It was late at night on the subways, on a route I knew so well I could subconsciously feel the number of stops and know exactly when to stand for the exit tunnel up to home in Brooklyn. The car was practically empty. My bag was cradled in my lap. I was reading. I was always reading. Which meant that I was always looking down. The train jolted and I looked up to see a teenaged boy now sitting directly across from me in the otherwise empty car. A minute later I felt another kid sit down a seat away from me. A stop or two later the train bumped again. Two more teenagers were now standing on either side of the exit doors. There were four of them, all in hip-hop type clothes, covered in gold chains, who appeared to be surrounding me in an otherwise empty subway car very late on a Tuesday night. My stop was still far away. When the train pulled into the next station and the doors squealed open I shut my book, looked them in the eye, wished them all good evening. Then I walked calmly off the train. They were surprised, taken aback. Politeness and decency does that to people sometimes. Not always. But sometimes.
In my earliest Girl Friday days, my voice still pitched high and twanged with the Midwest, I worked in the rabbit warren-like offices of the renowned A.A. Knopf. The Editor-in-Chief at the time was the legendary Robert Gottlieb, widely known as one of the most brilliant and most powerful people in book publishing. It was a fun place to work, for a lot of reasons. There were the free books (ostensibly to offset the awful wages) and the ongoing adventure of elevator roulette. The doors would slide open and famous people would pop out, everyone from Julia Child to Bob Dylan to then Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Welcome to our world. At some point in time Bob got fed up not just with suits and ties but kind of with getting dressed in general. He made a point of wearing the same pants every day. At first it was for a month but then he kind of got into it and it went on for a lot longer. But his frumpiness was about more than him not wanting to bother any more. I remember him saying it was an experiment. What it was, really was an unspoken challenge to everyone he met. How would he be treated? Would he be regarded as eccentric? Would those who knew him treat him as respectfully? Would he be treated well by people who didn’t? Would he be scorned? Ignored? Would people go beyond caring about what he wore to truly engage him? As it was, the most powerful editor in all of book publishing was often taken for a mailroom staffer. New authors, even famous ones, beware.
That was Bob Gottlieb’s story. But we’ve all been there, as any of us who’ve scooted furtively to the market in sweats with our flyaway hair yanked back in hasty ponytails will agree.
I’ve never worked in retail (shopping really overwhelms me) but I know people who do. I’ve heard that staffers at fancy stores are told to always check a customer’s shoes and purse. If said items appear to be sufficiently expensive, they are customers worth catering to. Otherwise, ignore them and wait for those who have money to spend.
Clothes are transformative, expressions can be deceptive, and a bad day can skew the equation in a million different ways. People are confounding and mysterious. I am so often on shaky ground. I feel for myself, for us all. We see someone and our senses are assaulted, our minds forced to instantly jumble together the facts before us and figure out how to respond. Can we be blamed for clinging to the most obvious signals people (knowingly or otherwise) put out? I’d like to say “no.” But the answer is “yes.”
Years later I find that I’ve taken up the Bob Gottlieb mantle, although I’m not in publishing any more, nor am I powerful. I like staying under the radar. I carry a small microfiber backpack for a purse; I’ve trimmed my wardrobe so I can dress quietly and with great comfort. This is my choice, at least my choice for the time being. (Although I adore seeing beautiful clothes on other people. So if you’re so inclined, please keep dressing well).
Hillel said “in a place where there is no hero, be a hero”. There are so many thorny, complex issues in the world today regarding how people are perceived—and how others perceive them as well. My issues are small. I am never going to lead a charge nor carry the mantel. But there are tiny prickles of heroism too. Giving the benefit of the doubt. Going beyond snap judgments. Reaching out.
All these years later, and I still don’t know if those boys on the train meant to hurt me.
But at least I know I didn’t hurt them.