it on your way out avoids missed-train disappointment.
Just re-read Twain’s Advice to Youth and am laughing my butt off as I just promised a stranger on the subway I would teach Cub to be a really good liar and to not meddle with old unloaded firearms. Makes the whole event even radically more funny!
S Brent Rodriguez Plate said:
great piece! there’s a lot in here. keep developing this one.