The things that you see on a New York City subway can sometimes defy the imagination. I actually like public transportation (when it works, at least). I grew up in a place where city buses came every half hour with routes that were not consistently accessible. I just can’t imagine living in a city like that ever again, I can’t imagine driving to get groceries, and I can’t imagine dealing with cars in rush hour traffic. On the subway, you are with PEOPLE AND BODIES, not cars.
Both my walking to the subway and my ride on it often result in one verbal expression that I seem to never be able to control: OH HELL NAW, pronounced more like oh HAYelll naw. It’s like a sneeze. I don’t know when it’s coming and I can’t really stop it. It just comes out of me and kinda sits there. I can be walking to the subway and a cold wind slaps me in the face sumthin real disrespectful and I’ll just yell out: OH HELL NAW. It’s really not intentional. It just happens.
A few years ago, my partner and I were riding the train and a man, lit up from the floor up, entered wearing a horse costume. The horse head and body protruded about 2 feet in front of him, like an adult version of the child’s costume pictured here. He shook his cup of change while walking through the train, singing “Oye Como Va” very loudly. I’ll give him credit: he dropped it more like Tito Puente’s version than Carlos Santana’s re-mix. Of course, I like both versions but nothing sounds like those mamba-style horns that Puente orchestrated, a sound the man re-created masterfully with just his voice:
Towards the end, the singer dropped that line, “Oye como va, mi ritmo/Bueno pa’ gozar, mulata,” and started dancing and moving the horse so that it looked like each of them was doing the butterfly (yes, the Reggae Dancehall version). I sat speechless… well, only at first. When he got to me, he directed his dance in my direction as if I were the woman/”mulata” chronicled in the song. I just couldn’t help myself and yelled out: OH HELL NAW. My former partner gave him 20 dollars and so he sang and danced some more. According to my partner, I just yelled OH HELL NAW even louder, a few more times, a comic moment this partner seems to never forget even though we are no longer together. Like I said, you can see some things you never imagined on a New York City subway train and these memories will stay with you.
Most recently, I was leaving campus and going home when the double doors where I was entering the subway did not open. Only one door worked. At 6pm in New York City, at least 40-50 people are moving in and out of each set of double doors at the same time. When only one works, it takes forever and you could miss the chance to board… and this was a day when I was tired, having left home at 7am, and just wanted to get home. Obviously, I wasn’t alone in the sentiment because the sistah a few steps away and I yelled in unison: OH HAYELL NAW. It was destined!
We ended up standing next to each other the whole ride home (there were no seats left). She is an administrative assistant at one of the posh law firms near my campus where they have cut all assistants’ vacations and overtime possibilities. She starts work at 9:30am each day but arrives to her destination at 8:45am. She goes to her favorite spot for tea and maybe a light sandwich each day, takes some quiet time for just herself to enjoy her tea, and then enters the hustle and high pressure setting in which she works. Like her, I arrive to campus almost an hour before my classes, just for the quiet and the time to center who I am going to be and what I am going to do with my students for the day. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about this woman’s mental and spiritual morning practice (yes, I consider the quietness that she gifts herself each day a spiritual practice). Apparently, her bosses/the lawyers learned of her ritual and started coming to her spot to discuss their ideas for new projects, etc. with her even though her work clock starts at 9:30. Yes, you heard that right and can probably guess my automatic response: OH HELL NAW! Faced with her new reality, she did what any self-respecting intelligent woman in high demand would do: found herself a new spot where them fools couldn’t find her! We shared many stories like this about work, disrespect, black women, and exploitation. In fact, it seems safe to say that the conversation that I had with her was more politically charged and ideologically introspective than most conversations I have on college campuses and yet, these are the “critical theorists” who supposedly have some kind of deep knowledge. Don’t think so!
We were so engrossed in conversation that she almost missed her stop. I will always remember the conversation, especially her final salient point. In the current economic climate, where black folk, once again, fare worst in unemployment rates, we can be bamboozled into a very dangerous party line: you are lucky to have a job, as if we have not been workin since slavery. When has luck ever worked in our favor with the jobs we have done in U.S. work history? The purpose of this party line is to scare you into thinking that you must simply accept whatever treatment gets thown your way, because, as the party line goes, there are countless others lined up for your job. And while this latter point is true, them countless others cannot necessarily do the job that you do. My train comrade reminded me that we need not be fools: “WE ARE NOT ALL REPLACEABLE,” recession or not. Though her bosses are not required or culturally expected to acknowledge her worth and the work she does that keeps them afloat, she seems real clear about her contribution and value… and is sending out her resume as we speak. I like to think of the look on them fools’ faces who take for granted that she will always do what they need. I imagine her each morning, at a quaint local coffee shop, gifting herself some quiet time, before she goes to a job where she is carrying everyone on her back, fully aware of her time and worth. It makes me smile. Irreplaceable, indeed!